Baba Kwame Ishangi
Baba Kwame Ishangi, born December 15, 1934, joined the realm of his beloved ancestors October 22, 2003 in the Gambia, West Africa. Baba was the artistic director of the world renowned Ishangi African Dancers, one of the premier African dance companies established in the United States, which he founded in 1958. His expert leadership molded a dynamic group that is touring extensively to this day. The name “Ishangi” means gatekeeper, or keeper of the culture, and emphasized Baba’s commitment as caretaker and preserver of the customs and traditions of his noble ancestors. His focus was the appreciation and understanding of African culture, i.e. history, philosophy, life-style and the arts. He received worldwide recognition for his work and proficiency.
The crowns of Baba Ishangi were many, he was an African folklorist, dancer, percussionist, and choreographer; lecturer on African philosophy, culture, history, current events, and the arts; storyteller, sculptor, African art collector and curator, Egyptian yoga instructor, nutritionist, poet, family counselor, spiritual advisor, teacher, brother, husband and father. After a performance, a teacher asked her students what did the Ishangis give and the children replied, “the gift of life.” Baba unselfishly offered the gift of life to all those with whom he came into contact with, so he was excellent at all the tasks he undertook and much loved by many.
Baba led the Ishangi African Dancers to successfully represent Africa at the Guinea Pavilion of the New York World's Fair in 1965, receiving the New York World's Fair Merit Award, and again in 1975 at the International Theater Olympiad in Detroit Michigan. The Ishangi African Dancers, under Baba’s tutelage, have performed twice before the World Body of the United Nations – in 1965 and again in 1980 – where Baba was awarded the 1980 World Peace Medal for outstanding work in the arts, communications, education and furthering the understanding of the importance of culture.
In addition, his expertise confronted contemporary problems. He effectively addressed males and females in drug rehabilitation and juvenile centers, halfway houses, and prisons. Baba was an excellent motivational speaker, clearly outlining problematic present day situations and their relationship to the “legacy of slavery” suffered by Africans in the Diaspora. (His theory is now being popularized as post-traumatic slave syndrome.)
Baba founded the Sankofa Society in 1973 in Queens New York. He taught the philosophy of the Adinkra proverb which states, “reclaim your ancestral heritage; use the wisdom of the past to ensure a better future,” and established Sankofa societies in various areas of the U.S. Baba was a pioneer in introducing African culture to generations of African Americans and others born outside of Africa.
Baba Ishangi was initiated in December 1978 at the Akonnedi Shrine in Larteh, Ghana West Africa, and given the stool name Kwame Osae I, Chief Priest of Obosom Abena of Amansore-Larteh Kubiase. In his role as spiritualist, Baba specialized in performing African weddings, naming ceremonies, rites of passage, enstoolments and funerals. He successfully executed those duties wherever he traveled throughout the world and was highly sought after for his ability to bridge cultural and religious divisions within families. He was a master at making everyone feel included in weddings or naming ceremonies, using humor to downplay the mystique and negative impressions of African ritual.
As a Pan-African, Baba’s passion for African culture, and his political awareness, created an Ambassador of African Culture skilled at dispelling myths and illustrating the glory that is Africa. He was a long-time member of the Sankofa Renaissance Mission in Ghana West Africa, and a lifetime member of the UNIA, Marcus Garvey Association, Brooklyn New York Chapter. Baba Ishangi was highly respected and served as an elder for Sacred Space, Washington D.C.; Dance Africa, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York; in addition to being an Elder Adviser to the Commission on Research in Black Education.
Photo by Jendayi Iyi
Baba’s cultural accomplishments were numerous and exceptional because he used traditional African culture to formulate unique rituals to suit specific occasions. A few include: the canonization and enstoolment ceremony elevating the Honorable Marcus Garvey to the status of sainthood during a ritual sponsored by the UNIA, New York; construction of the largest shrine to the Ancestors of the Middle Passage in the U.S. for the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta Georgia; his altars for Dance Africa, Brooklyn Academy of Music have become a permanent feature at the yearly event; he performed spiritual baths during the Annual Community Baptism rituals at Coney Island in New York; and skillfully conveyed the importance of culture during an African dance presentation before a Spanish speaking audience at El Museo Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, Mexico City Mexico.
Baba Kwame Ishangi was a lecturer sought after by many nationalities because of his ability to create a rapport with his audience, interpret and clarify subject matter for all to understand, and offer solutions. His philosophy was expressed during a landmark speech before the United Nations General Assembly in 1980:
Photo Credit: Tala Mshuga
From 1992 to 1996 Baba Ishangi was the artistic coordinator for the annual “Tribute to Our Ancestors” organized by the Apex Museum in Atlanta Georgia. This annual event was designed to remember the millions who died during the “Middle Passage Holocaust.” Baba developed the “Dance of Remembrance” a community dance created for audience participation to be performed during the celebration. He was respected for his consistent willingness to support community events, often contributing time and ideas without monetary compensation.
