Friday 4th May 2018
Anatomy Lecture Theatre (day) and Great Hall (evening)
King’s College London, Strand Campus, WC2R 2LS
Five years of Modern Moves draw to a close. Celebrate with us as we share our research achievements and conclusions during a full day of exciting presentations, spectacular performances, and convivial partying as we close the years off in our as per usual fabulous style! We begin with a day of presentations on our research journeys over the years:
PART I: THE RESEARCH JOURNEY
Anatomy Lecture Theatre, 1000- 1700 hrs
Ananya Kabir: Memory | respondent: Ato Quayson
Elina Djebbari: Circulations | respondent: Helene Neveu Kringelbach
Leyneuf Tines: Temporalities | respondent: Leah Gordon
Ines Guarda-Francesca Negro-Monica Esteves Reis: Syncresis | respondent: Ann David
madison moore: Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric (Yale University Press: respondents: Thomas F. DeFrantz and Tavia Nyong’o
Book your tickets for PART I are here!
PART II: VESPERTINAL
Great Hall, 1800- 2200 hrs
Mesa longa: Ananya Kabir, Gladys Francis, Marissa Moorman, Catherine Servan Schreiber
Performances by Magna Gopal (‘Defiance’) and Francesca Negro (‘O Mando Reconstruido’); Zil’oKa and Yurupari Grupo Folklorico of London
Transoceanic canapes and cr
DJ sets by Willy the Viper (Paris) and John Armstrong (London)
Modern Moves postdoctoral research associate madison moore’s first book Fabulous: The Rise of the Beautiful Eccentric will be published in the US this April and in June in the UK by Yale University Press. In a riveting synthesis of autobiography, cultural analysis, and ethnography, moore positions fabulousness as a form of cultural criticism that allows those who perform it to operate in a world where they are not supposed to exist. Fabulousness isn’t simply about looking great and feeling gorgeous — it is about style as a political intervention, an escape hatch from the here and now to another dimension.
On October 24th 2017, half of the Modern Moves team travelled to the U.S. for a month long research trip through the sounds, textures and aesthetics of black street dance cultures and its environs. We set out with an eye towards J-Setting, hip-hop, queerness and other urban styles. With stops in New York, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, Los Angeles and Atlanta in that order, and combining traditional archival research with observation and interviews, the goal of the trip is to think through ways black street dances, fashions and aesthetics emerge and circulate – while tasting all the local foods in the process. In what ways are black creativity, ingenuity and imagination linked to questions of duress? How has black innovation been co-opted by capitalist-imperialist structures, and in what ways can black genius be experienced and conceived beyond harmful colonialist stereotypes that have always had the goal of naturalizing differences between the races?
The first stop on the trip was a pump through New York City and several important archives centered on questions of blacknesss. At the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, we delved through the Hip Hop archive of Steven Hager, an important New York impresario, writer, and cultural critic who is largely credited with “introducing” hip-hop cultures, dances and styles to a broad, mainstream audience. In 1984 Hager developed Beat Street, a Harry Belafonte-produced film that offered one of the first inside looks at the culture of hip-hop. Perhaps one of the most interesting if problematic aspects of his collection at the Schomburg was the way in which he is framed (or, actually, frames himself) as the expert on hip-hop. As one of the first hip-hop journalists, Hager is said to have brought conversations about hip-hop and break-dancing to the mainstream. But white folks are so often credited with “discovering” black creative cultures – straight up Columbusing.
The Steven Hager Hip-Hop Archive at the Schomburg Center contains intricate details of the publication of Hager’s seminal Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Break-Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (1984), and the records show notes, comments, and ephemera connected to the why and rise of hip-hop culture. As Hager describes in his book proposal, at the time hop-hop was “a movement that started in the working class and was so dynamic and vital, it pushed it’s way across the country and around the world.” Reading this I was surprised and annoyed, as if working class folks don’t already carry the burden of creative innovation and imagination in global popular culture, and as if working class folks are so hemmed in and imprisoned by capitalist structures that they can’t bare to be creative or imagine other ways of being in the world. Indeed, one of the central theories that grounds our research excursion is Black Marxism, a concept spearheaded by Cedric Robinson in a book of the same title and further developed by critics like Greg Tate, Robin D.G. Kelley and Daphne Brooks – a set of theories that recognizes black political struggle at the same time it creates space for black innovation and imagination.
As interesting as the Steven Hager archive was, particularly with regards to the juicy publication details of Hip-Hop – the proposed advance of $30,000-$80,000 in the mid 1980s…just how much of that went back into the community? – we found the commercial aspect of his interest in the spread of hip hop somewhat unsettling. A good deal of the archive had to do with sales figures and marketing – how popular hip-hop culture was in New York, how far it had spread internationally, and the fact that Harry Belafonte was involved with Break Beat. So what? Can’t black cultures survive on their own, without white discovery/celebrity narratives?
A far more interesting archive was the Michael Holman Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Library’s first hip-hop archive. Holmam, an important figure in the hip-hop, break dancing and downtown music scenes, wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film Basquiat and was a member of the experimental noise band Gray, co-created by Basquiat. The Holman archive is massive and there wasn’t enough time to scroll through every item, but I can say with confidence that my favorite thing from the collection was the “How to Break Dance” view finder. In the 1908s the view finder was a visually immersive device that, before iPhones and Facebook, allowed you to scroll through a cultural scene and really imagine yourself there. You placed the view finder over your eyes – like binoculars – and you inserted a thematic circular “disk” anchored by a wheel of tiny photos enlarged only by the view finder. Scroll through and the action appears to happen before your eyes, right then and there. The archivist was extremely strict that I could in no way, at all, whatsoever open the package of “disks” in order to pop them into the view finder, so I had to imagine the scenario. “How to Break Dance,” the package of disks reads, and as I looked at the pictures I imagined what the moves and choreography would be.
One thing I bookmarked for future research was Holman’s band Gray, an experimental industrial/noise/sound/punk band that straddled the boundaries between the art world and the music world, traipsing between sound, art, visuals, aesthetics and the sensorial. I am always interested in lost histories of black music, particularly with regard to punk, techno, goth, and noise, and there was a great deal of material related to Gray’s staging, performances, cueing, and track-listing that I would be keen to dive through and engage with as part of a separate project. But for now, it was delicious to go through these archives and to know this material exists.
No research trip on dance and nightlife would be complete without a pump to the club, so we ventured to Brooklyn to a warehouse party and danced until nearly 7am. In the process we thought a lot about music, soundscapes, sound, space and blackness – or lack of blackness. What does it mean, for instance, for DJs to perform black/queer music to a sea of white bodies, particularly in a Trump-led America? How do white bodies connect to the ghosts of black creativity on the dance floor? It’s no secret: part of my personal interest in this topic is to take electronic musics back from white audiences, to re-center black and brown bodies in the process. Reclaim the BPM.
