You hear that? No, it’s not the Brown Band, it’s the Rhythm of Change!

Not to get mushy or preachy, but this is the kind of story that makes us smile. We willfully admit that all three of us are currently in the Mande class, but note that we’d be happy to have written this article sans names attached. We’re not vying for credit (it’s mandétory S/NC anyway) or anything like that. This is a really great story about Brown students using their voices to do something for a greater good, the artists, the festival, the students and for the love of Mande (yes!).

“The Malians say that one bird is silent; a flock of birds make a lot of noise,” says Sophie Shackleton ’09, organizer of this weekend’s Rhythm of Change Festival. Well, in this story, Brown students, faculty and alumni gathered in a flock and made a whole lot of noise—helping to bring three Malian artists to Brown to share their work in the festival.

The Rhythm of Change Festival is, as its poster reads, “a festival for performing arts & social change in Africa & its diaspora.” The festival, organized primarily by Shackleton with the support of TAPS Lecturer Michelle Bach-Coulibaly of the famed Mande class, is set to start off tonight, Friday, March 2, with the Communal Bowl meal and continue throughout the weekend with workshops on dance, drumming, singing, music and social justice work. Lecturers include guests from other Universities and institutions, artists from across the country, and three artists who have come all the way from Mali to share in cross-cultural exchange. Two of these artists had never been to America, one of whom had never left West Africa.

It is within the tale of Djibril Coulibaly, Sali Soumaré and Alhassane Sissoko, the three visiting Malian artists, that an amazing story emerges. As of Feb. 7, Coulibaly and Soumaré were effectively blocked from coming to the US from Mali because their visas were denied. A press release for the Festival explains, after the jump:

Festival producer Sophia Shackleton ’09 coordinated with the Malian artists in French and their native Bambara in order to gather all visa documents; despite successfully submitting the required materials, Soumaré and Coulibaly were denied visas due to lack of proof of sufficient ties to Mali. Soumaré, who as a woman cannot own property in Mali, and Coulibaly, who works as a youth organizer and has no children or wife of his own, were unable to provide typical ties like land or a government job.

Visas denied, it seemed like Coulibaly and Soumaré would not be able to come to Providence for the festival. Shackleton was ready to give up because the process had already been so incredibly difficult. Sending documents back and forth, teaching Djibi how to use a scanner for the first time over a bad phone connection in Bambara, busing Sali back and forth from Gao in order to get her new passport and helping them find letters of recommendation from other Malian artists who are illiterate all took a toll on her.

But Brown students stepped in and did what we’re often known to do best: protested, petitioned and GOT SHIT DONE. Following the lead of Sam Jambrovic ’12 (Jambrovic is a TA for Mande and has been to Mali with Bach-Coulibaly), the festival organizers reached out to Rhode Island’s senators and Brown constituencies, including alums and students, in an attempt to reverse the visa rejection. Senator Jack Reed’s office took up the fight for these artists and Eric Ludwig ’98, who had been to Mali with Bach-Coulibaly on three occasions, created the petition that circulated around campus.

Monumentally, it worked!Within a week of denying the visas, the government reversed its decision and granted them to Coulibaly and Soumaré, enabling the three Malian artists to travel to College Hill and share their knowledge and talents with us. When asked about the visa controversy’s impact on the festival, Shackleton responded, “It just motivates us to do the work we always intended to do. These artists are here to give… This whole process has just validated what this festival is all about — art has the power to cross boundaries peacefully. But we do have to fight to make it heard.”

In anticipation of the festival, we also got a chance to speak with Sophie Shackleton and ask her some questions about what Rhythm of Change is all about.

Which aspect of the festival are you most excited about? I can’t speak for everyone else but I’m excited to see this many people come together to celebrate these cultural experiences. I have found things through Malian and West African artistic cultures that have completely changed my life — and to see other people experience the joy and talent of these artists is going to be amazing. Yes, we are talking about social change when we say “Rhythm of Change.” But I also know that just seeing and experiencing these artists will change people. And that’s what social change is ultimately all about. It’s not just about changing other people. It’s about changing ourselves.

Give us three words to describe the festival. ENERGY. JOY. COLLABORATION

Favorite Mande step? I have a special place in my heart for Dansa — it was the first dance I ever learned.

Anything else you’d like to add? …It’s hard to realize [this experience] when you’re in the Brown bubble (I was there too!), and when you don’t have much idea about a culture that’s so far away and so different. But for Brown to be able to facilitate connections and collaborations like this… is a global, world-changing initiative. Sali and Djibi saw snow for the first time yesterday. They are learning new ways of expressing themselves already through collaborations with students. We forget how lucky we are to be able to travel to whatever country we want — these artists don’t have that privilege. But through kindness, and investing in the importance of their art, they have been able to cross a huge divide. And I hope that everyone gets a chance to meet such amazing people in their lives.

The Rhythm of Change Festival will be taking place from March 2-4, 2012. Individual workshops cost $15 and the schedule can be found on the TAPS website.


  1. KathyN

    mandétory. i love it.

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