Mothers. Wives. Activists. Badasses. That’s Be’la Dona, a nine-piece outfit from the birthplace of go-go, a regional style that’s an offshoot of funk recognizable by its distinctive syncopated beat, to the next level.
Percussionist Shannon “Sha’non” Browne started the group in 2007 with fellow Duke Ellington School of the Arts alumna Cherie “Sweet Cherie” Mitchell-Agurs, who also played in go-go legend Chuck Brown’s band.
She explains that about 11 years ago, the two flew down to Atlanta to do a gig with singer Miriam Wright and didn’t want to stop there. It couldn’t happen right away because of Mitchell-Agurs’ touring schedule with other bands, including Nile Rodgers and Chic. Eventually, they got some women together to play local gigs. “We didn’t think it would blow up, but 10 years later, here we are,” she says.
The outfit has been named best go-go group by the Washington Area Music Association three times in the last seven years and played with people as varied as Erykah Badu, and old school rap artists Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh, and Biz Markie, bringing a little bit funk, a smidge of soul and a few bars here and there.
Above the beats, Mitchell-Agurs says the key ingredient of go-go is the role of the talker, the person who leads the call-and-response with the audience.
“It’s highly interactive with the crowd. When you get that shout out from the stage, it just makes you feel appreciated and noticed,” she says. “It’s a big deal.”
It’s just one of many reasons that go-go is first and foremost a live thing. “We can talk for days about this,” she says with a laugh. “Just like hip-hop and jazz, you have regional styles. This is our music genre.”
So far, the thing Be’la Dona is most proud of is the Black Girls Rock tour with Beverly Bond, a platform that celebrates black women through arts and activism.
“It’s important for African-American females — and all females really — getting together to make music and to make things happen politically, spiritually and musically,” says Mitchell-Agurs. “We were overjoyed to do that tour. Our name was on the marquee. That was dope.”
The band hopes each performance inspires the next generation of female performers.
“Don’t undermine yourself. Don’t hold back,” she says. It was hard for her to learn as someone who backed so many headliners over the years, but she’s moved on up to the front of the stage these days.
“Stay low and keep my job was how I felt for a long time,” she says. “But you have to shine. If someone has a problem with that — that’s their problem. As women, we’re built for this.”
Be’la Dona performs on Saturday, Oct. 14, from 5:45 to 6:30 p.m. on the Community Foundation Stage and from 8:45 to 9:30 p.m. at Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion.