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Spoken word poetry keeps stories alive

As a boy, Ibrahima "IBe" Kaba listened to the griots of his native Africa telling epic stories.

As a man, Kaba has developed his own style of storytelling, a combination of poems and performance called "spoken word poetry."

This month, he is distilling his experiences, thoughts and feelings about Africa and America into a narrative and a series of poems that may become a book, a CD, a one-man theatrical performance, or possibly all of the above.

Kaba is in residence this month at the Anderson Center at Tower View, thanks to Midwestern Voices and Visions, a project sponsored by the National Alliance of Artists Communities and the Joyce Foundation of Chicago to support and promote highly talented but under-recognized artists of color.

He is drawing from a wide range of experiences.

Kaba was born in Guinea, West Africa, but grew up in neighboring Sierra Leone. When war broke out in 1991, his town was attacked and the family returned to Guinea.

"I was a refugee in my own country," he said. Fourteen years old, he was unable to attend school because the official language there is French and he had learned English instead in Sierra Leone.

But fortune smiled. An uncle who was a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago came to visit and decided to take him to the U.S. to get an education. Kaba's enthusiasm for school had impressed him.

After completing high school in Evanston, Ill., Kaba looked at colleges, but the cost was high. His uncle - Lansine Kaba, a former University of Minnesota professor - contacted a friend at St. Cloud State University, a good school that was more affordable.

Kaba pursued a degree in business computer information systems there because he felt it would be a marketable skill.

"I had taken poetry in English classes," he said, "but I was not fond of it."

Not until he attended a conference and watched a spoken word artist perform. "It blew me away," he said, so he decided to try it.

Kaba sees a distinct difference between the two.

"Poetry is written with the intention of it remaining on the paper," he said. The audience likely will read it. "But with spoken word, when you write it you know and expect that most of the audience is going to listen to you perform it. So you write it with that in mind. You've got to try to entertain people while educating and informing."

Rhythm and delivery are very important, just as it was to the traditional griots he mimicked as a boy.

"In my culture, that's how we kept our stories alive," Kaba noted. "I grew up on that."

Had he stayed in Africa, he probably would not have become a griot, however. Occupations are linked to a person's family name, Kaba explained. "We are the educators," not storytellers, he said of the Kabas.

"But America knows how to break those barriers," he said. "You can be anything."

His first attempt at spoken word poetry paid homage to African women and their struggle to raise strong African men, he said. The first one he read aloud was about his country, Guinea.

"It was at an open mic," Kaba said. "I heard about this phenomenon called open mic when I moved to Minneapolis" after graduation, and continued to do spoken word poetry in those venues even as he found work as a data base manager for the Greater Twin Cities United Way.

He married Ethelind, who is also from Guinea, and they have a daughter, Yayra, 9, and a son, Khalil, 4, with another daughter due to be born in August.

Kaba began getting invitations to perform at schools and other places that were looking for spoken word artists and people who use their art to teach about the immigrant experience, about human rights in the world, and about being an African in America. Kaba published a book of his work, "Bridges Across Atlantic."

In June 2009, he made a "much longed-for pilgrimage" to Guinea, where he reconnected with family members and with the people.

"These Guineans, these Africans," he said - "they were full of hope and promise, with no awareness of their country's chronic position at the bottom of all rankings of developed nations.

"I talked to them about that, about Africa and American, Africans and Americans, and those of us caught in the middle of the Atlantic; about their hopes and aspirations, their present and their future."

He returned to Minnesota to write about the trip, hoping to "put it all together in a one-man theatrical meditation on my life as an African-in-America," but life intruded. The residency at Tower View has been a blessing, Kaba said.

"Just having the time carved out to do nothing but write - I've never had that before," he said.

By the end of the month, Kaba hopes to have completed a narrative about going home. It will provide the context for a series of poems giving different points of view, which will come later as inspiration strikes.

Kaba knows what it should be when it all comes together: "a catalyst in creating dialogue and understanding between Minnesotans ... and the growing African immigrant population."

In African-American griot style.