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An assortment of cultural art, music and history will be taking over the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as they present their annual African World Festival August 14-16. The festival, going into its 33rd year, is Detroit's largest ethnic celebration, attracting over 150,000 visitors on an annual basis.

In addition to family activities, diverse vendors, and fashion expos, the festival is also known for its eclectic performances by local, national and international artists and entertainers.

Soweto Street Beat is one of the many international performers who have graced the festival stage for over 10 years. Soweto Street Beat is a South African dance theater company based in Atlanta that presents musical and dance performances at venues all over the world. The company was founded in 1989 by Peter Ngcobo to help underprivileged youth in Soweto. Ngcobo recruited the kids to become a part of his company and provided them with educational opportunities that included the arts.

"Soweto is the biggest township in South Africa, and most of the people I took for the company were dropouts in school, came from gangs, and stole," says Ngcobo. "Most of them would go to community centers to dance, sing, and play around, anything to keep them out of trouble. I started this company to help kids so they could incorporate their culture into dance and music."

In 1992, the company relocated from Soweto to Atlanta, and for the past 23 years, they have remained the only professional South African dance company in the United States. The company prides itself on providing authentic African dances that focus on the history of the Zulu Nation, and their unique dance and music styles stem from South African ethnic groups such as Zulu, Swazi, Venda, Shangaan, Bushmen, Sotho, and Xhosa.

Ngcobo's wife, Isabelle Doll, who serves as the artistic director, choreographer, and co-owner of Soweto Street Beat, teaches the students the authentic South African dances. In addition to her position with the dance company, Isabelle is a world-renowned choreographer and artistic director who has worked for many international events such as Miss America USA, Miss World Pageant, Mardi Gras and with various artists including Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Toni Braxton, Gladys Knight, and Usher.

The Soweto Street Beat also has an impressive list of performances under its belt. When Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park opened in 1998, the company was given a six-year contract to perform there, as well as with their production of The Lion King.

Another major achievement for the Soweto Street Beat came in 1996 when they were invited by former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson to perform at the Olympic Arts Festival during the 1996 Summer Olympics.

They have also performed for Nelson Mandela and South African social rights activist and former Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu.

Soweto Street Beat's success, however, extends far beyond international events as they provide educational programming and continuously promote and educate all ethnicities about the rich diversity of South African culture.

"Our goal is to educate and at the same time to heal other people as well as promote Africa as a whole," says Ngcobo.

In addition to the dance productions that the company puts on, they also have a Drum Kingdom Program where they facilitate workshops for adults and children and the staff teaches them how to play the drums.

Ngcobo says one year during the African World Festival, he brought over 200 drums to the festival and encouraged the audience to perform with the musicians.

During this year's African World Festival, Ngcobo promises that there will be tons of high energy and excitement during the show, as it always is when the Soweto Street Beat is performing. They take the stage Friday night at 9pm, kicking off a weekend of performances that include The Clark Sisters and Julian Marley.

For the full schedule of events for The African World Festival, click here

By Veronica Grandison 

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