Mary Brennan finds traditional values at the heart of an exciting dance project

FOR most of the year, Margaret Busby lives in London. But last September found her standing on a beach in Ghana, taking part in ancient ceremonials that countless family ancestors had gone through before her. In that moment, as she became honoured as a warrior chief, she experienced tradition as a living force, a force that was as meaningful and relevant to her - a modern woman, displaced to another culture - as it had been to her forebears. Little wonder then, that she has such an astute enthusiasm for Sankofa, the new production from Adzido, the Pan African Dance Ensemble, which opens at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre tomorrow night.

Sankofa has, at its heart, a reminder and a rallying cry: it echoes the African proverb that says ''traditions of the past, inspire the future'', and it does this by evoking the Ashanti image of a bird (Sankofa) that flies with its head turned backwards - so as to retrieve any feathers it has shed as it journeys ever onward.

''Really it's saying we should keep the best from the traditional past and carry that on, into one's everyday life,'' says Margaret, who shaped the text and poetry that gives spoken context to the different dances in Sankofa.

It was a role she was well-equipped to handle, not just because she maintains strong connections with her native Ghana, but because of her groundbreaking work in the furtherance and recognition of African writing. She was a co-founder of the publishing house Allison and Busby (where she was Editorial Director from 1967-87), subsequently edited a fascinating and far-reaching anthology of writings by women of African descent, Daughters of Africa, and is now - among all her other projects - researching a book about her own complicated family tree.

It could well be that her surname - Busby - is an indicator of a far-back, near-Glasgow connection. ''I suspect that's where some of my ancestors came from,'' she says, chuckling at the possibility of Scottish relatives being part of her cultural heritage. ''I was born in Ghana, so was my mother and my mother's mother - but Busby's my father's name, and he was from the Caribbean. He then went to Ghana in the twenties - and here I am, confusing everybody with my name!'' Which, like her accent, doesn't sound African. But there you have another reason why this Adzido production is important to her. Because she has lived and worked in London for several years, Margaret has a shrewd understanding of how odd and unsettling it can feel when one culture rubs up against another - and of how, almost inevitably, you end up adjusting to whichever life you're in. And when in London, it's hard to keep

alive the practice and spirit of African mores. She explains that, in Sankofa, some of the poetry she used wasn't so much ''formal'' poetry but text drawn from the rhythms of everyday life - including the way people greet each other, or go about their business.

''You know, in Ghana - probably all over Africa - you don't meet somebody and just launch off into whatever you want to say or do. You enquire how they are, how their parents are - it's to do with a kind of civilisation that is taken for granted, if you like. Yes, it is manners - and done in a way which doesn't necessarily happen over here. Each time I come back from Ghana, I find I have to get back into London mode. I come back and I'm still doing all the things that are normal there - I smile at people, say 'Good morning', talk to them. In London they think you're mad. They cross the road to avoid you. You have to relearn the rituals of being in London: avoid eye contact, don't touch anybody . . .''

In Africa, where you don't have all the things you take for granted in Europe - and that can mean no electricity, or running water on tap - you find you tune into a different quality of life. You're not in such a man-made environment, and that teaches different values. Traditional values. Spiritual values. Patience. And recycling - yes, a bit like the Sankofa feathers! You don't throw things away if someone can find them useful - now I know why I'm such a hoarder! But it's because I've seen what can be made when I take the suitcases-full back to Ghana. And nobody's saying one way is better than the other, that tradition is everything. It's not a question of dispensing with one or the other, denying the modern world and technology. It's about things evolving. Tradition itself evolves from somewhere. You use what's there, you incorporate it, and, as you move on, different things become available.

Traditions are really living archives, not pieces of dead culture.''

That the two can co-exist is illustrated by her experiences last September. ''There I was on the beach for a purification ceremony - all part of something that had happened to my grandmother, and her ancestors, and was now happening to me - and there I was, talking to my cousin. Long distance, on her mobile phone. Bonfires, ceremonial swords on the shore, and mobile phones. Tradition and the future as part of the same life. And those are very much the themes of Sankofa. The words are all African - but not necessarily form the same source, or from the same era - because I wanted to blend traditional and contemporary together. To mirror the themes covered by the dances - themes of gender, rites of passage, ageing, the generation gap, moving to the city - and make people aware of how the past can inform the present and the future. Because when I stood on that beach, I felt part of tradition:

I might live in Stoke Newington, but this was my heritage, and it was a vital part of who I am.''

n Sankofa is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre tomorrow night and Saturday at 7.30pm.