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The Heart of Everything

June 12, 2013
by Andrew Gilbert
People dancing

For 40 years, C.K. Ladzekpo has taught Berkeley that music and dance are one.

C.K. Ladzekpo never intended to stay in Berkeley. Now in his 40th year on faculty at Cal, the pioneering drummer, choreographer, and teacher didn’t foresee leaving West Africa at all. But a temporary teaching position abroad started to look more attractive after military officers came to his classroom at University of Ghana’s Institute of African Studies, roughed him up in front of his students, and held him under arrest for four days.

“When I came to Berkeley I was just supposed to be here for a year, but it turned out to be a lifetime,” said Ladzekpo, who hails from a dynasty of drummers and dancers who have for centuries passed down the traditions of the Anlo-Ewe people of southeastern Ghana. “I was prepared to stay in Ghana and help my country, but military coups put me on the other side of the government, and things were really bad during those days. I’m not used to anyone telling me what to think.”

A compact, solidly built man with clear brown eyes and an easy laugh, Ladzekpo looks a good decade younger than his 69 years. He speaks softly, and radiates a combination of authority and curiosity that reinforces his self-description as a perpetual student of music. More than a teacher and cultural activist, Ladzekpo used his position in the Department of Music to instill the intricacies of his culture into several generations of musicians and dancers around the world. He has found particularly fertile soil in the East Bay, where a confluence of Afro-centric consciousness in Oakland and international cultural awareness in Berkeley has long encouraged a hunger for authentic West African music and dance.

Upon his Berkeley arrival in 1973 Ladzekpo created the acclaimed African Music and Dance Ensemble, which he still runs with his wife, dancer Betty Ladzekpo. In 1977 he helped launch the long-running (but now defunct) African Cultural Festival, the largest seasonal professional African arts event in the United States. And he’s played an essential role as co-artistic director (with Carlos Carvajal) of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which was hailed by The New York Times as embodying “one of the finest of all American dreams: a setting where cultures can celebrate their own traditions while honoring and applauding others.”

In an interview at Zellerbach Hall last winter during the open auditions for the 35th Annual Ethnic Dance Festival, which runs June 7–30, Ladzekpo said the festival has come to embody “the kind of world that I want to see represented. How does that translate into society? Probably every culture that I know starts with artists. They create an imaginary world and glorify it on stage.”

Ladzekpo’s encompassing vision of art was born in Ghana, a relatively small nation with some 100 languages and several major ethnic groups. Coaxed to Cal by the promise of an emerging black performing-arts program, he instead found a balkanized academia that he said resisted a fundamental truth of West African culture: that “music and dance are one and the same.”

“The drums are directing the dancing, and you can’t teach one without the other. So the African American Studies Department decided to present a dance class, and I taught music out of the Music Department. But as I learned the campus world, I found a way to offer a dance class from African American Studies and run it the way that I think it should be.”

In Anlo-Ewe culture, dance plays a central role in every important event, from births to funerals. Accompanied by incantatory polyrhythms delivered by a percussion battery, Ewe dance is centered in the pelvis and performed close to the ground—shoulders thrusting, arms pivoting at bent elbows. The dancers inhabit the interlocking rhythms, while the drummers respond to the pulse of shuffled feet.

Over the years, thousands of Cal students have taken Ladzekpo’s course Music 148, but his teaching extends far beyond campus. Drummer Dan Gorlin was already leading the Alokli West African Dance Company in the Bay Area when he started studying with Ladzekpo in 1983. The attraction wasn’t just that Ewe culture is known for its supremely sophisticated rhythmic practices. More importantly, Ladzekpo possessed a gift for transmitting recondite information to the uninitiated.

“The thing that was really unique about C.K. is that he brought a refined sense of the art form that’s unparalleled,” said Gorlin, who now leads Alokli West African Dance in Philadelphia. “There’s no one like him in terms of competency, and his ability to explain it. When you grow up in a tradition, there are often things you take for granted, things you can’t quite believe that people don’t understand, like how to feel the music. He was always working to find ways to explain things to people who didn’t have his background.”

Ladzekpo’s father was a legendary composer and traditional chief, and numerous relatives have distinguished themselves as performers and educators. So his place in the culture was clear—indeed, he became one of the youngest lead drummers with the Ghana National Dance Ensemble. Ladzekpo was 13 when Ghana—the first sub-Saharan country to decolonize—declared its independence from the U.K. He was encouraged to obtain a Western education while charged not to neglect the family’s calling.

“In my family, you always find yourself in the middle of two worlds, the Western world and the deep traditional African world, and we learned very quickly how to balance those two,” Ladzekpo said. “In school the message was that everything that your parents teach is bad, and then at home, they’re feeding you with different values. Always this very terrible conflict. As a community leader, my dad was able to identify that conflict and tell us, ‘You take everything that is good from both cultures and run with it.’ What I do today is channel my ancestors, their wisdom, the way they lived their lives. Every day I discover new ways of playing the drums and dancing.”

C.K. wasn’t the first Ladzekpo to take his father’s advice or to find employment at the University of California. His older brother is Kobla Ladzekpo, founder and director of Zadonu African Music and Dance Company, codirector of the Cal Arts African Music and Dance Ensemble, and longtime UCLA ethnomusicology professor. Kobla arrived in Southern California in 1970, followed by several other family members. What sets C.K. apart is his gift for distilling the classical training he received, and transmitting the power and subtlety of Ewe ritual. His “Atsiagbekor,” a traditional Anlo-Ewe war dance drumming suite, is featured in the PBS documentary African Dance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Ladzekpo’s influence extends beyond aficionados of West African music and dance. Celebrated jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, M.A. ’94, Ph.D. ’98, says his musical consciousness was transformed by Ladzekpo. Iyer, a physics grad student at Cal who was teaching piano and violin at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, scheduled his classes so he could audit courses by Ladzekpo (who has been director of EBCPA’s own Youth West African Music and Dance Ensemble since 1974).

At first Iyer was discouraged by his limited role in the classroom ensemble, “playing this dumb little drum part, two eighth notes and two rests,” he recalled. “One day Ladzekpo was leading the drum class and he pointed at me. ‘You’re dragging everything down. That part is the heart of everything.’ It was just one note twice and two rests, over and over again, and I realized there’s a universe of expression in there and everything depends on that. I started listening really closely, and that opened my ears to the way that rhythm is music. He used to talk about these different rhythms as personalities, as characters that can be brought to life in amazing ways. That gave me a whole different perspective on rhythmic practices. It really changed my life.”

If every groove has its own distinct identity and personality, Ladzekpo feels much the same way about different cultures. When you press him about why he’s stayed in the Bay Area, he explains that he is intrigued by the ongoing experiment that is California. When he arrived here 40 years ago, he saw that one of the main drawbacks to the success of the multicultural ideal was that some groups were too insecure and ungrounded in their own historical experience. The best way to intermingle, he felt, was from a position of security and strength.

“So I jumped into the fray,” Ladzekpo said. “There were so many things that I thought would change the world, that were happening here in the Bay Area, that I said you know what? I’m not going to leave this behind.”

Andrew Gilbert is a freelance arts writer in the Bay Area and a frequent contributor to California.
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