From New York our travels led us to New Orleans, Louisiana where we found a Second Line and dropped into the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Leyneuf made her way to the Amistad Research Center by way of the New Orleans street car, which was quite a ride in the sense that the areas through which the street car went were of course former plantation owner houses and had a grand but morbid presence to their architecture, an incredibly haunted presence. At Amistad, she tried to find specific work on second line. What she did stumble upon was the Second Line Journal which however was more about jazz manifestation in New Orleans throughout the 50s and 60s as opposed to the second line dance form. She moved on in terms of hip hop research and found fabulous hip hop comic books documenting the history of hip hop in a sci-fi type of aesthetic called Hip Hop Family Tree – Fantagraphics Comics on the History of Hip Hop Vol 1-3. Of course, on her way back to the French Quarter from the the university, she went to the Chilli Museum where she must have tried 50 different chilli sauces, bottles marketed from goth to vodou to creole aesthetics. Of course it wasn’t the only time she went – she had to go back.
Continuing our travels through the deep south, we trained-it to Jackson, Mississippi – by all means the highlight of the trip — where we attended the homecoming festivities of Jackson State University, an historically black college. We went to the football game, waited for a Step Show, saw the homecoming parade and ate some good old Mississippi bar-be-que. Jackson was the highlight of the trip because it was cold hard evidence of black joy, ingenuity and creativity — it was a celebration of blackness.
In Los Angeles, we primarily visited the Cheryl Keyes archive at UCLA where we listened through her interviews with early hip hop pioneers — everybody from Russell Simmons to Queen Latifah. Afterwards we decided to have a walk along Sunset Blvd, of course, and get a taste of the feels on the way checking out the bookstore Booksoup, stopping for mexican at Pinches Tacos on Sunset blvd and speculating on the overall aesthetics of LA architecture. Following that we went to the fabulous Underground Museum, launched by Noah Davis, Kahlil Joseph’s recent brother’s community project curated by Joseph and his wife Onye Anyanwu, both of whom worked on Beyonce’s Lemonade. The exhibition: Artists of Color, was a phenomenal immersion in experience through color and the senses and had an immense despite quiet insertion into the skin of experience. We spent significant time in the bookstore after the exhibition, had a chat with the museum staff and became enthralled with their literary collection. Of course, they seem to host the most phenomenal and upcoming black thinkers and artists whilst the museum itself having a seemingly different performative aspect to it’s integration in the predominantly black and latino community of the neighborhood. When we spoke to the museum staff, they articulated that the whole point of the Underground Museum was to bring high quality art to disadvantaged communities.
For the last leg of the trip, we headed to Atlanta specifically to find out about Freaknik, a black spring break party that was the pinnacle of black expression in the 80s and 90s but which was vigorously shut down and policed by the City, who felt it conveyed the wrong image of a city that was about to host the 1996 Olympics.
The central question that framed our trip had to do with how black expressive traditions allow us to think through the tensions, pressures and contingencies of living while black. One term that grounds this work is Lauren McLeod Cramer’s vision of “liquid blackness,” where “liquid blackness” means the excess of codes that constrict the movements of black bodies in space, as well as the possibility of reprogramming the racial order. “Liquid blackness” expresses the aesthetic and political possibilities available when blackness is understood not as a locatable, definitive set of codes but as an expansive force, not only in scholarship but in praxis.
The value of this trip lay in the fruitful conversations we had about aesthetics, blackness, and performance — in the archives, on the street and with taxi drivers. But it was also about the rare opportunities we had to visit archives and areas of the country we would likely have not made it to under other circumstances.
October and November 2017 sees some exciting developments as our research team splits into two in order to conduct simultaneous field trips in the Indian Ocean and the United States. Project director Ananya Kabir and Postdoctoral Research Associate Elina Djebbari will travel for a month through the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Seychelles, and La Reunion, while Postdoctoral Research Associate Madison Moore and PhD student Leyneuf Tines will travel for a month through New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Mississippi, and Atlanta. The overall mission is to fill existing lacuna in the research data as Modern Moves draws to a close, so as to fulfil some important items on our research agenda: meshing the kinetic histories of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean; developing a comparative hemispheric understanding of the ways in which Afro-diasporic social dance styles evolve through the twentieth century across the Americas; and analysing how the couple dance form came to dominate in some parts of the world but not in others.
In the Indian Ocean world, Kabir and Djebbari will search for historical evidence and contemporary manifestations of the European social dance known as the quadrille, which until the advent of closed couple dances such as the waltz, were pretty much the rage across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. The creolised versions of the quadrille they will study include the iconic Indian Ocean genre, the Sega. The trip will include a week in Dakar in order to attend the sparkling intellectual gathering, Les Ateliers de la Pensee, organised by Professor Achille Mbembe and Dr Felwine Sarr. They will also attend the Dakar Kizomba Festival, which will deepen their understanding of the kizomba scene in West Africa.
In the United States, in the meanwhile, Moore and Tines will track the history and practice of ‘processional’ and spectacular dance styles exemplified by J-Setting, but they will also study New Orleans bounce and visit dance studios in LA to understand the ways in which these vernacular street style enter the big and small screens. Focusing on the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their dane troupes in offering safe spaces for the flourishing of vernacular dance forms, they will attend try-outs of the famous Prancing J-Settes, and also participate in the Atlanta street party ‘Freaknik’. Overall they will uncover the legacies of black street dance styles, especially as they connect to questions of queerness, gender, and embodiment.
Both research visits will combine archival research in libraries and special collections with interviews with dancers and choreographers, and the embodied practice of participating in dance workshops and local nightclubs, and of course, the festivals and special events that the visits have been synchronised with. Two very different worlds encompassing the ‘islands, cities, oceans’ that have been at the heart of Modern Moves!
To keep you updated about these exciting field trips unfolding in two different parts of the world, we will publish weekly ‘dispatches’ from east and west on the Modern Moves blog and snippets on our Facebook page. We hop you will enjoy being part of these journeys!
Pushing Boundaries: Resistance, History, Pleasure, Part I&II featuring:
Françoise Verges; Marissa Moorman; Ronald Cummings & Brady Smith in conversation with Modern Moves
Performances by special guest Choreographer Shailesh Bahoran; Powered By ISH Dance Collective en Korzo made possible by Dutch Performing Arts Fund and further performances by Francesca Negro and Emmanuel Ajilore, Carnival Improvisations & Ksenia Parkhatskaya, Jazz Dance solo
On May 25th 2017, Modern Moves as per usual celebrated in style and intellect our 4th birthday with a research showcase and evening celebration. The showcase, entitled Pushing Boundaries: Resistance, History, Pleasure, was a day dedicated to the scholarship and embodiments of and on the dancefloor, to think through historical resistances of the African diaspora and struggles of oppression as much as victories of reclaiming and transforming subjectivity and the body. Throughout the years, our research has consistently been haunted by a number of different aspects that continuously came up, and as such we decided to set up the first part of our showcase with papers and presentations that explored these concepts in the first part of our day entitled Pushing Boundaries: Research Call & Response.
