The San Joaquin Valley is a melting pot. It’s home to diaspora from dozens of countries, and we celebrate that diversity with traditional festivals and performances throughout the year. One celebration that flies under the radar, however, is a summer camp in the Sierra foothills that teaches some traditional arts from West Africa. In this story, we take you to a music camp in Dunlap.
Some people escape into the Sierra Nevada for serenity and silence. But every August, a few hundred campers flock to the Fresno County foothills for the freedom to be loud.
This is Camp Fareta, an intensive multi-day festival dedicated to teaching West African drumming and dancing. Every corner of the camp is awash in the sounds of traditional drums, dancing feet adorned with shakers, and an instrument like a marimba called a balafon.
The festival attracts dancers, drummers and artisans of all ages and ethnicities from all over the world. “Fareta is one of my favoritest camps,” says Creedance Love, an entrepreneur and dancer from Baltimore who’s been attending for three years. “You’re actually staying, you’re eating, we’re doing performances together, we have talent shows, we have fires, we’re getting together and doing storytelling, there are people singing songs.”
Camp Fareta takes place at a summer camp east of Fresno within a few miles of the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park, and it’s laid out like a web: The camp’s classrooms and cabins radiate outward from a central cafeteria and a small shaded square.
There, people chat or practice alongside tables piled with drums, jewelry, and bright wax-print fabrics for sale. “It’s kind of like our African village,” says Love. “We have different teachers that come from different places, like the Congo, and from Guinea and Senegal.”
West Africa is well represented at Fareta. Most of the camp’s instructors were born there. And that traditional village feeling is intentional. The word “Fareta” itself means “City of Dance” in Susu, one of the languages spoken in Guinea.
That’s the home of Youssouf Koumbassa, a master dance teacher and one of the camp’s directors and founders. “This feels like Africa,” he says. “It's like back home, you're in a village, everybody coming and enjoying dancing together.”
This multicultural village gathers in Dunlap every August for eight days packed with drumming and dancing, learning and sharing. And though the music may be what ostensibly calls people to the camp, drum teacher Bongo Sidibe argues that what keeps them coming back is the community. “It’s really a feeling that this is the place that where we can stay together, share our stories and inspire each other,” he says.
Sidibe, based in San Francisco and originally from Guinea, specializes in a few traditional instruments, including the djembe—a drum that looks like a giant wine goblet. When he teaches beginner djembe, he explains, he starts with the basics: How to make three distinct pitches by hitting different places on the drum's thinly stretched skin. “From that we make phrases,” he says, “and from the phrases you add a little flavor to it and it becomes part of the rhythm.”
Those rhythms and melodies that have been hugely influential in music around the world. “We hear a lot of jazz and funk, Gospel music,” he says. “All these things, they all got their roots from West African traditional music.”
That influence came at a terrible price: The slave trade. When citizens from Ghana, Senegal and other West African countries were sold around the world, the traditional music they brought was absorbed into their new home countries.
Hanif Riley, a drummer and artisan in Los Angeles, says his precise lineage was lost when his ancestors were sold to slaveholders in North America. But attending Fareta and playing traditional music help him honor his history. “We lost language, we lost the traditions, we lost knowing who we are and where we're from,” he says. “So that's been a big draw to me to this drum because it helps me to be connected to those things.”
Healing is a common thread at Camp Fareta. A nurse from Oakland tells me Fareta helped her recover from a traumatic car accident a few years ago. For Mamady Kourouma, a master drummer from Guinea who now lives in Three Rivers, playing music reminds him of his late father. “I don’t want to lose my father’s culture,” he says in French. “I want to give it to the world, the whole world, so the music doesn’t fade.”
That’s not easy in the San Joaquin Valley. Also known as “The Great Panther”, Kourouma teaches in Boston and Guinea, and occasionally tours elsewhere, but he says he doesn’t have many students from the Valley.
Not many locals attend Camp Fareta, either—something dancer and camp director Christina Tuccillo would like to change. This is the first year in which she can remember registering as many as a half dozen Valley dancers and drummers.
Still, she says she's thrilled to see attendees from not just Africa and the United States, but also Mexico, Australia and other countries. She was inspired by a moment early in the week, when drummers from six countries – black and white – substituted in the ensemble accompanying a dance class when not enough musicians had shown up. “It just made me smile so much,” she says. “These people came together to make it happen even though we didn’t have all the official drummers, and all the people dancing were just beaming.”
This is Camp Fareta’s thirteenth year in Dunlap, and it’s easy to think that something magical about the Sierra foothills is what helps bring the camp together. But when asked, drum teacher Bongo Sidibe just laughs. No way, he says—it’s the people.
“Our music and tools are the spirits,” he says. “We bring the party. We bring it with us.”