In Cary, Kwanzaa goes deeper than the drum

Kwanzaa celebrates culture and history rooted in Africa

akenney@newsobserver.comDecember 27, 2012 

— On stage, drummer Robert Johnson boomed the words in his warm baritone: “Adaptive. Motivated. Assertive.”

From the third row, Funmilayo Shabu echoed him in her toddler tongue: “Ah-dap-if. Mo-vay-id.”

Just 2 years old, she was in her way working over the precepts of Kwanzaa. Then the quartet’s drums started again, and Funmilayo and her mother, Aya, were caught up in the tumble of djembe pulses and slaps rolling off the stage.

The entire crowd at the Cary Arts Center followed the group’s rhythm, but the mother and daughter had special reason: It was their father and husband, Teli Shabu, pounding his sticks on the dunun drum in back.

“This music – it’s a vibration that goes into your soul,” the drummer said backstage minutes later. That’s his metaphor for Kwanzaa itself: a time to take in the present moment and to commune, he said.

Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration that blends pan-African cultures, but it’s an American-born tradition. Maulana Karenga founded the practice during the civil rights movement, a time that quite a few of the local elders present Thursday could remember.

Teli Shabu’s first encounter with the celebration was more recent than that. The 33-year-old Durham resident met Kwanzaa when he arrived in New York City as a young Liberian boy.

Shabu’s parents are United States-born, but they left this country in the 1960s, too early to adopt the increasingly popular celebration. The couple followed in the footsteps of the thousands of black Americans who had left for Liberia since the 19th century.

“They saw their life being stifled,” Shabu said. But the Liberian Civil War of the 1980s drove the family back again to the United States, where Teli Shabu laid down his roots.

In the audience in Cary Thursday afternoon were Shabu’s wife and both his young children. And though he wasn’t raised on the tradition, Shabu was part of the pulse that powered Cary’s 18th annual celebration, and he was ready to make it his family’s own.

“It’s made me so happy,” Shabu said. “I think it’s very necessary, even more so than it was back then. Society has given us so many distractions that it’s easy to get caught up in the surface of things.”

And as this country continues to grapple with race disparities in economics and education, as several speakers pointed out, the celebration on Thursday carried meaning far deeper than the skin of a drum.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or

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