The showcase was vibrant and the presentations around Nightlife/Maronnage, Retour-Allee/Black Atlantic, Creolite/Kreyolite and Alegria/Amplification were stupendously examined from intriguing and novel approaches. In typical Modern Moves fashion, we topped off the day with the second part of our showcase entitled Bodies in Motion Afterparty and celebration at the end with three different performances and our usual DJ set by our MM resident DJ Willy the Viper and dancing at the end. As usual, no one wanted to leave!
We had the honor to have Choreographer Shailesh Bahoran, Dutch of Surinamese decent bring his emotive and capturing dance piece “Blood” performed by himself and ISH Dance Collective en Korzo to the Anatomy Museum that evening. It was an incredibly moving piece which left the entire audience in an emotional silence, and as MM director Ananya Kabir put it herself, summing up a historical past so succinctly it left some in tears.
The evening continued with performances by Ksenia Parkhatskaya dancing a short history of dance throughout the decades in a 10 minute version, and did she master that! Our very own Francesca Negro and Emmanuel Ajilore performed ‘Carnival Improvisations’ bringing an incredible carnival vibe to the evening, and bringing us right into party mode! Of course, our canapes and cocktails were on the menu with our wonderful KCL catering throughout the evening.
The successful and innovative day of conversation and dance, cocktails and conversations opened for new ways to think and dance through pleasure and resistance, fun and research. What a great way to celebrate our 4th birthday and we hope to see you at our next event on September 28th to begin the next academic year!
Pushing Boundaries: Research Call & Response
The European Research Council-funded project Modern Moves (www.modernmoves.org.uk) celebrates the start of its fifth and final year with a full day of research presentations, cutting-edge performances, and social dancing: join us as we showcase and share our research state of art!
We begin the day with a range of discussions and presentations by range of scholar-dancers from the UK, Europe and the USA. Register for the event here!
REMEMBER: BOTH PARTS OF THE SHOWCASE ARE ABSOLUTELY FREE AND OUR GIFT TO THE PUBLIC. If you are a person who loves to move while you think and think while you move, this showcase is for you!
Anatomy Lecture Theatre
10am – 5pm
Madison Moore, King’s College London: Nightlife
Ronald Cummings, Brock University: Marronage
Elina Djebbari, King’s College London: Retour-Aller
Brady Smith, University of Chicago: Black Atlantic
Attendees on the 25th are welcome to use the lunch break to explore the Strand and riverside with their own lunch arrangements. After the showcase, we will close our day with a drinks reception and chance to talk to all the participants. The Modern Moves team looks forward to welcoming you to our special event!
‘…pas de mot pour traduire ce terme; c’est plutôt un ensemble : plein de vie, qui va dans tout les sens, qui nous met la tête à l’envers …. En fait la fête de la Saint Jean c’est déjà une “coquinerie” ou chacun s’éclate et laisse sortir les émotions dans une danse à contre temps, des sauts des cris, des coups de sifflets, des coups de hanches et de bassin, entre tambours endiablés et bateau fou. Voilà un petit aperçu du tableau où s’enracine le terme de “revoltiod”‘
…there is no exact translation; it’s always already a multiciplicity of meanings. Full of life, that courses through all the senses, that turns us upside-down… in fact, the feast of St John is already a roguery where everyone explodes and releases their emotions in a dance against time, the leaps, the cries, the whistles, the bumping of hips and pelvis, between the swinging drums and the crazy boat. There- you have a little glimpse now into the scene within which is rooted the term ‘revoltiod’
Avelina Merkel, Cape Verdean artiste, explaining the phrase ‘Sanjon revoltiod’
“In addition to being mesmerized by the striking landscapes of Cape Verde’s islands and getting a first-hand experience of the rich music dance genres of the archipelago, one of the highlights of the stay has for me been the discovery of a music dance genre I was completely ignorant of so far: Kola sanjon. Associated with the celebrations of Sao Joao (Saint John) on the 24th of June in the islands of Santo Antao, Sao Nicolau and Sao Vicente, it is performed in couple and consists mainly of a step combination leading to the kola, that is the touch of the partners’ bellies. Although I knew a bit about funana, morna, coladeira, batuku, the main music genres associated to Cape Verde to which I listened to and read about beforehand, I do not think I had ever heard or read about Kola sanjon. Or if I came across this name in some of my readings or heard it in a way or another, it seemingly did not leave an imprint, which I obviously find rather intriguing in retrospect.
The first encounter I had with this music dance genre was in the Cape Verde national archives in Praia. In the exhibition space was displayed among other artefacts an envelope adorned with stamps featuring various Cape Verdean dance genres: batuku, contradança, tabanka and kola sanjon. The image featured on the kola sanjon stamp was also repeated on a corner of the envelope. I immediately noticed that the design represented the two dancers, a male and a female, caught in a dance figure that looked like a kind of umbigada (“navel touch”), one of the shared features of the Lusophone dance world, from Angola to Brazil (and also seen in the bele and gwoka dances of the French Antilles). The stamp also showed a drummer in the background. I was very enthusiastic with this “discovery” and I remember telling Ananya about this with excitement when coming back from the archives! She could provide me with further information about it and I was really keen to find out more and more and if possible, seeing it en vivo during our stay.
This “discovery” happened just the day after we attended for the first time a a batuku performance in Santiago’s Cidade Velha, the oldest urbanised colonial city built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. I had been struck by the bare-hand drumming on cloth and call and response singing performed by a group of young women and their trance-like gaze looking at the sky when they were dancing. I do not know how but I felt that something as enigmatic and powerful might lie in and link this two forms together – and indeed they are as I would discover it later on. Maybe because another stamp featured batuku on the envelope, maybe because a long-awaited encounter with batuku that just happened the day before was still resonating in me, maybe because this unexpected “discovery” sounded so promising, but since that moment, the mysterious kola sanjon took place in my imaginary and definitely whetted my research appetite. I was indeed looking for traces of it everywhere, getting for instance excited when I saw a flyer on an old door of a seemingly deserted house in a street of Porto Novo in the island of Santo Antao.
Therefore, I could not be happier when one of the Cape Verdean dance workshops we did as part of the Spirit of Cape Verde Dance and Cultural Holidays organised by Marie Doyen (MD Entertainments) in Mindelo (Sao Vicente island) was dedicated to this dance form. During the class we learned the steps and we were soon able to joyfully bump against each together while feeling the proximity with the batuku rhythm. Some batuku dance moments are indeed intertwined within the kola sanjon performance, definitely linking the two forms together. During a demo at the end of the class, the teachers and another couple performed together, showing us how this couple dance can be accomplished by imbricating two couples with one another, creating playfulness and improvisation within a set of dance patterns. As we were standing in a circle around them, we were suddenly being one by one “kolasanjoned” by other dancers. We could feel the exhilaration pervading the room. Yet this class was only a taster of another experience that arose a couple of days later.
