Alisa Kuumba Zuwena – Singing and Dancing for her Life


By Peggy Ratusz


From 2005 until 2010, World Beat musician and dance instructor, Alisa Kuumba Zuwena was Artist-in-Residence for the wildly successful Leaf in Schools and Streets project incepted in 2004, as part of the cultural experience known as Lake Eden Arts Festival. She epitomizes the objectives of that program which are to “educate, empower and engage.” Her uncanny ability to hold and keep the attention of audiences and students of all ages is a gift. The difference she’s already made in young lives through workshops, instructional and participatory performances, will ripple for years to come.

A love of art and music was instilled in her from a young age. The marital separation of her parents when she was merely eight years old gave way to positive possibilities for this budding wunderkind of song and dance. During the sweltering summer months she lived in or near Tallahassee, Florida with her maternal and/or paternal grandparents and then through the school year she and her two siblings, sister Jocelyn and brother Duane, would go back to their birthplace, Detroit, Michigan, to live with their mother. The cultural differences, the climate differences affected her in thoughtful ways that ingrained a sense of balance Kuumba would continue to hone enthusiastically and fully.


With immense love and affection, she credits her mother Pauline as her guide and inspiration. Alisa says she was a poised and cultured woman who was deliberate as she sought to capitalize on the area’s rich and varied arts scene and she exposed her children to it by taking them to concerts and plays. She enrolled them in community music, dance and art classes.


”My paternal granddaddy used to play guitar. We gave him the nickname “Pop Foster” because he’d pop a soda cap and then use it as a slide on his guitar and play rural Blues tunes on the porch at our home in Tallahassee. He would spike his coffee with liquor and entertain the whole neighborhood for hours.”  Her father, Albert Lee Foster was an “almost famous” electric bassist for several fledgling Motown sound bands who later signed with either Chess or Motown Records, just as he went off to military boot camp. “My father was a joyful man who would walk me to school every day, hold my hand and sing to me as we strolled along. He died at the age of 47, after he received a severe blow to the head while trying to break up a neighborhood fight. He was a handsome and charming man who all the women loved to swoon for.”


One of her early performance memories is a Tallahassee talent show she and her sister JoJo entered. They tap danced and sang in perfect harmony the song, Ball and Jack. “We were so excited to be on stage that day that during the train ride back to our neighborhood we wrote our first song called Goodbye to Tallahassee! And we sang it over and over again on that train.” She laughs with great abandon, as she recalls the lyrics and sings them to me over the phone. I can clearly understand the positive impact that day in particular made on Kuumba.


“Singin’ on the block was a regular 1960’s Detroit neighborhood thing to do for teens and preteens who had a propensity for song and dance,” she explains. “The kids on the block would rehearse after school and throughout the week. We’d all gather on someone’s porch or stoop and have a performance battle. It was always the boys against the girls. I lived on the West side of the city near Dexter Avenue and Davidson and the Funkadelics lived right down the street!  


Her Mom bought a house in the north east side of Detroit (where Brother Duane still resides) and Alisa and her siblings attended Persian High School. Though she considered herself to be shy, her desire to act and sing grew during her teen years and when she auditioned for a community theater production of Dracula Baby and won the coveted role of “Sweet Lucy,” the validation propelled her pursuit of more roles, beyond high school and into college.


She graduated from Wayne State University in 1985 after giving birth to her first of four children. She went on to play Nanny Yoakum in Lil Abner, Minnie Fay in Auntie May and was part of Black Theater Touring Company. She’s the recipient of an Illustrator Award for Atlanta’s Women Shelter Publication as well as a Free Press Poetry Award and she received the Detroit Ambassador Honorary Key to the City too!


Her journey from Detroit to Asheville with detours in New York and Atlanta has encompassed trials, joys, tribulation, birth, death, grief, forgiveness, redemption, recovery and perseverance. She was in Jubilee’s World Beat Band from 2001 to 2006 and joined a trio with guitarist David Earl Tomlinson and percussionist Imohep (Sirius.B) where the trio played Mo Daddy’s, Bobo Gallery, Stella Blue and art galleries in the River Arts District during River Walk. She recorded a CD with the help of Danny Ellis and Common Ground Collective, called Chanting Beyond the Veil which includes percussive chants and original folk and folk rock tunes. She’s also done some recording with Jimmy Rapidity (aka Jimmy Hoops.)


On September 22nd, 2011, Kuumba suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery and spent six or seven months mending. I asked if she experienced any music-related epiphanies or revelations during the healing time and she said: “I felt the urge to do my best to express myself through music and art even more than what I had been doing. I had gotten myself into stressful situations that I didn’t have the good sense to get out of. I remember now who I am.”


Alisa Kuumba Zuwena is a performing artist who has appeared in operas, plays and musicals; she’s an intuitive counselor with more than 20 years experience;  a visual artist whose work can be found on posters and greeting cards, a professional jazz and folk singer who performs at festivals, clubs and fundraising events.  She is a mother to one daughter, Amina, and three sons, Bruce, Kayin and Kalonji.
She will be performing on Tuesday, Oct 2nd for the “Singer of the 70’s Benefit Concert and Fashion show for Planned Parenthood” that features the music of Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. The fundraiser takes place at Jubilee! Church. Doors open at 6:15pm and show is at 7pm. Alisa will perform four songs and so will the other featured area singers who include Laura Blackley, Caro Mia Tiller, Kelliin Watson and Peggy Ratusz. Backing band includes Zack Page, Beth Heinberg, Al Schlimm, Nancy Asch and Aaron Price.


On Friday, Oct 19th, she’ll be taking to The Barn Stage at Lake Eden Arts Festival starting at 12:15pm.
Alisa Kuumba Zuwena may be the most sought after World Beat musician and World Dance instructor that some of you may have never heard of. If you don’t know who she is, I encourage you to go see her at Planned Parenthood and catch her set at LEAF later this month. She’s rhythm and rhyme. Her voice is deep like your innermost desires, rich like hot fudge over vanilla bean ice cream and sweet like a peach on a hot summer afternoon.


Peggy Ratusz is a singer songwriter, mentor and vocal coach.;

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker