The Art of Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company
Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company pulses with the beat and energy of African American culture and community. The Flint-based company has been active in bringing the city together in harmony for 24 years. “Kuungana means ‘to be connected,’” explains co-founder, Baba Kevin Collins. “There is so much that we can do in our town and community. We reach everyone we can through music, drum and dance. Everyone can feel the rhythm we bring to the city and be part of it.”
Collins and Kathy Johnson founded Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company (KADDC) long ago as part of the Flint Public Schools curriculum. “It was originally called the Kevin Collins Drum Troupe,” he says. “We started in three schools with African dance and drumming, and also taught the kids about culture and history. Soon, we started performing and when our grant funds ran out, we decided to continue the program as best we could.” Collins took the program to Flint’s Haskell Community Center, where it was extremely popular. “We had more than a hundred kids sign up the first Saturday we were there,” recalls Collins. “At that time, all they had to do was bring two or three dollars each to participate. It really started to take off.”
The group then moved to the Christ Enrichment Center. In 1992, Collins started the non-profit African Drum and Dance Parent Association (ADDPA) and the Kevin Collins Drum Troupe became the Kuungana African Drum and Dance Company. They began traveling and playing festivals and shows throughout Michigan and the U.S. All the while, Collins expanded his knowledge of culture and history by meeting and learning from experts. The group learned different styles of dance from Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Ghana and others. “I started studying with a group in Washington, D.C. called KanKouran West African Dance Company. We learned all sorts of styles of Western African Drum and Dance and brought it all back home,” he explains. “We were able to bring KanKouran to Flint when we started hosting Kuungana – our annual conference.” In 1995, they held the first-ever Kuungana Conference at Northern High School. The conference is now so popular, it has expanded from one day to three. This year, the conference will celebrate its 24th anniversary.
Soon, the group received funding from the Ruth Mott Foundation to continue performing and teaching the children. “When Mrs. Mott was alive, she would ask us to bring the kids to Applewood. She loved to watch us perform!” Collins exclaims. “The Ruth Mott Foundation kind of adopted us and helped us bring this program to the children of Flint.”
The organization would lose its residence again when they had to move from the Christ Enrichment Center. They bounced around Flint, teaching and performing
wherever they could, until finally finding residence at the Masonic Temple, where they have been located for the past three years. Unfortunately, the group is again looking for a new home. “It seems like every three years, we have to move,” says Collins with a sigh. “It’s okay. God puts us in the right place. We always end up somewhere back on our feet, dancing. We have to keep moving forward, keep teaching and learning. I have always said that ‘to reach one, you must teach one’ and that is what we will continue to do – no matter where we go.”
The group will continue to hold classes and perform wherever and whenever they can. They have performed in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian for the International Festival, at all the major festivals in Michigan, at colleges and institutions, DeVos Place in Grand Rapids with the symphony orchestra and this past June, the KADDC was able to perform for the King of Ghana at the Saginaw African Festival. Every year, the KADDC performs at the African World Festival in Detroit, at 2nd Friday Artwalk, and they lead the Juneteenth Parade in Flint.
“We reach everyone we can through music, drum and dance.
Everyone can feel the rhythm we bring to the city and be part of it.”
Baba Kevin Collins
Teaching and performance are what’s most attractive to Collins. He has been a successful jazz musician his whole life, playing with all the greats such as Grant Green, Jack McDuff, Eddie Harris and Ralphe Armstrong. He has had songs featured in the movies “The Fighter” and “The Love Guru” and worked with the band for the The Velvelettes of Motown Records fame. “I have always wanted to be a musician and travel. I was on my way. I could have done that, but people should want to give. You should have a legacy,” Collins explains. “I started working with children to pass on my knowledge.” Not only does he pass on his knowledge to kids in the program, but his son has also taken up his art form.
Collins coordinated the Wednesday night jam sessions at Flint’s famous Golden Leaf Club which his son, Famadou, now continues. Everything Collins has learned he passes on to younger generations. “If you learn now, you never know where the music will take you. Learn all that you can and be true to your art form. Practice will get you there. Everything I have done has been a pleasure,” he continues. “Music is real for me. I have to perform because it is inside of me and I have to bring it out. I play from my heart, soul and spirit. It’s been really cool playing and looking for more avenues to perform and teach.”
The ADDPA offers multiple programs for learning and performance. Their Cossan program takes place in June and is open free of charge to the public. Cossan is a variety of drum and dance workshops based on the people of Senegal. Experts from the U.S. and beyond come to the program to teach. In the past, experts included: Assane Konte, Founder of KanKouran West African Dance Company; Marie Basse Wiles, Artistic Director of the Maimouna Keita School of African Dance; and Idy Ciss, artist at Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago.
Youth Moves is a program offered in the summer for kids age 10-18. This program promotes positive youth development as an effort to decrease childhood obesity and increase cultural awareness. In November, the Association hosts the Kuungana Conference and annual drum and dance concert.
The Association also provides an Entrepreneurship Program which teaches kids life skills and crafts, and programs through VSA (Very Special Arts) that allows youth with disabilities to experience the fine art of African drum and dance. Baba Kevin Collins plans to take his students to Senegal this year to teach them the culture and history there. If you are interested in more, parents and children can sign up for daily drum and dance classes offered Monday 6pm-8pm, Tuesday for seniors/adults 10am-12pm, Thursday 6pm-8pm and Saturday 10am to 12pm at the Masonic Temple. Register at addpaflint.org or email Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The city is coming back according to Baba Collins and the Drum and Dance Company will be there connecting with people, teaching the children and spreading culture, history and rhythm to all who will listen. “I love performing and teaching and reaching out to people. We work with people from all walks of life. Handicap or color don’t matter – the spirit of music is there for everyone,” says Collins with a smile. “I feel great when I am helping people feel the rhythm and feel good about themselves. We want people to feel it in their hearts. People leave after a performance with their feet tapping. They still hear the drums and that’s what it’s about.”
The KADDC is a positive force in Flint and near to Collins’ heart. He is amazed at how many lives and people he has been able to touch with such a positive message. “I always had a vision for Kuungana,” he adds. “It’s been a life journey. It’s a blessing to share and to look back at all we have done. Here we are in another chapter and each day is a blessed day.”
Photos Provided by Keith Kingsbury