While enjoying the beautiful sunset on Laginha Beach in Mindelo, the crowd was dancing kizomba on the open-air dance space of Caravela. Suddenly the DJ changed the music mood and started to put some songs to which we danced during the preceding Cape Verdean dance workshops: funana, mazurka and then kola sanjon. The crowd immediately responded to the musical injunctions by performing the dance moves accordingly. A palpable feverish climax built up among the dancing bodies. The experience of dancing Kola sanjon with the sunset as a background and the shadow of Monte Cara on one side and Santo Antao looming in the distance on the other, bringing batuku in the middle of the dance, was just breath-taking, in every senses by the way. So much joy, play, exhilaration, so much creative possibilities in improvising steps in-between the regular umbigada figure which you can also play with! This was surely one of my best dance moments I ever had and I am now looking forward to the next opportunity of “kolasanjoning” to feel the powerful magic of the dance yet again.”
Elina Djebbari, reporting on Modern Moves’s first research visit to Cape Verde in October 2016
Kola sanjon pulled Modern Moves back to Cape Verde in June 2017 to experience the full week of Festa sanjon celebrations in Santo Antão island. Sadly, Elina Djebbari could not join this return visit, but Modern Moves research associate Francesca Negro joined Ananya Kabir on a ten day visit to the islands of Sao Vicente and Santo Antão. As in November, the visit was organised by Marie Doyen of Spirit of Cape Verde and MD Entertainments. The intention was to study the Festa sanjon through total immersion in all its events and activities, including, of course, observing and participating in Kola sanjon dancing. In fulfilling this research brief, we were also able to experience first hand how an island celebrates its long history of creolization through reactivating the spirit of carnival- not just during carnival itself, but moments such as the Feast of St John, when, traditionally, sacred and secular revelry are locked in their own dance. This account draws on Ananya Kabir’s field notes during the week.
21st June 2017
We arrived into Sao Vicente airport with Kassav’ band members and Don Kikas on the plane with us. At Cesaria Evora airport there were representatives of local tourist agencies presenting arriving passengers with locally made ‘rozar do Sanjon’ . These ‘rosaries of St John’ are made of coloured streamers (like in Bahia, Brazil), popcorn (also as seen in Bahia!), groundnuts in their shells, and cacao beans, denoting a syncretism between Christianity and labour (of the African descendant population).
As we disembarked from the ferry, we were greeted by a demonstration of the dance associated with the festival, kola sanjon—characterised by strong ‘kolas’ or ‘umbigadas’ (belly buttom bumping in synchronicity with the percussion). As this was one African-derived move in social dances that missionaries universally hated, it’s amazing to see it at the centrepiece of a dance for the feast of St John the Baptist, but then the festival itself is synchronised with the ‘pagan’ rites of the summer solstice, so what’s a few umbigadas between us and the saint?!
In Porto Novo, we were received by Luis Carlos, our guide, who tookus to our accommodation: the simple and lovely Casa de France. Run by a Frenchman who has been in Santo Antão for over ten years and his Capeverdean wife, it opened directly out on an almost deserted beach of black volcanic sand. All food was cooked on the premises by Yann’s wife Iramita, and it was fresh and delicious, mostly just grilled fish and vegetables, with the fish caught locally and sometimes even brought to the door of the dining area and kitchen by fishermen in wetsuits whose boat was anchored minutes from the beach.
The first evening we attended the warming up festivities at the Aldeia Cultural (a faux ‘African’ village constructed for cultural activities) at Porto Novo, Santo Antão. A local band was playing funked up covers of traditional Capeverdean songs and popular Brazilian numbers, their music mixing with the sounds of the sanjon drums – which remind me of the tassa drums of the Caribbean and Mauritius– outside in the street. A pair of bulls worked the trapiche (sugarcane press) in the middle of the enclosure while two men fanned the furnace where rum was being prepared from the juice.
Families with children hung out, enjoying the music, chatting, eating the typical snacks for the feast (Funguim— banana and sweet potato fritters and pasteis do milho (cornflour patties filled with tuna)—and drinking bondaie, or slightly fermented sugarcane juice with ice. We saw stylised representations of the major figures of the festival (see the feature image)—not just dancers engaged in the classic kola moment with bellies touching and arms outstretched, but a drummer and a trickster-like figure of a man merged with a sailboat, whose task it seems to be to weave in and out of dancing couples in the kola sanjon (as we saw in the dance demonstration at the docks).
The whole place was vibrating with festive energy and the agricultural, maritime, Christian, and African elements that went into its mix were strongly palpable. Our Afro-diasporic social dances are at heart, social. Research of such festivals reminds us of the organic world in which they developed and grew before moving out to the dance floor. A very important part of this world are moments of celebration and syncretism where the Christian calendar could allow a pause in the rhythms of labour which were then replaced momentarily by transgressive and joyous dance, music, and play of different kinds drawn from diverse cultural heritages: the creolized carnivalesque lives and thrives in this annual revival.
22nd June 2017
This was the evening of the processions for St John in Porto Novo, Santo Antão. The processions were supposed to start at 8 pm but at 8.30, when we arrived, things were still in a state of preparation. The main street of Porto Novo was cordoned off for about 500 m. People were already lining both sides of the street in anticipation. There were two sets of seating: an ordinary and a VIP option. Behind the seating, a huge banner proclaimed the events of the week, with a special focus on Kassav’ as the star act. A gigantic cut-out of the four figures of Sao Joao—two dancers, one drummer, and the ‘barquinho/ navim’ (the trickster man-boat)— also towered over the seats.
A DJ played a succession of what one could call Sao Joao pop music—contemporary songs using the Sao Joao rhythm (often electronically) and lyrics alluding to the festival– such as Gil Semedo’s ‘Maria Julia’. On the sidewalks, men gambled small change at the numerous tables set up for the local game of banka, while women sold a variety of pasteis and popcorn from makeshift stalls. People were gathering with their families on either side of the street and the air was lively with anticipation. The procession is also a competition, so the MC kept reminding us about the rules and criteria for judging. We were going to see six groups and each had between 15 and 30 minutes to present themselves. They would be judged on their creativity, dance prowess, and the quality of the drumming.
At 9 pm, the prime minister of Cape Verde arrived together with some other dignitaries, and the coast was clear for the first group to process forward. From the village of Ribeira das Patas, they were the prize winners from last year. We pressed forward to see them, cameras at the ready. The sound of the tambores filled the air, mixing with the MC’s commentary. As the group moved to the centre of the processing space, all could see from our vantage points was a veritable forest of green stalks (‘ramas do sanjon’) of sugarcane, festooned with bunches of purple flowers. People were dressed in peasant clothes of yore and dancers old and young moved to the beat of san jon, turning towards and away from each other but always connecting rhythmically on the fourth count through the ‘kola’. Through contrapuntal high pitched whistling, the energy levels rose ever higher.
