Outside the double doors of Malonga Casquelord Center for the Arts stands a flock of women in bright clothing: patterned sarongs, flowing skirts and tailored African clothes. Some are drinking coffee to prepare themselves for the rigorous dance classes ahead; others call out and embrace friends. A steady stream of drummers pass through the doors, bent over by the weight of the congas and djembes they carry on their backs. This is Malonga, the main gathering spot for traditional Congolese, Haitian and Brazilian dance and drum in Oakland.
Ask any one of the mothers walking their toddlers to Tacuma King’s children’s drum class on Saturday, and they’ll tell you it’s more than just a place for creative expression; Malonga is a place where people feel they belong.
“This a safe space for children. There’s very little for children in Oakland, especially for those with special needs. We need more mentors and caring adults. This is a community,” said Nzombi Hassan, who brings her seven-year-old son Johnson for drum class every weekend.
Johnson struggles with ADHD, and as he races down the block, holding a football, he bumps into his teacher Tacuma King. King is known to everyone as Baba, a term of respect for a male elder that means father.
“Johnson, come and help me with the drums,” King called, and seconds later, Johnson was smiling and helping one of the bigger boys carry a drum through the doors.
King also performs with his youth drummers at fairs, festivals and cultural programs around the Bay Area, and he is known internationally as a master drummer at venues around the world.
Last year, the children performed a South African boot dance for a Kwanzaa ceremony at the East Bay Church of Religious Science, a drum repertoire at a conference for young Black men at Oakland High and several drum performances that supported fundraisers for Haiti.
At Malonga, flyers adorn the walls and every available space for community and culturally centered events: classes, retreats, workshops and month-long summer pilgrimages to deeply explore music and dance in Caribbean and African countries.
Malonga, established in 1986 as Alice Arts, changed its name to Malonga Casquelord in 2004. Casquelord, a dancer and drummer from Cameroon, taught at the Center for 25 years and was one of the main leaders of a fundraising campaign when the Center’s doors threatened to close. His son, Kiazi Malonga, now leads Congolese drumming classes at the Center and performs widely throughout the Bay Area.
Of Malonga’s many attractions is a wildly popular Samba Funk class on Sunday afternoons, which trains dancers for the yearly San Francisco and Oakland Carnival.
The drummers for Samba Funk often march through First Fridays in bright white outfits splashed with glitter, playing and dancing for the large crowds that gather. People who come to First Fridays with no plans of dancing end up dropping their bags beside them and dancing with abandon as dancers from Samba Funk lead the crowds.
Although many may be surprised at this sudden outbreak of movement, the artistic director of Samba Funk, known as King Theo, simply said, “We know our people.”
Recently, the Casquelord Center won a Best of the East Bay Award for 2014, which may be due to the wide appeal of classes for almost every age and from a variety of cultures. From the three-year-olds in King’s beginner class to the teens in advanced music classes and to the mothers and grandmothers that come for classes, Malonga has something for everyone.
Some of the more unique class offerings include women’s drum, Chicago step, Afro-Cuban folklore and Filipino folk dance. There is a rite of passage program for Oakland youth who learn the history and technique of dance and drum, as well as King’s advanced youth drum class on Sundays.
The main organizer for King’s program, a mother known as Mama Omotade, has a son who is 21 and has been drumming at the Malonga Center for almost all of his life.
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; it’s about bringing arts and culture to the community,” Omotade said. “Malonga is number one at bringing people together.”