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Black history cabaret celebrates femininity with seven homegrown artists

Misha Maseka, a writer, filmmaker and musician, who performs under the name Lemba, is curating Strawberry & Peaches: A Black History Month Cabaret. Courtesy, Samuel Obadero
Misha Maseka, a writer, filmmaker and musician, who performs under the name Lemba, is curating Strawberry & Peaches: A Black History Month Cabaret. Courtesy, Samuel Obadero

For most of her life, Misha Maseka felt like she was straddling two cultures.

The Alberta-based writer, filmmaker and musician, who performs under the name Lemba, certainly doesn’t see this as a negative thing. It wasn’t a struggle. It was a celebration. Staying immersed in her parents’ Zambian culture was not difficult, but it did take a bit of effort for the globe-trotting family. Lemba refers to her father as an “adventurous doctor” who moved the family to different parts of the Commonwealth when she was young. She was born in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and spent her early childhood in South Africa before moving to Australia and finally landing in Drumheller for her junior high and high school years.

“It informed everything because it has been my life,” she says. “Even when we were on the continent, we were Zambians living in South Africa. Even that was a weird cultural straddling because we were Africans, but we were in a different African country. It influenced everything I do. In adulthood, I’ve leaned even more into my cultural identity. I like to call myself a westernized African living in North America. What does that look like? It informs everything that I do.”

There is a lot to inform. Lemba is a classically trained singer and musician who studied opera at the University of Lethbridge. She is a performer and vocal coach who has also directed documentaries and is the head writer for The African Family, a Calgary-shot comedy-drama TV pilot about an African couple who moves to Canada.

All of which makes her perfectly suited to curate Strawberry & Peaches: A Black History Month Cabaret, presented by Arts Commons.  She will be joined by six Calgary performers on April 11 for an online showcase pre-recorded at Arts Commons Engineered Air Theatre. It celebrates Black femininity by bringing together dance, music, drama and poetry. Lemba will set the tone by reading a poem to kick off the show. Morountodun Okedara, a Nigerian-Canadian actress who majored in drama at the University of Calgary’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, will perform a monologue from the play Da Kink in My Hair, Amanda Okafor will be performing an homage to Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, with a fusion of spoken-word and Afro dance styles; Dallas Hayes-Sparks, a member of the Calgary Opera Chorus who graduated from Mount Royal Vocal Academy, will sing an aria; dancers and choreographers Sabrina (Naz) Comanescu and Natasha Korney will both incorporate jazz, African and Caribbean styles in their performances; and vocalist Chenelle Roberts will be performing soul and jazz music.

“We’re taking you through a journey of Black femininity and what that means in terms of our culture,” Lemba says.

The Maseka family left Australia for Alberta when Lemba was 12. Her mother convinced her physician father that the children needed a permanent home and some stability. Nevertheless, Lemba describes her arrival in Drumheller as a “hilarious and wild culture shock, initially.” She had begun seriously studying classical piano and singing in Australia when she was eight years old. When she moved to Drumheller, she would travel to Calgary every weekend to train at Mount Royal University. Eventually, she grew to love small-town Alberta.

“As far as maintaining my African culture, I think that’s pretty easy just by existing in the four walls of my home with my parents and my siblings,” she says. “We are Zambians. We would be eating traditional Zambian food and what I love so much about Canada is how multicultural it is and how we can find pockets of our culture in this country. There is a pretty strong African community in Alberta and a Zambian community in Alberta as well. There were definitely ways to be rooted in my Zambian culture.”

But Strawberries & Peaches will touch on several cultures, from African to the Caribbean and South American.

“When you think of the African diaspora, it’s people who were born on the continent but also people who are from the islands and have strong ties to the Caribbean and Africans who exist in South America as well,” Lemba says. “I didn’t initially set out to do that; (it was) just by way of collecting the artists that we did. When we were filming, I said ‘Oh  my goodness, we are actually covering all the diaspora.’ Dallas Hayes-Sparks is African-Canadian in that her heritage line is through the first Africans who settled in Alberta. She is a descendent of the Black settlers of Amber Valley. So it was cool to be anchored in that history; not only Africans but Caribbean and South American and even the history of Black Canadians.”

While stories and performances that delve into Black history often focus on struggle and inequality, Lemba says she wanted Strawberries & Peaches to be celebratory in nature.

“When people think of Black history, they automatically think ‘Oh no, they are going to take us through a beautiful but traumatic reliving of slavery, colonialism and all these things.’ If anything, 2020 has taught us to sit with those things a little more comfortably. We’ve all been going through it in the last year, all of us globally. I just want to celebrate things that make the Black community beautiful, specifically as a Black woman. There are definitely themes. We nod to history, of course. We can’t escape it. But at the end of the day, it’s paying homage to the things in history that Black women have greatly influenced like fashion, like jazz dance, like spoken-word that turned into hip-hop that turned into pop. So it’s a celebratory look back at history and the current influence of Black women.”

Arts Commons presents Strawberries & Peaches: A Black History Month Cabaret will be streamed Sunday, April 11 at 7 p.m. Visit

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021

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