Arts·Governor General's Awards

A true 'Queen Mother': How Zab Maboungou paved the way for Black female dancers everywhere

"Her presence and contribution represent hope, dreams coming true, a bright future."

'Her presence and contribution represent hope, dreams coming true, a bright future'

Zab Maboungou. ( by Pierre Manning)

Zab Maboungou will receive the Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award at this year's Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. Watch the televised special celebrating the laureates on CBC Television and CBC Gem on November 26 at 7pm ET.

It's a hot and humid evening. I'm running from one theatre to the other, up the stairs, through crowds of people, to catch the next show. I'm at the Marché des Arts du Spectacle d'Abidjan (MASA) / Abidjan Performing Arts Market in Ivory Coast. MASA is Africa's largest performing arts market. It's March 2020. In a few days, I'll be receiving an email advising all Canadians to go back to Canada: a virus is shutting down the country.

Never mind that — right now I have a show to catch. With my program in hand, my water bottle in the other, I rush to catch a dance solo by Zab Maboungou / Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata.

The theatre is huge; so is the stage. But as soon as the lights dim and the drums begin to call us to attention, the room becomes smaller. A woman enters with a fierce focus, as if she were leading a crowd of ancestors. She clearly sculpts her path, never wavers nor doubts where she is heading, what she is searching and who is guiding her. If Zab lived at the time of Yaa Asantewaa, the queen mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire who rose up to lead an army against the invading British occupation of today's Ghana, they would've fought side by side. Queen mothers are leaders and women of power in the Akan tradition. Zab is a Queen Mother.

When I rehearsed at her Montréal studio, Centre Création Danse Nyata Nyata on Boulevard St-Laurent, in fall 2019, I only caught glimpses of her. She is a busy woman. She has to be — spearheading a dance company for over 30 years is no small accomplishment. But this Queen Mother has done much more than that. She is, like Yaa Asantewaa, an example of powerful female leadership, particularly Black female leadership. For women like me who are running their own dance organizations, her presence and contribution represent hope, dreams coming true, a bright future. While rehearsing for my show in Montréal in Nyata Nyata's studios, I had the opportunity to chat with Karla Etienne, who was the studio's assistant director and dancer for 17 years and is now Executive Director of the Canadian Dance Assembly — and it was clear from the way Karla spoke of her longtime mentor that what Zab has built has come with significant struggles, arduous battles to overcome. Zab has set her fire ablaze. It has been a path fraught with challenges and triumphs.

Dance artist, curator, and producer Timea Wharton-Suri says of Zab and her work: "When experiencing dance with Zab Maboungou, it feels like there isn't enough time; you want to hear more of the philosophy, experiment more with the complex music, learn more about the history and international significance of the dance. You crave more. Zab is the type of community member that represents both a tree and a fountain, standing for intergenerational sharing, legacy, truth, endurance, strength in the winds of change, and the continuance of our lifeforce through art."

When I saw the Toronto premiere of Nyata Nyata's Mozongi, which Zab choreographed as part of a series curated by Wharton-Suri, it was a testament to Zab's thorough research and study of traditional dances of Africa. The dancing took me across timelines, the past meeting the future, the future coming from the past. Her interpretation of ritual and ceremony, rooted in tradition, is uniquely weaved in her work.

Zab Maboungou. (Michel Pinault)

Aly Keita, interpreter in Mozongi, calls Zab "an inspiring individual" and "an example for the new generation." In French, he tells me: "Zab est une personne inspirante et dévouée que j'ai eu la chance de côtoyer au courant de ces dernières années. C'est un modèle pour la nouvelle génération." Many of the artists who have been influenced by her will undoubtedly carry her torch. We honour this Queen Mother, Zab Maboungou, and the many dancers, educators and choreographers who paved the way for all of us.

Watch the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureate ceremony November 26 at 7pm ET on CBC Television and CBC Gem.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


Lua Shayenne weaves stories, through dance, song and word. Her art practice is embedded in her African roots and her faith. Her goal is to "effect a spiritual conquest" by establishing a relation with the human hearts and create original, inspiring and relevant art. Lua is the artistic director of Dora-nominated Lua Shayenne Dance Company (LSDC) and is currently creating WAVES | VAGUES and FRONTIERS | FRONTIÈRES for the company. She is part of Lars Jan's (NYC/LA) HOLOSCENES (Toronto/ Florida/ Miami/ New York/ London,UK/ Abu Dhabi/ Australia tours), a multidisciplinary water installation on climate change. Lua will premiere her tale, YASSAMA and The Beaded Calabash, with development support from the WeeFestival and le Théâtre Français de Toronto, May 2022.

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