Malonga : The Spirit of a Master Teacher
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All three of us would sit anxiously, our seatbelts fastened, waiting for those words that so often introduced us to people we never met and took us to a land that was ours though yet unseen.
"A longggggg time ago," our father would begin, the melody in his voice assuring us that what he was about share was not make-believe but the truest of truths.
He would tell us stories about children and brave men and talking trees somewhere deep in the forests of the Congo. We would listen intently, join them in their adventures and sing their songs, as we learned what happened when people were their best and worst selves. One by one, we would drift off to sleep until all 3 were carried out of the car and up the stairs to dream of all we had heard.
Many people know Malonga Casquelourd in many different lights, some as friend and teacher, some as father, and others as leader and trusted counsel. In all honesty, he was a chameleon who had the talent to be all of these things simultaneously.
The son of Malonga Fidel, a high ranking African officer in the French army and Ngangula Louise, a quiet woman with expansive knowledge healing herbs, my father was born in Duala, Cameroon while his family was briefly stationed there. The fifth child of ten, he showed himself to be a leader early on. Barely in his teens, he became an influential organizer and major force within a network of youth-led militias whose purpose was to create a climate that would lead to the Congo?s independence and ensure that righteous leaders would ultimately take power.
In 1965, independence came and went with muted glory, and my father, though still very much involved in the politics of his country, ventured off to 3 years later France to study agricultural sciences, with the hopes of someday returning with the knowledge he had gained abroad.
While in France, the Ngoma that had been in the background throughout his young life resurfaced and quickly took center stage. In a foreign land, without the fusillade of guns and the weight of independence on his back, his passion for drumming and for Congolese music and dance flourished.
He now dreamed of using his country?s cultural wealth to open doors that would bring prosperity back home. This dream led him to New York in the early-seventies, to East Palo Alto, California in the latter part of the same decade, and to Oakland in the eighties. And it was here in Oakland that he found a home. A home that was full of people with familiar faces and eyes that longed for him to share his culture and history with them, a longing that he was happy to oblige.
Fua Dia Congo was the first institution he founded seeking to transmit Congolese heritage to the masses. Made up of young men and women of African descent, this dance company always took to the stage with fire?
My earliest memories are of the rehearsals my father conducted, and of the drums whose sound sent vibrations up through my baby seat and put me to sleep. I remember watching the dancers as their bodies contorted and their legs leaped to the sound of the drums and my father?s voice urging them to dance harder. I heard him tell dancers who had trouble finding the beat that the whole world moved to a certain rhythm that even their bodies were regulated by the beat of their hearts.
He taught them to be disciplined and to think and operate as a collective. He often drew parallels between war and dance, stating that even within war there is choreography and that victory or defeat depended upon unity and one?s ability to respect and hold one?s own position. I wondered what all these words meant as I watched their grimacing faces and glistening bodies push beyond fatigue.
Then I would watch them transform before my very eyes. See them go from uncoordinated clumsy bodies to fearless dancers. I would see them carry themselves with pride and confidence as if somehow learning these dances had answered an important question.
And when I was no longer a spectator and a dancer myself, I listened to the same philosophies. And when my body was weary and my chest heaved from sheer exhaustion, I pressed on. And then the voice that urged me to go beyond what I perceived to be my limit was no longer his but my own. And this voice boomed in my mind as I sought excellence in my artistry and in my life as well. He taught us all with unrelenting patience, pushing us to achieve and exceed the excellence we had not yet discovered.
He brought the Congo to us, introduced us to people we never met, took us to a land that was ours though yet unseen, and left us with the charge to use all we learned to improve our reality.