After sunset on a Thursday, Vado Diomande, 60, arrives at Cumbe: Center for African and Diaspora Dance in Bedford-Stuyvesant, hidden inside the Restoration Plaza. For first-timers, getting lost on their way to class is nothing new but for Diomande, who has taught drumming and dance at the center since it opened in 2012, it has become his home away from home.
Diomande wears square glasses; a white t-shirt that reads, “Cumbe” across the front in red, orange, and yellow; and gray sweatpants. He sits in the front of the spartan mirrored studio, its two barred windows open to let in fresh air, surrounded by three wooden drums and three students.
He picks up the largest drum, holds it firmly with his knees, and begins playing, his students joining in until the room vibrates with an upbeat tempo. The more Diomande plays, the wider his smile. He nods and taps his foot to the sounds, seemingly lost in the music; his biceps bulge out beneath his t-shirt sleeves as he plays. Even at 60, recently undergoing knee surgery on both knees due to osteoporosis, there is no stopping him.
After a tough year and a half during the pandemic, when Cumbe switched to virtual classes until two months ago, Diomande is happy to be back teaching in-person, driving half an hour each way from his one-bedroom apartment in Central Harlem. “I do it because I like my work,” he says. “I love teaching people who want to learn my style.”
Widely recognized in New York for his twice-a-week dance and drumming classes at Cumbe, Diomande draws on diverse traditions from Ivory Coast. He learned how to dance and play the drum as a child living in Toufinga, a small farming village in the northwestern part of the country, and still enjoys it so much that his weekly sessions are usually donation-based or cost less than $20.
Inspired by his father, also a dancer and drummer, he excelled at an early age and joined the Ballet National de Cote D’Ivoire, traveling the world for 15 years and learning dozens of ethnic dance styles including “mask dancing” on stilts. He first came to America as a guest performer in the 1994 Memphis in May Festival and saw an opportunity to stay so, he did not board his plane to return home. Instead, he sought medical help for a tumor on his jaw, connected with other dancers in New York, and began teaching others. He had a dance company in Ivory Coast but reestablished it in New York the same year he decided to stay. Since 1994, he has led Kotchegna Dance Company, an African dance troupe which has performed at Lincoln Center and Jacob’s Pillow.
In America, he says, he found it hard to get people interested in learning about Ivory Coast dances at first. “A lot of people were learning Guinea and Senegalese dance styles,” Diomande says. “Ivory Coast was too difficult for them. They couldn’t do it so they would say, this is not good and would go away.”
Diomande also knows Guinean dance, he points out, and he thinks that offering such a class would bring more students and more income. But he doesn’t plan to abandon his Ivory Coast culture. “I don’t teach for money,” says Diomande. “I want to show my culture to the world so that when I’m no longer here, some people will still be dancing the Ivory Coast style.”
In class, Diomande signals to his students what song to play by imitating the drum sounds with his voice. Black, white, Chinese, Jamaican, African — students from many backgrounds and ages 8 to 65 attend Diomande’s classes. The drumming sounds distinctly African, emphasizing rhythmic complexities, as if Diomande has teleported everyone to the continent.
That was something he had actually planned to do, take a group of students to Ivory Coast. “COVID threw everything away for me,” he says. “A lot of people were ready to go with me but we could not go because COVID came. Now we’re just starting to come back again and maybe we can go next year.”
“I’ve been learning from Diomande’s dance and drum sessions for more than 15 years,” says Bassanio Clark, 45, one of the three drummers up front. “But it feels like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface. Every time I attend his class, I learn something new.”
His previous drum teacher sent Clark to meet with Diomande to learn more about the Ivory Coast culture. “I started with his dance class so that I could first learn how to move to the sounds of the drum and now I attend both,” Clark says. “What keeps me coming back is because he knows a lot.”
He has also endured a lot. In 2006, Diomande inhaled anthrax spores while making drums from untreated animal print skins. Several local and international news outlets covered the story for weeks. Mayor Bloomberg conducted a press conference and the FBI and CDC were both involved. He remained at the Robert Packer Hospital for several days. “He is grateful he survived,” says his wife, Lisa Diomande. “It scared him.”
“Anything I do, it makes you strong and to live long,” Diomande says. “That’s why I keep teaching. When people say it’s too hard and I tell them it’s hard, but you have to push yourself to do things.”
A Cumbe center administrator says Diomande’s dance and drumming classes receive a steady number of students because he has a great following. Jimena Martinez, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Cumbe went on to say, “Vado brings authenticity and a deep knowledge of traditional dance forms from the Ivory Coast coupled with a precise, patient and engaging teaching style.”
When class ends, he thanks his students for coming by saying, “Merci beaucoup,” meaning “thank you so much” in French. He loads the largest drum in the trunk of his 2019 Subaru Forester and heads home to his apartment on Lenox Avenue where he stays with his wife of twenty years.
“I’ve learned a lot from Ivory Coast and I don’t want to keep those things without giving it to anyone,” Diomande said. “I’ve lived long already, so it’s time to give to people. That’s why I’m here so, whoever wants to learn, I’m ready.”