Coming from a rich cultural background in Trinidad & Tobago, the new migrants were keen to show off their talent and share their artistic expressions in their adopted homeland.
Emerging from a small group that the late Jimmy Wong asked to perform at the Canadian National Exhibition in the early 1970s was Chissamba Chiyuka Arts Inc., a dance and drumming company dedicated to Afro-Caribbean dance forms.
Appearing as guest artists at La Petite Musicale Toronto chapter’s first production in 1976, Chissamba Chiyuka staged its first full-length dance production, Gallery of Forgotten Blacks, the next year and a dance, drama and musical production, Trinbago Bound, in 1978.
Two years later, the group broadened its scope by morphing into Chissamba Workshop of Artistic Talents (CWAT). The organization offered drama, mime, West Indian and African folk dancing and drumming classes, introduced a children’s mobile library and performed on stage and television across Canada and the United States before becoming dormant nearly 25 years ago.
Last Saturday night, Chissamba’s founding members, performers, volunteers and supporters gathered at a downtown hotel for a “Back in Time” reunion.
“While many of us have remained close, there are a couple of people who have not seen each other for almost a decade,” said founding artistic director, Jean Sheen.
Her passion for dance began nearly five decades ago at the then Fyzabad Intermediate School (now Fyzabad Anglican Secondary) in her native T & T and led her to the legendary Beryl McBurnie – one of the greatest influences on her country’s modern popular culture – and the Little Carib Theatre where she danced and choreographed.
“It’s so good for us to get together again and reminisce,” said Sheen.
Former Member of Parliament and arts supporter, Jean Augustine, said Chissamba was the only well-known arts group in the city presenting quality and credible African & Caribbean cultural dance performances for almost a dozen years up until around 1987.
“The audience knew that what happened on stage was no accident,” said Augustine in the keynote address. “We knew that that was the result of hours of study, practice and expert choreography. The group had a following, many of whom are in the room tonight. We were parents who were thrilled by the annual productions, we were young boys and girls who wanted to learn and perform and who watched the performances in awe, we were educators interested in the workshop sessions and we were a community proud that we could show off, educate, inform and entertain in this growing, diverse and cultural mosaic that’s Toronto.
“This reunion, for me, signifies among other things the opportunity to see each other again after many years and celebrate your success, reflect on how far we have come as a community and where we need to go, recognize that there are other dance groups out there in the community and say thanks to Jean and the other founders.
They include Cheryl Marcano, Dr. Aloma Mendoza, Florence Sorias, Allison Waithe-D’Oliveira, 1967 Miss Port-of-Spain Marilyn Warrick and the late Monica Mayers-Pantin.
“You were visionaries, you were hard workers, you were community-minded and you were the ones who knew the importance of the arts and who ensured that we too understood that importance,” Augustine told them. “You were professionals and you too showed us how professionals do things and what we as a community need to do as professionals.”
A York University graduate, Mendoza flew in from Atlanta, where she’s an adjunct professor at Argosy University and an instructional assistant at Atlanta Metropolitan College. She danced with Sheen in Fyzabad before they reunited in Toronto.
“It’s good to be back for this special occasion,” said Mendoza. “It was great while it lasted until some of us started families and took up other pursuits that pushed us in other directions.”
Warrick danced with McBurnie and Ken McPherson prior to migrating to the United States where she spent five years before coming to Canada in 1970.
“It was an honour to be part of Chissamba and we had a fantastic time,” said Warrick.
Business consultant and artist, Tony Watkins, paid tribute to late Chissamba supporter and Afro-Caribbean Theatre Workshop member, Ruthven “Ven” Thomas, who died in April 2012 and reflected on the achievements of Chissamba Chiyuka, which has left an indelible mark in Toronto.
“We came not as a people out of nothing but out of a process of social change seeking to find that voice and claim that space,” said the theatre and performing arts professional, who spent 12 years in the Greater Toronto Area before returning to T & T in 1980. “From Chissamba’s inception, members’ time and talent were dedicated to creating a means of community to the people around them through dance. The aim was always to present the rich cultural heritage of Black people found in Canada through the medium of theatre.”
Sheen, who taught a West Indian Folk Dance course at the University of the West Indies and collaborated with renowned New York choreographer and modern dancer/teacher, Charles Wideman and late Nigerian drummer and recording artist, Babatunde Olatunji and Lavinia Williams, who established dance schools in several Caribbean countries, presented awards to the founding members.
She also honoured her husband, Garnet Neblette, who produced Chissamba’s costumes, committed volunteer Laurel Tobias and drummer Richard Williams who conceived the name Chissamba Chiyuka which means “encompassing all things in and around us”.