Universal tales

Diane Macklin makes a difference at FUNDA
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  January 15, 2009

Macklin_main 
"THE STORY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING," Macklin said.

For the 11th consecutive year, the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) are bringing stories and tellers from near and far for the eight-day FUNDA Fest (January 18-25). Funda means to teach and to learn in Zulu and KiSwahili, and that element of storytelling will happen at the public concerts as well as the in-school events. From Westerly to Woonsocket, Newport to Providence, families and storytelling fans will have ample opportunity to hear local spoken word artists — Riders Against the Storm (Jon Mahone and Ghislaine Jean Mahone) and Spittin Images (Christopher Johnson, Yunus Quddos, Lawrence Nunes) — plus local storytellers Len Cabral, Abigail Ifatola Jefferson, Raffini, Melodie Thompson, Valerie Tutson, and Rochel Coleman. RIBS founding member Ramona Bass-Kolobe, here from her home in Botswana, will also participate. And national storytellers Teju Ologboni, from Milwaukee, and Mitch Capel, aka Gran'daddy Junebug, from North Carolina, will return to FUNDA, in addition to newcomer Diane Macklin from Maryland. (Go to ribsfest.com for the full schedule.)

Macklin, 37, came to storytelling via teaching, and she still does in-school programs for students and teachers. But she came to see storytelling as "the most traditional form of teaching.

"I wanted to broaden myself to the wide universe," Macklin recalled in a recent phone conversation from her Silver Spring home. "I see storytelling as teaching in the most simple and yet most complex way. There's an African proverb that says 'tales are the food of the ear' and my spin on it is 'you must mind what you eat!' We must make sure that the tales we give each other help us to continue to grow and learn to be one human race and one community."

Macklin has a vibrant, moldable face to portray the characters in her stories, and she often accompanies the rhythm of her words with a shekere, an African percussion instrument made from a dried gourd strung with beads on the outside. The bulk of her stories are from the African diaspora, though she spun a favorite story from an African proverb, a Jewish folktale, and the yarns of her parents, who are from the American South. She grew up in New York, listening to the riddles, jokes, and trickster tales of her father and her Mississippi grandfather. Though an English degree from Vassar and an M.A.T. from Simmons took her into grade-school teaching for five years, she rediscovered her love of storytelling when she moved to the DC area, where she is now the resident storyteller at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.

Macklin was very influenced by the storytelling of the late Mary Carter Smith and by Harold Courlander and George Herzog's 1947 classic of West African tales, The Cow-Tail Switch. But she reaches beyond the African and African American traditions to embrace the many other cultures that make up this diverse country — she counts a large portion of her heritage as Native American, though she honors her grandfather and her mother's desire to be seen as African American.

"I cater more toward the African in my storytelling: Ethiopia, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria," she noted, "because my great-great-great-grandmother was from Africa, and I get to know her by knowing stories she might have heard and by trying to learn about that place and what it was like growing up for her."

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