- The Badilla family—Milandou, Nkoula, Ntangou, Ntchota, Ngounga, Mounnanou, and Pamela— with Gloria Stewart and Debbie Waithe at the Hudson Area Library.
The children are happy and dancing. They're on the stage of the beautifully restored grand performance room of the 1855 Hudson Hall, formerly known as the Hudson Opera House. Diata Diata Folkloric Theater director Pamela Badila is leading the kids, who range in age from elementary school to teenagers, through traditional West and Central African dances. They spin around, bend up and down, and throw their arms out and heads back, smiling all the while, as her son Ngounga feeds their frenzied movement with his hypnotic beats a djembe drum. The rehearsal is for "Spirit of the River," a production by Diata Diata (Kikongo for "step step"; a reference to the troupe's dance performances, as well as its founders' philosophy of taking life step by step).
"This is a West African play that I learned about years ago," says Pamela, the charismatic matriarch of the Badila family, about the parabolic performance, whose story is set in a riverside village called Nabisso. "[The play] is very old, but it's still relevant, because it deals with water, how water gives life but can also take it away. The disparity with the access to clean water in Africa and India has been a problem for a long, long time. And now we're seeing what's been going on America, with Flint and Standing Rock. Water is life, everybody needs water. Fela Kuti sang, 'Water no get enemy.'"
If you're part of the arts scene in Hudson, the odds are good that you know the Badilas. The highly creative family has been a deep and vibrant cultural pillar of the city since relocating there from France, by way of Long Island, in the late 1990s. Pamela's late husband, Elombe Badila, hailed from the Congo and was one of the founding members of the National Ballet of Congo, which toured Asia and Europe in the 1960s and '70s. The company was especially popular among the many Congolese expatriates in Paris, which is where Elombe met Pamela, a visiting, New York-born dancer. The couple married and began to have children, adding to the two kids Elombe brought from a previous relationship. Eventually the family settled in Hudson, drawn there after visiting Pamela's sister, a long-time resident, and its household swelled to include 10 siblings.
- Ngonda Badila
All of the Badila children are decidedly artistic across multiple disciplines—dance, music, fashion, visual art—and their work is always informed by the rich, colorful foundation of the family's African roots. Through their frequent, dazzling, drums-and-dance-heavy performances at local public events, the community came to recognize and embrace the Badilas; a parade in honor of Elombe after his passing in 2011 filled Warren Street with hundreds of marchers and mourners. But when the family was still new in town, the vibe wasn't always so welcoming.
"Somebody put a sign on our porch that said, 'Fuck you, Africans!' or something like that, but we didn't let it bother us," the matron recalls. "My kids said, 'Mom, why don't they like us?' and I said, 'Well, it's because they don't know us. We have to show them who we are.' Ignorance and false information are what fuels hate, you know? So we started dancing and drumming and performing around Hudson, and people liked it and were curious and we just kept meeting and getting to know more and more people. The same thing happened when I was putting together a multicultural event in Hudson a few years ago: I asked some of the people from the Bangladeshi community if they would have their kids dance in it, and, at first, they weren't so sure. But then I explained how showing others who you are can be a helpful thing. So the parents brought their kids to the rehearsals and the little girls wore their beautiful bhindis and native clothes and danced for the audience. It was wonderful. So many of the problems and misunderstandings between people are just because of the ignorance, people being afraid of the people from other cultures they don't know."
The most visible of the Badilas is Milandou, a rap artist, model, and entrepreneur who performs under the name Young Paris, a reference to the city of his birth. "The girlfriend I had when I was 18 couldn't pronounce my real name, so she called me 'Paris' and after a while I just went with it," recalls the rapper, via WhatsApp, during a pre-show visit to the home of the Rwandan president while on tour in Africa last month. ("Touring Africa is crazy, you meet all kinds of people you'd never think you'd meet.") After a two-year detour to Montreal, the 30-year-old MC now lives in Brooklyn and in 2016 signed to Jay Z's Roc Nation label for the expanded reissue of his third independent release, African Vogue. In addition to touring Africa with his music (and as a dancer with his father's company when he was younger), he's cultivated a rabid following in Europe, especially in France.