“Yanvalou Is My Home”: Creating Community Through Music and Dance

Kera Washington demonstrates drumming to students in Yanvalou.
Image credit: Ahana Basu ’25
Author  By Cheryl Minde ’24
Published on 

At the beginning of her undergraduate journey at Wellesley, Kera Washington ’93, director of the College’s Yanvalou Drum and Dance Ensemble, thought she was going to study to be a research biologist. But after taking classes on the folk and ritualized music of the Caribbean and West Africa with then professor of music Gerdés Fleurant—classes taught not in the music department but the Black studies department (now Africana studies)—Washington found that those subjects interested her more.

When Fleurant became the first professor of ethnomusicology in the music department, Washington, who double majored in anthropology and music, was his first student. “He was the first drum teacher I ever had,” she says. “I had never touched a drum before, but he said, ‘If you really want to understand this music, we can’t just talk about it. We have to play it.’” But Fleurant and Washington couldn’t just play the music on their own. “It had five different parts, so we had to have five different people,” says Washington. “In the spring of 1990 I got three of my friends, and Yanvalou started.”

Now Washington, with the help of choreographers Peniel Guerrier and Isaura Oliveira, oversees the ensemble, which plays the folkloric music and dance of Africa as it exists today throughout the African diaspora with a foundation and emphasis in Haiti. “Yanvalou,” a Haitian movement and rhythm that opens rituals and ceremonies, is the very first drum rhythm and song new ensemble members learn. Accompanied by dancers all dressed in white, the drummer and the dancers echo each other with the lyrics, “Papa Loko/Ou se van/Pouse n ale/Nou se papiyon na pote nouvel bay Agwe.” (Father Loko/You are the wind/Push us away/We are the butterfly and bring the news to Agwe.) The ensemble performs “Yanvalou” as a greeting; the song welcomes drummers, dancers, listeners, and the ancestors into the space of performance.

The numerous instruments taught and played in Yanvalou have come to Wellelsey from every part of the African and African diasporic world: drums from Ghana, the handheld mbira, or thumb piano, from Zimbabwe, and Ugandan harps called adungu. At the heart of Yanvalou is the Haitian family of drums: manman, the largest drum, sometimes called the Mama drum; segon, a medium-sized drum sometimes referred to as the Papa; and the piti, boula, or kata, all names for the smallest, baby drum. The manman drum is the highlight of Yanvalou’s most explosive piece, “Kongo.” During performances, playing the manman drum gives students a chance to demonstrate their growth and skill in drumming and their ability to lead the ensemble.

“This semester, I learned how to play the manman drum, for the first time,” says Nafisa Rashid ’23. “It has been my favorite so far!”

Other Yanvalou songs and rhythms include “Gede Zariyen,” a Haitian folkloric piece about the Spider, or Gede, at the crossroads between this life and the lives of those who have passed and those who have yet to come, “(Bonswa) La Reine Congo,” and “Papa Loko.”

After a year and a half of Zoom drumming sessions, Yanvalou had its first fall show, Rekonekte (a play on the word “reconnect”), since the pandemic in December. It was the first show for the majority of the ensemble, the culmination of their first semester with Yanvalou. For the two student leaders, Rashid and Ann-Marsha Alexis ’22, Rekonekte was truly an event for reconnection. “It had been a year since I had been on Wellelsey’s campus. When I came back, I got to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen in so long, even people I hadn’t seen since my first year!” says Rashid, a cognitive and linguistic sciences major. “In Yanvalou I have met people that have supported me throughout my time at Wellesley and who are a joy to spend time with and be around.”

“Yanvalou is my home on campus, and I feel like I’m meant to be here,” says Alexis, a physics major who has been with Yanvalou since her first year. “It’s the brightest, warmest, and most life-giving part of Wellesley. I can’t imagine being on this campus without having this space to return to again and again.” That brightness in the multicolored drums the members use for practice and the hand-painted cha-chas or percussion shakers they use to keep tempo. And audiences feel the warmth in the auditorium when each part of a rhythm comes together to fill the space with the legacy of the diaspora.

For Washington, the purpose of Yanvalou isn’t solely to enrich the Wellesley College community with African diasporic history, dance, and music. It is also about watching the students find a home and a connection with Yanvalou and the diaspora, and watching them work together to shape the ensemble into what they want it to be.

“I love everything Yanvalou represents,” says Alexis, “freedom, harmony, expression, resistance, love, and more. Playing and dancing in Yanvalou to me means joy and excitement, reconnecting with ancestral memory, healing, finding what was lost.”

Interested students are welcome to join Yanvalou. Look for the ensemble’s spring show in April.