An old man led the procession in a position reminiscent of the Brazilian carnival’s ‘comissão do frente’. There was also a donkey in the mix. Three ‘barquinhos’—men who ‘wore’ the boats, coloured streamers fluttering from their masts in the shape of sails, wove in and out of the dancing couples. Another character, with a suitcase in one hand and a calabash water bottle in the other, represented, according to our guide Luis, the Capeverdean diaspora. A mise-en-scene facing the VIP enclosure, presented a miniaturised version of a farmer’s homestead, with tools and implements including a sewing machine, hurricane lamp, clay pots for water and other items, and a mattress made of a plastic sack filled with leaves.
The dancers congregated in front of this scenario, showing off their best moves to the VIP guests and judges. As they moved towards us, the drumming became louder, the green stalks loomed larger, the barquinhos veered ever more crazily, and the kolas between the couples became stronger. The whole was hypnotic and heady, and this was only the first group! After they processed out, the DJ took over and played a succession of mixes of old and new ‘sanjon pop’. The rest of the groups presented variations on this theme, with the second, for instance, changing the mise-en-scene to the representation of a miniature church. Each group was also distinguished by the specific way they decorated their ramas, but those of the first group, towering green and puple above the crowd, will always remain vivid in my mind.
After the first three groups had processed, with the DJs playing in the intervals between them, it appeared that adjustments had to be made in the interest of time. Consequently, the remaining groups came on together in a single, glorious mega-procession. I could observe close-up the ways in which dancers both enjoyed the simplicity of the sanjon structure and introduced variants in their movements during the moments before the pairs came together for the kola. The movement repertoire was angular rather than flowing, with the arms held close to the body except for the moment of the kola when they are raised in synchronicity to the belly-bump. The effect is capricious, even child-like, accentuated by the barquinhos weaving in and out of the couples.
As the old cobblestones of Avenida Amilcar Cabral reverberated with drumbeats and kolas, what struck me most was the intensely familiar and family atmosphere of the event. Everybody was out with children, and the parents and even grandparents, were strikingly youthful. While waiting for the groups, adults chatted with each other and children played together, very often kola sanjoning together. Even one and two year olds were dancing with each other: if you could walk, you could kola sanjon, seemed to be the consensus. I saw young mothers dancing with the babies in their laps, or with their toddlers. This deep immersion of the entire population in the rhythm of this festival was the way in which the community ensured the cultural education of children, and passed on dance as a resilient form of cultural memory.
23rd June 2017
This was the day of the pilgrimage of St John/ Sanjon: the annual return, but for one day only, of an icon of the saint from Ribeira das Patas down to Porto Novo, accompanied by revellers, drummers, dancers, and people bearing ramas as their individualised offerings to him. We were dissuaded from starting the procession at Ribeira das Patas, as we had brought with us neither footwear deemed appropriate for a 23 km walk, nor hats to shade us from the sun. Moreover, as we were staying just outside Porto Novo, it would entail a journey to Ribeira das Patas in time for the procession’s 7 am start. Our guide persuaded us that the best thing would be to join the procession mid-way around 2 pm, when the pilgrims would have hit the halfway mark. A taxi took us to the agreed point and we disembarked in the middle of the highway in the glare of the afternoon sun, sporting our Festa sanjon t-shirts and crossed-draped rozars.
It was, however, surprisingly comfortable. The road was elevated, running down to the sea on our right and rising up to mountain slopes on our left. The stark landscape and scanty vegetation enabled a pleasant breeze to blow unimpeded from the seashore to us. Behind and before us were groups walking, beating drums, drinking beer, singing. The main part of the procession, centring on those bearing the saint, were so far behind that we could neither see nor hear them. We fell into step with some groups, others fell behind, yet others passed ahead of us, only to stop to rest in the shade of a welcome tree. We passed several such resting groups, which included cows, donkeys, and goats also enjoying the shade.
Young men flirted with us as they passed us by, serenading us with lyrics of songs. I recognised ‘rainha do Holanda’ by the Santo Antao group Cordas do Sol! Every now and then, a woman stood by the roadside with an icebox full of delicious homemade tamarind flavoured ice-lollies (fresquinha do tamarindo). The only problem with these, as far as I could see, was the environmental pollution the thin plastic sacs caused after the sweet and sour ice crystals were sucked out of a hole you’d tear in the corner with your teeth. There were no bins or any other waste disposal arrangements, and the entire route was littered with wispy bits of plastic from all the fresquinhas consumed en route by people since the morning. Bonded by soundtrack, occasional shade, fresquinhas, and the Sanjon Tshirts and rozars that we were all wearing, we participated in a relaxed and good humoured fellowship of the road.
About a couple of kilometres from town, the people on the road started growing more numerous and we could hear the drums of Sanjon getting louder. The pilgrims were amassing around a small white chapel to the left of the road. Although it was a modern construction, the kapelinha da aga doce (small chapel of the sweet waters) was evidently an established part of the route as the waiting post for the crowd to congregate and eventually catch up with St John. Resourceful women, including Luis’s wife, her mother, and her grandmother, had set up stalls under the shade of trees. On trestle tables were snacks and sweets, rozars were draped from tree branches, and iceboxes contained beer, soft drinks, tetrapak juices, and fresqinhas. Vans hawked bondaie, punch, grogue, and cachupa. Inside, devotees lit candles and prayed. Outside, young people danced to different groups of drummers. Old ladies dressed in their best stood waited, holding upright their beautifully decorated ramas. Children ran around or slept in the arms and laps of elders.
After about an hour of this convivial waiting, one sensed a growing excitement. People started moving to the two sides of the road. Different drumbeats converged in an orchestra of further and nearer sounds. St John was coming closer! We edged to a vantage point, teetering on an incline and craning our necks. People obligingly parted to let us have the best view possible. Soon, we were swept along an immense river of devotees. About 20,000 people fell into step as the procession moved along the highway that became the single cobbled street running through the heart of Porto Novo—the same Avenida Amilcar Cabral that we had lined the previous evening. The drums became hypnotic and people stepped up their energy, but no one pushed or bumped into each other. We were bound up by the singular rhythm, the crowd control of the drums, the accentuation of the whistles. As part of the procession, the dynamics of movement also became clear—a surging forward, then a moment of retrogression and the kola, then forward again.
Maintaining this staggered yet smooth flow, we approached the church in Porto Novo where St John would be installed for the night. People lined the old stone walls that ringed the Church square. Bunting streamed gaily between trees. Stacked ramas filled a corner of the church, flooding it with greenery and colour. Outside there was ice cream, beer, and more conviviality. Sanjon had arrived! During this procession, we heard and understood the meaning of the phrase ‘Sanjon revoltiod’- St John has returned, turned the tables, the world is in revolt, revelry is everywhere, the drums are sending people into ecstasy. That’s the spirit of carnival, and that’s what infuses the celebrations around ‘our Sanjon’.
