By Isaac Miriri with Ogova Ondego
Published May 13, 2008
The high-pitched voice of a boy resonates across the valley, the lilting voice rising in intensity as the morning sun rises higher in the sky. In another scene in the middle of the day, another boy draped in a red cloth stands on one leg, leaning on the shaft of his spear. He sings to his herd of cattle. Then, when the cattle have come home and everyone is home for the night, a group of young women and men dance in a circle by the light of a bonfire. As the dance intensifies with the heavy beaded collars of the women thumping rhythmically up and down on their shoulders, the men, one by one, as if possessed by the gods of music and dance, take turns stepping into the centre of the circle and leaping as high as they can into the air.
Welcome to a 60-minute journey into the future, a Maasai vocal dance performance choreographed by ‘Maasai Dancer’ Fernado Anuang’a, an African contemporary dancer, and performed by Maasai Vocal Dance Group of Magadi, Kenya.
Born around Lake Victoria in Siaya, Nyanza Province of Kenya some 36 years ago, the fish-eating Anuang’a was barely 10 years old when his family moved from Mombasa and settled in Kitengela, a small Rift Valley Province on the outskirts of Nairobi settled by the milk-drinking Maasai. Little did he know that he would one day have to earn a living from the colourful cultural influence of his Maasai playmates, schoolmates, friends and neighbours.
Now, 26 years later, Anuang’a is a professional dancer specialising in Maasai dances that he fuses with modern beats to create nostalgic and eye-catching moves that mesmerise people around the world.
I met Anuang’a in early March 2008 when he and his Maasai Vocal Dance Group performed A Journey Into The Future, a 60-minute choreographed contemporary dance at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi and it was not till six weeks later that I got to interview him due to the busy schedule he maintains. The group’s music and dance performance is known as vocal dance due to the heavy breathing in and out and the grunts that bring out the movements while dancing.
From Nairobi, the group, supported by Cultures France and Alliance Francaise, staged their performance in Mombasa and Djibouti and was due to perform in Windhoek, Namibia, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, at the end of April 2008. In Djibouti, it was reported, many patrons had to be turned away as the show was fully booked and there was no space.
Asked why he refers to his dance as ‘a journey into the future’, Anuang’a, from the Luo community, says, “I am a choreographer who fuses traditional Maasai dance with techno music and modern moves. This helps in getting the current generation to appreciate the dance shows.”
His, it appears, is a cultural voyage through dance and music, moving from the traditional Maasai life to contemporary urban setting that, through the western education system and cash economy, is stealing the Maasai away from the life their ancestors lived centuries ago, surviving in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of the picturesque Rift Valley. It is mainly this pastoral group draped in eye-catching red and blue cloth and travelling great distances tending their cattle among herds of zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and other animals living in the plains that is a great tourist attraction to Kenya and Tanzania. But herein lies the threat to the very survival of the Maasai. With large tracts of land that made up their homeland being developed for wildlife, housing and agriculture, the Maasai can no longer roam freely with their much loved cattle and are, instead being forced to dispense of this lifestyle. It is these changes that the Maasai Dancer captures in his dance of cultural voyage and cultural shock.
But how did his voyage into dance begin?
Anuang’a says his passion for the Maasai dance started during the annual inter-school music festivals in which he participated. However, it was not till 1990 that Anuang’a shot to fame during the Kenya Win A Car Dance Championship. With a red cloth wrapped around his waist, red ochre mixed with cow fat applied to his arms not unlike the long curving lines and intricate patterns that enhance the beauty of Maasai cattle and on well plaited and cropped hair at the top of his head leaving his youthful lithe body exposed save for the beaded necklace around his neck and equally beaded leather belt around his waist, Anuang’a and two colleagues stood out in the crowd. The massive media exposure the Rare Watts dancers received opened doors for Anuang’a who found himself representing Kenya in many popular local and international events and also gracing advertising billboards. He performed in South Africa, Seychelles, The Netherlands and Reunion.
Though no one knows what happened to Rare Watts and their eclectic, fast-paced moves that electrified the stage, the Maasai Dancer Anuang’a continues to grace dance stages around the world.
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In 1999 Anuang’a mixed Jazz and traditional Maasai dance in Reunion Island. After performing at the Africa Week Festival in Seychelles, Anuang’a opted to stay on here for eight months, learning dance choreography and conducting Maasai dance workshops at Seychelles School of Arts besides performing in hotels in the Indian Ocean Island.
Anuang’a found himself starting afresh when he moved to France in 2000 and found the French people didn’t know much about Maasai dance.
“It was hard. They thought the dance was from West Africa and I had to conduct workshops to publicise the Maasai vocal dance,” he says. “The French ministry of education facilitated my training of Maasai vocal dance in various primary schools for one year and this helped a great deal in the introduction of the dance.”
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After some time in France, Anuang’a got into a small dance festival and met choreographers who he shared experience with and learnt from. His became a lifestyle of dance and choreography, practising and performing on a daily basis.
With a successful dance career in Europe he came back to Kenya in November 2006 and as a way of repaying the Maasai community for giving him his livelihood, he went to Magadi, where the Maasai traditions are still practised and formed a dance group, Maasai Vocal Dance Group, which he trained for months.
The members of the group include Teto ole Lemaiduk, Kawuet ole Lemuata Naipenya, Konee ole Sakaya, Losotua ole Shukuru, Shompoo ole Katitia, Meente ole Oloishakai, and Nakulapan ole Lonkoi. Like choreographer and dancer Fernando ‘ole’ Anuang’a, another non Maasai member of the group is flutist Kazungu Charo ‘ole’ Shutu.
“For the Maasai people,” Anuang’a says, “dancing is a lifestyle they keep whether they are grazing the cattle in the fields or going on with their daily life. Mine was to put in a disciplined practice everyday and bring in choreography to adapt the modern moves.”
After four months of intensive training the Maasai Vocal Dance Group staged their first public show in Nairobi’s Go-Down Arts Centre in March 2007. Three months later, the group performed at Alliance Francaise in Nairobi and from there they flew out to France where they performed for the next two months.
In July 2007, they staged eight shows at Avignon Summer Festival, had more shows at Vaison Danses Festival International and in Murat’s Mondes Croises Festival performed to full houses and electrified crowds by blending Maasai vocals with a Mexican band. This was a great experience for the Maasai dancers, some of who had never ventured into their neighboring Nairobi city, leave alone flying and performing to international audiences.
In November 2007 Anuang’a with Indian Jaya Pashauri from Rajastani created Indo-Maasai, a 60-minute dance fusion which is a mix of classical Indian and Maasai dance. They will perform the dance in this year’s Avignon Summer Festival for fifteen nights.
“Avignon Summer Festival, which brings together dance, music and theatre, is one of the best places to showcase one’s skills and capabilities,” says Anuang’a, now married to a French national.
“The Kenya government,” he says, “should do more in enhancing the performing arts.” He encourages Kenyan musicians to “strive for a style that has an African touch.”
“The journey into the future lives on,” Anuang’a says as we wind up the interview. “I am going for a month’s residence training in November 2008 at Pavilion Noir-Centre Choreographique National, the permanent residence for Ballet Preljocaj.”
Here, he will train, create and finalise on a solo dance which he will perform for four days from November 27-30, 2008 and conduct a workshop on Maasai vocal dance.
Anuang’a, who is also embarking on a choreography project showing Kenya’s identity-yesterday and today, formed Miziz Art Association, a not-for-proft cultural organisation he says is dedicated to promoting culture and the arts through cultural exchange, in 2004.