14th-century celebration of freedom comes to life in new East Bay show

Every year, the Anlo-Ewe people of coastal Ghana reenact the foundational story of their exodus, a flight from servitude to freedom.

Known as Hogbetsotso, the ritual recounts via music and dance how their ancestors in the 14th century fled the walled city of Notsie (in present day Togo) and made their way west to the Volta region.

“It’s a story you grow up with,” said CK Ladzekpo, the Ghanaian choreographer, percussionist, composer and longtime director of UC Berkeley’s African music program.

Hailing from an illustrious family of artists and cultural practitioners, Ladzekpo also been a creative force at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, which is where he’s premiering “Hogbetsotso — Day of Crossing Over,” June 10 and 11. Distilling the Anlo-Ewe rituals he absorbed as a youth, the production was made possible due to a Hewlett 50 Arts Commission in Folk and Traditional Arts.

Thinking back on the elaborate celebration, Ladzekpo has come to see that the primary message passed from generation to generation is “the importance of unity.”

“Every year they celebrate Hogbetsotso and go through all the rituals and learn the activities that held them together,” he says. “Unity of the tribe was one of the reasons they were successful in escaping the tyranny of Notsie.”

In many ways the EBCPA production is also a celebration of the community that Ladzekpo has nurtured over the past half-century. He moved to the East Bay to teach at Cal in 1973, fleeing a repressive military government. Interest in African culture was cresting in the Bay Area at the time, particularly within the Black community, and along with Zakarya “Zak” Diouf from Senegal and Malonga Casquelourd from Congo-Brazzaville, he played a central role in turning Oakland into a hotbed of African music and dance (creative manifestations inextricably linked in their three particular cultures).

“Hogbetsotso — Day of Crossing Over” includes several musicians who joined Ladzekpo’s ensemble in the mid-‘70s. “Even though their knees are creaky,” he said with a laugh, “it’s important that they’re there. It’s my 50th year celebration here in America, and they were part of that journey.”

The generational span on stage includes his wife, who started dancing in his company in 1974, and their daughters and grandchildren. There are students of Ladzekpo’s who have just graduated from Cal and former students who have gone on to teach at other universities.

“Hogbetsotso” also embodies the community that’s taken shape at the Center for Performing Arts, which was founded in Richmond in 1968 in response to the assassination of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Offering tuition-free classes, the organization has been profoundly shaped by Ladzekpo, said pianist Ruthie Dineen, the center’s executive director.

The timing of the production comes at a particularly resonant moment for the organization, “providing an opportunity to celebrate joy coming out of COVID,” she said, noting that the performers “are pretty much alumni, as well as staff and faculty he’s mentored.”

“CK is telling a story about Ghana and the story of a community,” she said, “and the production reflects how we live and work together. I learn from him constantly, how he sets up a story and remembers what’s critically important, how culture and tradition are maintained in his work, while allowing space for innovation.”

“Hogbetsotso” opens with a procession drawn directly from the Anlo-Ewe ritual reenacting the flight west to freedom. “The first half I tried to be an Ewe in a village, to keep tradition as much as I can, remembering songs, dances, drumming that serve as a process of reunification.” Ladzekpo said. “Audience participation is very important.”

Rather than trying to simply transport the celebration from Ghana to Richmond, Ladzekpo uses the second half of the production to step back and examine it through stagecraft. “If you bring another tradition into the theater, the theater has its own tradition,” he said.

He also noted the similarity of Hogbetsotso to the Biblical narrative of the flight of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, a story recounted at the Jewish holiday of Passover (with less music and dancing). Many seders mention the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who refused to carry out an order by the pharaoh to kill Israelite newborns.

Hogbetsotso also notes the crucial role of women in the exodus, as they weakened the city walls by pouring washing water on the same spot, which allowed the Anlo-Ewe to break through.

Part of the ritual observance today involves community clean up in Anlo-Ewe villages, “collectively carrying the garbage and dumping it,” Ladzekpo said. “If you have some problems with somebody you’re supposed to clean it up, too,” a practice that crosses over well to just about every culture.

Contact Andrew Gilbert at


Created by CK Ladzekpo

When: 7 p.m. June 10, 3:30 p.m. June 11

Where: East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, 339 11th St., Richmond

Tickets: $10; 510-234-5624,

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁

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