The party continued during the evening, with the high point of the week : the Sanjon 2017 party at the old Amilcar Cabral stadium, which began at 11 pm and continued till long beyond sunrise the next morning. There were three big acts for this concert: Kassav’, from the French Caribbean, Loony Johnson, representing the Capeverdean diaspora in Rotterdam and their contribution to ‘Ghetto Zouk’, and Ferro Gaita, a neo-traditional Cape Verdean group that plays tabanka, funana, and other local genres in a more or less conservative style.
Three groups, three manifestations of Afro-diasporic rhythmc cultures as processes and products of creolization. The crowd synergy that I experienced during the procession was channelled here into the stadium—another, more ‘modern’ format, but the same flow and controlled yet sychronised movement- that which we are theorising in Modern Moves as ‘alegria’. Loony Johnson drove the young ladies of Cape Verde to distraction (their behaviour was somewhat reminiscent of the height of Beatlemania) and Ferro Gaita kept everyone jumping to the funana beat till the wee hours, but it was the opening act that took our breath away and enacted many of our Modern Moves theories around creolization as a global phenomenon.
What a pleasure and a privilege it was to enjoy Kassav’, the iconic Caribbean group that has performed and generated pan-Africanism through sound and movements, live in Africa! And that too, at a stadium named after Amilcar Cabral! In London two years ago, we had already heard first hand Jocelyne Beroard’s views on creolization as a political agenda and the reasons for Kassav”s incredible popularity in Africa. In Santo Antão, we saw both aspects of that story in action, though this is a story yet to be given its full due by academics of any kind: a band from a small francophone island in the Caribbean who won the hearts of a whole generation of Africans and who continue to resonate with young listeners. What does this say about the Black Atlantic and (post)pan-Africanism?
Kassav’ on stage in Cape Verde was creating a new Creole from the encounter of two creolised cultures and languages through the incredible energy and fabulous stage presence of a band whose members are now in their 60s but still going strong- and an audience of tens of thousands chanting and moving as one. Jocelyne addressed the crowd in French Creole and Jacob in a mixture of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Krioulo. Everybody understood each other. ‘zouk is the only medicine we have’, they sang to close the concert, and the entire audience joined to chant this demotic anthem of postcolonial trauma and its resolution through collective ecstasy of the singing and dancing body.
24th and 25th June 2017
Night had flowed into morning over cachupa and the washing of our tired feet in the ocean’s waves at 7 am before going to bed. ‘Thousands of people are partying continuously since the 20th on this island’, I wrote in my field notes on the morning of the 24th ; ‘Whether processing or dancing or hanging out in the streets, they are in an extended collective trance where lucidity is enhanced by an awareness of community. No one is drunk, no one behaves badly, no one pushes and shoves. It’s impressive.’ The final two days of Festa sanjon were certainly recovery mode after the crescendo of the previous day. We missed the morning mass at the Church after which St John was returned to Ribeira das Patas, but we caught the traditional horse races on the beach in the afternoon, which seemed an excuse for more family style flanerie, sanjon pop blaring from beachside DJ booths, sanjon drums beating, fresquinhas, mangoes, ice creams, and grilled chicken.
There was a ‘smaller’ party, ‘nos sanjon’, in the Recinto de 5 Julio the evening of the 24th, with some equally big names from the world of PALOP music— notably, Cabo Verde’s own Grace Evora, and the Angolan singer of semba and kizomba, Don Kikas, whom we had already spotted on the flight from Lisbon. As we had noted earlier during our first field trip, familiarity with the soundtrack of kizomba does not mean that all Cape Verdeans dance kizomba ; however, they dance. People moved and swayed and came together to kola sanjon, and sung along and clapped.
The Recinta was open to the skies and we could see the stars and the moon and the dark night as we enjoyed the fantastic music in a more intimate atmosphere than the Stadium had allowed the previous night. ‘E sexta-feira’, we sang along with Don Kikas on stage, ‘tem bebedeira, a nossa maneira/ sexta feira, tem muita passada a nossa maneira’ (it’s Friday night, and we’ve got drinking and dancing lined up, in the way we like to do it best)’.
It wasn’t Friday night, but it was a moment, like Friday night, when work ryhthms are suspended and another rhythm takes over. So who was the ‘we’ of ‘nossa maneira’ (our way) ? Capeverdians such as Don Kikas’s audience, Angolans such as himself, or people like us who are, I guess, swept along the wave of a possible world creolisation, who are porous to the rhythms of alternative, afromodern time? Who is the community of revellers that succumb to Sanjon’s call ? Well, lucky that we got to ask Don Kikas himself the next day. Every time Modern Moves are in Cape Verde, we seem to have the opportunity to meet the most wonderful musicians from Angola and Cape Verde. Always magic in the air! On Sunday afternoon, then, when the whole town seemed to be sleeping in, we found Don Kikas at his hotel and conducted an in-depth interview with him about kizomba and semba, cachupa and funge, the iconic dishes of Cape Verde and Angola respectively, as signs of the relationship between these two countries, the politics of language, the importance of partying, and the difference between cultural appropriation and respect. Thank you Sao Joao !
In the evening, on the heels of Sanjon himself, we took the aluguer (communal van) to Ribeira das Patas, to experience joãozinho, (little St John), the traditional goodbye party. We were exhausted but for the inhabitants of Santo Antão, who seemed to have decamped en masse from Porto Novo and other settlements on the island to Ribeira das Patas, the party was only just beginning- it was just midnight ! As the music resounded and the smell of delicous grilled food wafted through the air, courting couples, wide-awake children, families and groups of friends filled the square where the aluguers deposited and picked up passengers. On an island in a volcanic and barren archipelago in the mid-Atlantic, Cape Verde, where the first creolized society anywhere in the world took shape in infelicitous and difficult circumstances, the stage was being set for the return of St John the following year.
And the return, too, of a feeling that our Cape Verdean friends describe to us as ‘out of control, but a good crazy’, ‘the moment when drums and dancers reach a state of total ecstasy’, ‘when the entire world is turned upside down, but in a good way.’
The carnival(esque) always returns. Sanjon revoltiod.
Ananya Kabir thanks Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Marie Doyen, Luis Carlos, and all our Cape Verdean friends and colleagues. And thank you, Avelina Merkel, Dinana Pinto, Ary Machado, and Nelson Barbosa for helping us with the meaning of ‘revoltiod.’
AfriCarrefour: Madagascar/ Cabo Verde:
Africa at the crossroads of oceans and cultures
FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC– like all our events.
