For the eighteenth time, The Black Storytellers Alliance (BSA), in affiliation with the National Association of Black Storytellers, brought the annual Black Master Storytelling Festival to Minneapolis September 24 – 26, 2009. Veterans of narration were joined by amateur and aspiring storytellers of all ages in entertaining and engaging the audiences.
The concept of the festival is based on oral traditions that Africans and people of African descent have been practicing since the beginning of time. According to their website – The mission of the BSA is “to maintain the art of storytelling as a primary source for positive instruction and reinforcement of the rich beauty embodied in the telling the ‘the story’!”
Each evening’s activities were hosted by various venues in north Minneapolis and Golden Valley. The first evening, held at the newly renovated Capri Theater, kicked everything off with the opening ceremonies, followed by a concert featuring performances by master storytellers Toni Simmons, Mitch Capel – aka Gran’Daddy June Bug, Valerie Tutson, Tejumola “TEJU” Ologboni, Queen Nur, Nothando Zulu, Oba William King, and Baba Jamal Koram. Each of them told outlandish tales, which wove important life lessons into stories that seem silly on the surface. The performers seemed to tailor their stories to the audience – which included a significant number of pre-teen age youth.
The second evening of events was held at Ames Elks Lodge in north Minneapolis. That night the Liar’s Contest was held, where members of the audience were encouraged to participate. People of all ages and races tried their hand at engaging the crowd in their stories. Trophies were handed out to the top three storytellers. The third evening wrapped up the festival with the Grand Finale, held at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley.
It should be noted that the intentions of the BSA and the activities they are involved in are not to see who can make up the biggest lies. While the stories told are fictional, that does mean that there is no truth in them. As a matter of fact, you really would not be considered a good storyteller if you were not able to inject some aspect of reality into your tales. “This is just not for performance’s sake; this is community building. This is people going out wherever they live, and sharing stories that present positive images, and allowing people to see that there is another way to be [other] than what’s presented in major media – ’cause that major media ain’t nothin’ but bs… What we try to do is serve that balance,” says Master storyteller Baba Jamal Koram.
Koram, who has been involved with the National Association of Black Storytellers for decades, holds a retreat every year in North Carolina for experienced, as well as beginning, storytellers.
“Anybody that wants to do storytelling, they usually come by the retreat… [It’s] sort of like a training ground, or a ‘show your face’ ground; a ‘let me see what you got’ ground,” Koram explains. In addition to telling stories, there are also workshops, craft making, drum playing, and other activities at the retreats. “It’s communing together, and through communing together, you get to know one another – you get to know people’s hearts, and minds. And when you’re storytelling, that’s what you got to know. You got to know your own heart, your own mind, your own knowledge, your own desire. So when other people understand that about you, and you have some talent with the art, then people will start to talk about you favorably. If you need some work, we’ll say come on back – you’re still family, and we still got this for you.”
The concepts of family and community were evident in how the activities were facilitated. Audience participation was highly encouraged each night, either by interaction with the performers, or inviting people in the audience to
tell stories of their own. This is to help get more people accustomed to speaking up, especially when they feel they have something to say. That is what led veteran storyteller Oba William King to becoming an artist and NABS member. “It became the work that I did. My path kept leading back to speaking for the people, about the people, about our issues, and about the growth, the beauty, the power of us – and making that universal. Not segregating us from any of the normal population. Knowing our story has to be told, and if we don’t tell it ourselves, then somebody else will tell it – and they’ll tell it wrong! Then we got to live our lives with the wrong ideas,” says King.
The Black Storytellers Alliance and the National Association of Black Storytellers holds workshops for schools, businesses and others. For more information, you can contact Vusumuzi Zulu via email or phone – 612.529.5864. You can also visit the NABS website – www.nabsinc.org.