by Muisi-kongo Malonga
The Baobab is an ancient African tree that symbolizes power, longevity, strength and grace. It can live more than 1,000 years, carrying within it infinite wisdom and sacred medicine. Also called the “tree of life,” it is not uncommon to refer to a revered wisdom keeper as a Baobab.
On Oct. 9, 2021, a most beloved and majestic Baobab, Dr. Zakarya Sao Diouf, transitioned from this life, leaving an indelible mark on the Bay Area arts community and a vast legacy of cultural excellence whose impact is felt throughout the world.
Dr. Zakarya Sao Diouf was born on Feb. 12, 1938, to Nene Diop and Ousseynou Diouf in Kaolack, Senegal. His most cherished childhood memories were in Medina, Dakar, where he was raised. As a little boy, he would use his mom’s pots and pans to make music, until she tired of all the wear and tear and bought him some bongos. From the beginning, music was a part of him.
As a teenager and young adult in Medina, he was known as one of the best dancers, and soon joined The Mali Ensemble, a multinational music and dance company representing West African unity amongst the countries of Mali, Senegal and Guinea.
It was The Mali Ensemble that launched Dr. Diouf’s career as a dancer, artistic director, master drummer, choreographer, leading world artist and educator. He went on to have a distinguished career in Senegal as the artistic director of L’Ensemble du Mali in 1963 and the National Ballet of Senegal from 1964-68.
In 1966, at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dr. Zakarya Diouf met Ms. Katherine Dunham, a famous African American dancer and pioneering anthropologist known for creating “Dunham Technique.” Following their meeting, Ms. Dunham invited Dr. Diouf to share his artistry as part of her performing arts institute in East St. Louis. Three years after their initial meeting, he honored the invitation and began his journey of artistic excellence and cultural preservation on American soil.
Papa Zak not only nurtured greatness in his own life, but also in the lives of others.
Papa Zak, as he was known by legions of students, continued to distinguish himself with excellence over the span of his 55-year journey in the United States. An accomplished scholar, he earned a master’s degree in public administration at Roosevelt University and a doctorate in ethnomusicology at UC Berkeley.
A gifted composer and recording artist, he collaborated with the likes of Quincy Jones, Bill Withers, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and The HeadHunters, Mor Thiam, Noel Pointer, Bill Summers, Dianne Reeves and many more. He also made notable contributions to the Emmy Award-winning musical score to part one of Alex Haley’s “Roots.”
Papa Zak spent his lifetime cultivating greatness. He not only nurtured greatness in his own life, but also in the lives of others. This is best seen in his work as founder and artistic director of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, where alongside his wife and Co-Director Mama Naomi Johnson-Diouf, he shared the healing power of African culture and trained several generations of youth and adults in West African music and dance traditions.
Dr. Zakarya Diouf received many honors over the years for his work as a visionary artist and culture bearer, including but not limited to the 2005 San Francisco Foundation’s Community Leadership Award; The 2013 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival’s Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award; and, in 2020, the nation’s highest award, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) National Heritage Fellowship.
Dr. Diouf will be eternally missed, but forever celebrated for his pioneering works in the arts and for the many lives that were healed, inspired and transformed through the rich cultural inheritance he shared.
Dr. Zakarya Sao Diouf is survived by his beloved wife, Mama Naomi Johnson-Diouf; his children, Ousmane, Adjie, Esailama, Sakeenah, Madiou, Ibrahima and Kine; nine grandchildren and a host of other relatives in the US and Senegal. Papa Zak will be loved and remembered by his family, members of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company, the Oakland and Bay Area arts community and hundreds of thousands of students worldwide.
A memorial celebration for Dr. Zakarya Diouf is planned for early December 2021.
For updates or to contribute to a memorial fund in honor of Dr. “Papa” Zakarya Diouf, please visit https://diamano-coura-west-african-dance-company.square.site.