With this very special event on the 28th of September 2017, Modern Moves moved closer to its aim of uniting kinetic and musical histories of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. AfriCarrefour, which celebrated the music and dance of two island-cultures from either oceanic side of Africa, Madagascar and Cabo Verde, was the fruit of several long-term collaborations and research interests. Most importantly, it was made possible through combining resources and enthusiasm with Professor Ulrike Meinhof of the University of Southampton and her project, ‘Madagascar in the World’, funded by the AHRC. Professor Meinhof’s work on musicians of Madagascar led to the creation of a film, Songs for Madagascar, by Laterit Productions, Paris. Is is a coincidence that Laterit Productions were led earlier to make a film on the iconic dance form of Cabo Verde, Batuque? (You can see some batuque on our Modern Moves Facebook page here).
Modern Moves was delighted to structure AfriCarrefour around a screening of these two films in the afternoon of the 28th. This was the first screening of these films in the UK. We were additionally thrilled to be able to host the filmmakers, Marie-Clémence and Caesar Paes, at a round table discussion with Professors Ulrike Meinhof and Ananya Kabir, that followed the screening. It was be an excellent opportunity to understand more about the processes, choices, similarities, and differences in filming music and dance from these two sides of the African continent.
Since no event in Modern Moves comes without music and dancing, we followed the round table with a unique concert, featuring the best of Malagasy and Capeverdian musical talent: SEHENO, representing Madagascar, and Dino D’Santiago, representing Cabo Verde. the Modern Moves connection with Dino goes back to our field work in Cape Verde, which was organised by Marie Doyen’s Spirit of Cape Verde, a London-based venture that has now organised two of Modern Moves’s research trips to Cape Verde. We are proud to be able to host Dino at his first appearance in the UK.
These two formidable artistes performed together in London for the first time, and they will have with them veteran musicians Prabhu Edouard (tabla), Illya Amar (vibraphone), and Tuniko Goulart (guitar). Come, listen, and dance to the sounds of the oceans in dialogue!
In between the musicians, we had the pleasure of veteran DJ of the London scene, John Armstrong, with his carefully curated sets bringing the best of African music to us, and cocktails accompanied by a bespoke menu of “transoceanic Canapes”.
A report will follow shortly. Stay tuned!
In the meanwhile, you can enjoy some photos of the event here.
AfriCarrefour, Part I: A Double Bill Film screening
Marie-Clémence and Caesar Paes Laterite Films, Paris Songs for Madagascar
28th September 2017
14:00- 17:30 hrs, K0.20, King’s College London, Strand Campus
AfriCarrefour, Part II: Evening celebrations
28th September 2017
Round table with the film-makers, Ananya Kabir and Ulrike Meinhof
18:30-19:30 hrs, Anatomy Museum
Double bill concert with
Seheno (Madagascar) with Prabhu Edouard on tabla and Illya Amar on vibraphone
Dino d’Santiago (Cabo Verde) with Tuniko Goulart on guitar
DJ sets by John Armstrong,
Transoceanic canapes, cocktails
19:30 -22:30 hrs, Anatomy Museum, King’s College London
This past March/April 2017, I went to Cuba for the third time, following on the research path that I opened there when I joined Modern Moves. The organisation of this research trip was a bit different than the previous ones since I could this time benefit from the precious help of my French colleague anthropologist Kali Argyriadis who lived in Cuba for many years and studied Afro-Cuban dances and religions. Thanks to her insights and her network among the santeros as well as her knowledge of the santeria tourism circuit, I could get a glimpse at these activities. I could even follow a group of American tourists in a ‘brujo tour’ (witchcraft tour) led by historian Elías Aceff Alfonso, one of the main protagonists of the Callejon de Hamel.
I lived this time in the area called Buenavista, discovering then another part of the very extended city of Havana. Rather different than the feeling I previously got in Habana Centro and Vedado, I got interestingly exposed to another pace of the everyday life. Despite this new environment and the need to understand the routes of the maquinas, I quickly took up again my dual research routine that makes every day very long and tiring!
On the one hand, it consists at looking for traces of the cultural exchanges between Cuba and West Africa in the archives and institutions and finding people to talk to about all this as well as other aspects pertaining to the dance research at large. On the other hand, it is about rushing from one ’matiné’ to a ‘noche’ in different parts of the city and looking for different kinds of social dance events as well as their use and representation within tourist hotspots.
In addition to the venues I visited the previous years, I could also discover some new ones thanks to being based in another part of Havana. And this time, I was lucky enough to be finally able to go to the venue called 1830 on the Malecon that holds salsa parties. During my previous stays, the site was closed for refurbishment. The first event I attended there was very interesting, especially for the contrast it offered by comparison with the matiné at Salón Rosado de la Tropical Benny Moré from where I was coming. There, the all dressed up ‘viejitos’ were dancing son to a live band composed of young women that I already saw performing last year.
At 1830, the crowd was much younger and composed of a mix of Cuban and foreign salsa aficionados. Interestingly, the shows offered at 1830 were made by the same group of dancers promoting Rueda de Casino I previously attended at other venues. By recognising faces on the dance floor in the different places I visited, I realised that my frequentation of different music dance venues and my stubborn chase after all kinds of music dance events eventually gave me a picture of who’s who and where. By linking faces to places and events, it outlined an understanding of how different groups of dancers interact in specific places while they also cover different territories in the city.
Therefore I feel that I now got a quite clear idea of the salsa map of Havana. It takes into account the different organisers as well as the different crowds they attract depending on the weekdays and times, the kind of venues and their emplacement in the city. The apprehension of how dance interacts with the urban space and how the study of dance in a given city actually outlines for the researcher a geographic sense of space, flows and circulations, always fascinates me.
I benefited from my localisation in Buenavista to do some research on the legendary Cuban cabaret Tropicana. Opened in 1939, the open air theatre “Paradise under the stars” (“Paraiso bajo las estrellas”) can welcome more than 1000 seated audience members. It survived Castro’s revolution and actually became one of the main sources of foreign currency in Cuba, becoming a kind of temple of capitalism and tourism, where coca cola is poured away and entrance tickets are excessively expensive. The impression of abundance and luxuriance is replicated on stage with the impressive number of dancers and the exuberance of costumes. Music, dance and lights overwhelm the senses while the audience, mostly composed of retired couples on holidays, enjoy their Cuba Libre drinks.
With dancers meandering along the aisles and performing on all sides of the open air stage, dancing bodies fulfil the whole space of the cabaret to offer an almost 2 hour-long show. Entitled Oh Havana!, the show celebrates the different Cuban music dance genres and seeks to showcase the diversity as well as the mixed historical background of the Cuban society. It also emphasises some clichés such as the beauty of the Cuban mulata and what is referred to as “Afro-Cuban eroticism” in the programme note, visible for instance through the display of muscular dancers whose bare skin is hardly covered by leopard print minimalist outfits to evoke the time of slavery. In these acts, the show enacts some essentialist symbols that are constructed through choreographies, music, song lyrics, dancers’ bodies and costumes, and relayed as such to a foreign audience keen to receive them. Attending Tropicana’s show and learning more about the history of this fascinating institution was very telling about the use and representation of dances within touristic settings as well as about a broader political and economical ambivalence.