As an African art curator, Baba Ishangi mounted several major exhibitions: “Africa’s Living Arts: the Art of African Living,” “Africa’s Living Arts: Kingship to Kitchen,” “Africa’s Living Arts: Kente – A Golden Legacy,” and “Africa Before the Slave Trade,” at the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum in Jacksonville Florida. To enrich the museum experience, he trained docents, arranged African music and dance classes, Adinkra stamping workshops, and developed special events such as “The African Experience: A Day in the Village,” which allowed participants to experience life in a typical village setting, including food preparation, sampling, storytelling and traditional African fashions.
With grants from the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, the Ishangi African Dancers performed in 2001 at the PANAFEST and Emancipation celebrations in Ghana West Africa. In 2002 at the Roots International Homecoming Festival in the Gambia, the Ishangis performed before His Excellency Alhaji Dr. Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh at his village in Kanilai. At the conclusion of the presentation, His Excellency granted Baba Ishangi the opportunity to address the audience, which he did with his usual candor and eloquence.
During his life, Baba Ishangi was referred to as a griot of the Senegambia tradition, one who relates history and cultural or social events for the purpose of education and/or entertainment; he was also considered an okyeame of the Ghanaian tradition, one who sweetens his or her oratory with honey and renders it palatable. At Kanilai, everyone in attendance was impressed by Baba’s charisma and oratory. During that visit to the Gambia, Baba danced on the stage at Juffereh of Alex Haley’s “Roots” fame. The Roots festival is a homecoming for Africans of the Diaspora, and standing on that stage, Baba Kwame Ishangi raised his arms in victory on the grounds where Africans were kidnapped, taken across the ocean and enslaved, declaring a triumphant return to the homeland, Africa.
In 1962 Baba was presented the Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Membership Award in recognition of outstanding service to all people regardless of race or faith. In 1978 The Society of Africans From America honored Baba Ishangi for his outstanding contribution for over a quarter-century in the consistent perpetuation of African culture in America; in 1988 Baba was presented the Martin Luther King, Jr. "Let Freedom Ring" Bell Award from Cuyahoga Community College, highlighting his work, and dedication. Baba was recognized as a “Living Legend” while attending a performance in support of the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Company at the Newark Performing Arts Center, New Jersey 2002.
Other awards and recognitions:
1. “A World of Difference Campaign” endorsement for the ‘Folklore of Africa’ series at Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York sponsored by B’Nai B’rith, WCBS-TV and WCBS Radio 88 1989
2. Plague of Appreciation, Weaver H.S., Hartford Connecticut 1990
3. Ankh Award, African Street Festival, Brooklyn New York 1991
4. Certificate of Appreciation Imani House, Inc., Brooklyn New York 1991
5. Tayari Casel Afrikan Martial Arts Academy, Afrikan Masters Award, Washington D.C. 1994
6. The Very Special Arts Volusia County Unity Award, Daytona Florida 1996
7. Keys to the City of Daytona Beach Florida 1997
8. Proclamation from the Office of the Mayor, Detroit Michigan 1998
9. Certificate of Appreciation, Jefferson County Kentucky 1998
10. Keys to the City of Flint Michigan 1998
11. Keys to the City of Louisville Kentucky 1998
12. Certificate of Appreciation, Alaje Shekere Celebration, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation 1998
13. Ethnic Dance Award, Dance Giant Steps, New York 1998
➢ Congressional Resolution in Memory of Baba Kwame Ishangi from Sheila Jackson Lee, Member of Congress, November 8, 2003
➢ Benin Crystal Award from the Baba Ishangi Memorial Committee New York January 10, 2004
➢ Pyramid Crystal Award from the Maimouna Keita Dance Family, April 10, 2004
Baba loved his people. He loved Africa and devoted himself to sharing traditional values and culture. He was a brilliant teacher with an inquisitive mind and a passion for learning. The ultimate ceremonialist, Baba inspired our souls to soar from the mundane to sacred dwellings. His beautiful smile and wonderful sense of humor made him a pleasure to be around.
When at his home in the Gambia, Baba gathered limes and mangoes from the trees, raked the land and burned dry leaves, showed the compound off to his daughters, grandchildren and friends, gave advise to the young people of Tanji village who valued his insight, taught songs and dances to the children (they all loved him), performed readings, ran the perimeter for exercise, danced his dance, played his drums, poured libation and offered his prayers. Baba’s life was complete; he totally enjoyed his kingdom, Ishangi Kunda, where he rests for eternity.
Oba Koso! The King is Not Dead!
Photo Credit: Tala Mshuga
The Ancestral Gardens at Ishangi Kunda is the perfect place to plant a tree in memory of your loved one. For more information on how you can honor your beloved with a living monument, please contact us at 1-862-944-9573 or email: email@example.com.
Sankofa African Temple, Inc. is a 501C (3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization. All donations are tax deductible and would assist in maintaining traditional heritage, cottage industry projects in Africa, promoting cultural exchange and diversity awareness. Our projects also address environmental issues of the indigenous flora and fauna endeavoring toward preservation and conservation ensuring earthwise living.
“One cannot love his neighbor unless he is aware of his neighbor. We hope through the understanding of each other’s culture that peace and global harmony will come to mankind; so that we can protect the only home we have ever known, the planet Earth.”
- Baba Kwame Ishangi
United Nations General Assembly 1981
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