Zakarya Diouf, a pioneer of West African dance in the Bay Area and beloved teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS), passed away recently. Diouf was an influential member of the community, and as a drummer and teacher in the Afro-Haitian classes of the African American (AFAM) Studies Department, he helped shape it into the revered program that it is today.
Diouf grew up in Senegal where he was immersed in West African music and dance from a young age. In a short film by production company Citizen Film, Diouf shared how he was introduced to the drums. “I just started using my mom’s pots and pans and she finally got frustrated and bought me bongo drums. That’s how I got hooked,” he said. His dedication to music ultimately led him to a multitude of opportunities. One example is seen in his work writing music for acclaimed artists such as Al Green and Gladys Knight. Through his successes, he modeled to hundreds of his students that opportunities are endless, especially with hard work and a deep appreciation for music. “He was a huge inspiration to generations of students not only at BHS but everywhere he taught,” said Linda Carr, a modern dance teacher at BHS who worked closely with Diouf.
After moving to the US in the 1960s, Diouf brought years of wisdom and experience with him to schools in California, including BHS and Laney College. During his time at BHS, he partnered with his wife Naomi Washington, who was the former head of the Afro-Haitian Dance Department. As a couple, their passion for the art form had an enormous impact on those who interacted with them. “Generations of people in Berkeley grew up with the two of them as incredible role models of an artistically fulfilling life that had family and community at its center,” said Carr.
One of those students was Tanzia Mucker, who was mentored by Diouf at Laney College and is now the artistic director of the BHS Afro-Haitian Dance Department. Mucker, who is known to her students as Ms. Shorty, spoke fondly of Diouf. “He gave us an outlet for our mental health indiscrepancies and the opportunity to speak through movement and music.” For her, this support filled a void in her life. “[Diouf] was the father that I’ve always wanted.”
As a teacher, Diouf made a commitment to teaching about the history and significance of African drumming and dance along with the skills and technique. “He taught us the meaning behind it, what tribe it came from and why they did this dance,” said Mucker. “He gave us a sense of pride, so when we performed these dances we knew what we were dancing for.” With history at the forefront of his lessons, his students were exposed to many cultures and art forms. Mucker spoke on the importance of this: “Without [Diouf], I don’t think anyone [at BHS] would know about West African dance. If nobody knew, that means we wouldn’t break barriers between cultures.”
Diouf also diversified his classes by welcoming all identities in his classroom. “In my class I have Chinese, European, Indian, Black, Spanish, and we are all speaking the same language through drumming,” he stated in the documentary by Citizen Film. His acceptance of all students helped many feel comfortable expressing themselves through music and dance. “He brought encouragement to children who didn’t believe in themselves,” said Mucker.
Diouf’s legacy will undoubtedly live on through those who he impacted, including Mucker. “Without [Diouf], we wouldn’t know who we are as people in the art form of dance, in the wisdom of life, in the knowledge of self. He changed a multitude of lives and he definitely changed mine.”