Fri, Jul 14, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Back to our roots with Pan Africana

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

Ben Stobite Sampson, leader of the Pan Africana Cultural Troupe.

PHOTOS: JULES QUARTLY, TAIPEI TIMES

It can be tough being black in Taiwan but Pan Africana Cultural Troupe aims to change that through the power of music.

The group has been banging the drum of African culture for four years, gigging at festivals, clubs, pubs, business functions and schools.

The seven band members play traditional African drums and songs, perform dances and acrobatics, as well as updating traditional music with rap, soca, reggae and dance hall sounds.

Tonight Pan Africana brings its message to Bliss, in Taipei. It's a message worth listening to.

“On the MRT or bus sometimes people don't want to sit by us, or hold their nose,” group founder Ben Stobite Sampson said. “It's difficult for people to get to know us because of what they've read or seen on the TV.”

“It's natural for people to be reserved to begin with, but after they listen to us and know us they will love us and we will come together as one.

“Chinese culture is traditional and strong so it can be hard to change people's minds. But generally, we have found Taiwanese to be kind and once they know who we are they are very friendly.”

Often enough, Sampson said, Westerners are the first to appreciate their music and dance. “They show the way and when locals see this they think it's OK and get involved themselves.”

Sampson is a thoughtful and enterprising man from Ghana, who saw the need for cultural understanding on his travels around Asia as an import-export businessman.

It was in Guangzhou (廣州), China, that the 33-year-old saw an African troupe entertaining a crowd and thought, “I want to do this too.” But he decided to do it in Taiwan, which he had visited and liked.

He returned to Ghana in 2002 and completed a course in cultural studies, then bought some drums and costumes and returned to Taipei.

“Luckily I met Kim [Douglas] and we thought we could do something, a collaboration, and it's all worked out since then.”

For the past two years they have been building up a reputation as entertainers and cultural ambassadors. Last month the government finally approved Sampson's application to run his business here.

With a visa and residency the aim is to consolidate Pan Africana as a community organization in Taiwan and eventually spread the message to other parts of Asia.

As well as performing, Sampson and his group teaches African dance and drumming, participates in conventions and work shops, and exhibits clothing and crafts from the continent.

“A lot of people have presumptions about black people, many of them false. So music builds a bridge between us,” Douglas said.

The political science student has lived in Taiwan for four years, speaks good Chinese and has a fair understanding of his adopted home. He comes from Dominica, a small country in the Caribbean, where his father was prime minister.

“The Chinese [Taiwanese] like a fairy tale, there's a lot of stereotypes about Africa and Africans, so we're trying to reverse that and put out a more positive image. You know, black is beautiful.”

Cobby Hoffman, from Ghana, said it's sometimes difficult being black in Taiwan because of the reaction of people to his skin color.

“But I really like being black. It can be a disadvantage but I wouldn't change it, it's part of my ancestry. There is ignorance but not necessarily discrimination.”

As for the music, Douglas said, “It's an international trend to equate black people with mainstream culture in America like rap music. But our roots are in Africa and this is the music we promote.”

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