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DANCE : HEAD Beat of a Culture : Members of Valley-based troupe use the traditional art and expression of West Africa to teach about their homeland.

April 02, 1993|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The drum speaks: a thundering command, a gentle suggestion, issued from the mouth of Atsimevu .

The women answer: arms outstretched high to the heavens, backs bent low to the earth, they dance together to the voice of the drum.

Turn, twist, jump, sway, whirl; all when Atsimevu commands.

This dialogue between drum and body continues--sound and motion, bodies and rhythm blending into one pulsating band of energy.

Atsimevu is joined by the voices of others: The chatter of Axatse the gourd rattle, the persistent ring of Gankogui , the bell, the chant of supporting drums, Kidi a nd Sogo . They all speak at once, sometimes clashing, other times joining together.

But it is Atsimevu who directs the action.

"Everything you do is in response to what the Atsimevu tells you," master drummer Kobla Ladzekpo says. "The dancers talk back and forth with the drum . . . That's the thing about African dance. You have to understand the language of the drum."

This is the Zadonu African Music and Dance Company, a Valley-based troupe that is committed to preserving, promoting and performing the traditional music and dance of West Africa. Since 1990 the group has been introducing the culture of Africa to audiences throughout the city in concerts and workshops; audiences that, according to the company, often know very little about the continent and its people.

"The importance of teaching the dance is to educate people about our culture," said Ladzekpo, the artistic director and founder of Zadonu who came to Los Angeles in 1970.

"There are a lot of people who are totally ignorant of African culture. The only thing they know is Tarzan movies."

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Funded by a grant from the California Arts Council in Sacramento, and a Recovery Grant awarded by the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department after last spring's unrest, the dance group conducts workshops Saturdays at Pacoima Recreation Center and Thursdays at the Pacoima Community Youth Culture Center. The free workshops are designed to instruct even novice participants in the arts of West African dance and music.

For the past three years the group has also staged "The Afrikans Are Coming," believed to be the largest African dance festival held during Black History Month in Southern California. The annual event brings together as many as six African dance groups from throughout California and attracts audiences of hundreds.

But the group's efforts to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of African music and dance extend far beyond Los Angeles.

Ladzekpo, a professor of ethnomusicology at CalArts and UCLA, belongs to a dynasty of dancers and musicians rooted in Ghana, West Africa, with tentacles that extend from Southern California to the Bay Area to the East Coast.

"This is what we do," said C.K. Ladzekpo, the brother of Kobla and a teacher of African music at UC Berkeley.

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"Traditionally the Ladzekpo family among the Anlo-Ewe people produced composers and master drummers. It is basically our traditional role .. . . What we have done is expanded our role to include new arenas, university classrooms and concert stages instead of the traditional responsibilities."

In Northern California, C.K. Ladzekpo heads the African Music and Dance Ensemble, which has performed and taught the dances and music there since 1974 when he joined the dance faculty at UC Berkeley. His wife, Betty, is a principal dancer with the group.

In Los Angeles, Zadonu is a family affair. Kobla's wife, Dzidzorgbe Lawluvi-Ladzekpo, is the group's choreographer. Their daughters Yeko, 17, and Afi, 21, perform in the group, and nephew Agbi is the group's musical director. Cousin Kobla Agbanyo and nephew Kofi Ladzekpo handle the business affairs of the group. Other relatives serve as musicians and group administrators.

Through the years African music and dance groups have developed a strong and educated following in the Bay Area. In the smaller communities of Oakland and Berkeley, the "Afrikans are Coming" is a much anticipated event.

"We found a way of reaching the African-American community with that event and making it a part of African-American community life in Oakland," C.K. Ladzekpo said.

Through the efforts of Kobla Ladzekpo and other family members, the audience in Southern California is also beginning to grow.

"That's the main reason we started this program in Southern California," Kobla Ladzekpo said of the group, which was started in 1990. "We're trying to bring it all together."

What is coming together is the product of generations, passed down from father to son and from mother to daughter. It is the continuation of ancient traditions and the creation of new ones.

Even the name of the Valley-based group, Zadonu, reflects the family's tradition as musicians and dancers. Zadonu combines the names of the family patriarch, Zate, and an older brother, Adonu. Both were master drummers, composers and dancers, Kobla Ladzekpo said.

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