The contrast between the image of opulence offered by the Tropicana and the quotidian paucity of the working class households leaves this well-known predicament that travellers able to afford the touristic hotspots as well as navigate their way off the mainstream touristic circuits may experience in any other part of the world.
During this stay I could go deeper into research leads I found out previously and also discover some new threads to follow up. While getting exposed to another part of the city, I learnt more about the everyday life, from the use of the ration card to the disarming poetry of the art of the piropo (men’s flirtatious comments).
With proper answers always difficult to get and ever-increasing questions to dig out, each stay in Cuba provides me with a more complicated apprehension of the social context that in turns informs the current music dance landscape as well as its history. Thrilled by my new discoveries and a deeper understanding of the issues at stake, I feel the need to go back there to continue my research maybe more than ever.
Moving Conversation #8 with Alex Wilson & Lucy Durán
Report by Elina Djebbari
On the 2nd March 2017, Modern Moves presented a very special Moving Conversation centered on musical and choreographic transatlantic dialogues featuring renowned Latin Jazz pianist Alex Wilson and ethnomusicologist and music producer Lucy Durán of School of Oriental and African Studies.
To the call of a rhythm from the Pacific coast of Colombia played by percussionist Emeris Solis on the congas, two dancers entered the venue and made their way to the front stage, while Alex Wilson joined on the piano. Swirling her large and flamboyant skirt, Xihomara and her partner performed a cumbia, a traditional Colombian dance. Leaving the room in the froufrou of their costumes, this excerpt gave a taster of the dance show that would follow afterwards.
With some introductory words to the audience, Ananya Kabir presented the guests of our 8th Moving Conversation: pianist Alex Wilson based in Zürich and ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran from SOAS. The latter started by recalling the audience that she studied music at King’s College London and also that the talk to follow would be more like an on-going conversation. Indeed our two guests know each other for a long time, they even worked together in at least two projects. She reminded how Alex’s fluency in Cuban and Latin American music struck her when she first met him.
How did he get exposed to this music she asked him then, therefore inviting Alex to tell the audience a bit about his family’s history and how everything started with music in general. Alex explained that he spent his first year in Freetown, Sierra Leone, then got back to the UK for 9 years before moving to Vienna for about 6 years and then relocated to Geneva. Calling on his memory, he made us listen to an excerpt of ‘Ngombu’ by Sierra Leonese band Super Combo King’s. He presented it as the kind of music he would hear as a child when his house was set up to welcome a party. He also described that his father used to play the piano at home, therefore exposing him to this instrument since his very childhood. Alongside his familiarity with the piano, Alex also played the classical guitar and actually increased this practice for about 6 years at the Vienna’s conservatoire before relocating in Geneva. He explained that his willingness to go more towards jazz as well as the possibility of playing in a band made him decide to switch instrument in order to make this “jump” possible.
Later on, he came back to the UK to study electronic and computer engineering at York University. Thanks to an exchange place at the University of California Santa Barbara, he realised a key encounter with salsa music, mainly Puerto Rican salsa dura that he described “pouring out houses”. One of Alex’s entry point to get into the Latin music scene was Poncho Sanchez, a Mexican musician based in Los Angeles who used to revoice jazz standards into latinised versions. Alex used to transcribe his recordings for his student band.
When he graduated in 1993, he relocated to London and chose to become a professional musician. One of his entry point into the London music scene happened thanks to his ability to transcribe and write music. Orchestration and arrangement became as much part of his musical professional career as playing the piano noticed Lucy. She also recalled how in the 1990s UK the Latin music scene was quite at its beginning. It was therefore not that easy to listen to Latin live music in the UK at that time. Alex gradually got more and more gigs and soon started to perform internationally and travel the world.
In 1997 he went to Sierra Leone where his paternal grandfather was from. Interrogating the sense of self-identity when one has a mixed familial background as well as multiple origins and living locations, the guests debated about such heated issues that are at stake in our globalised world. Acknowledging this trip to some of his family’s roots, he wrote a song called “The Return” with Sierra Leonese artist Gwyn Allen. The song refers to the returnees, that is the second generation Sierra Leonese who settled back in the country. As Alex said, it “has so many meanings on many levels”.
At the beginning of the 2000s, Alex signed a 3-album recordings contract with famous music label Candid Records. After his first album Anglo Cubano, he was sent off to Cuba to record his second album, Afro-Saxon, released in 2001. For his third album entitled R&B Latino he continued his creative exploration of Latin music by mixing Cuban music with R’n’B, something he presented with humour as an encounter between Destiny’s Child and Buena Vista Social Club.
Our guests then spoke about the first project on which they collaborated in 2008-2009. This project featured Malian and Indian singers. That is through this project that Alex encountered for the first time kora music from Mali, which he said “blew him away”. Drawing on this project, he played live for us the song “Remerciez les travailleurs” on the piano, showing how he managed to “invoke the feeling of the kora on the piano”. Paving the way for his next project Mali Latino released in 2010, Alex went to Mali several times to prepare the recording in the UK.
Along Cuban and African music, Alex also mentioned that there are two other musical traditions that greatly influence him. One is the Jamaïcan nyabinghi drumming tradition, the music of the maroons, which for instance infused the music of Jamaican jazz pianist Monty Alexander. The other is the music of Pacific Coast of Columbia which he was introduced to by Emeris Solis. As an illustration of this influence in Alex’ work, he played with Emeris on the congas Currulao Cool, a song that features on Alex’ album Aventuras released in 2005.
Going towards the end of the conversation, Lucy invited Alex to talk a bit about his current projects: one with British-Malawi singer Malia, another with salsa soul singer Nolita Golding that pertains as he said to his “contemporary salsa side”. He also mentioned his production of music for television and his forthcoming concert at the Steinway festival with pianist Eliane Correa in London.
The conversation ended after a few questions and comments from the audience, mainly evoking memories of the local scene with venues such as the Bass Clef or the Jazz Bistrot that have now disappeared but had played a great role in the development of Latin and salsa music in the UK in the 1990s. Lucy had the last word by encouraging Alex to continue his work and produce more albums.
Enriched by many audio-visual illustrations as well as live music playing, our guests enacted very generously the spirit of the Moving Conversation series. While the venue was set up to welcome the other part of the event, old friends reunited and the crowd joyously mingled around mojitos and our Afro-Cuban canapés to the first DJ set offered by John Armstrong.
Then, taking a cue from our guests’ interest in Afro-descendant music and dance from Latin America, Yurupari Grupo Folklorico entered the stage. Under the direction of Xihomara Zentner, the dancers presented a curated dance showcase of Afro-Colombian dances from both Pacific and Atlantic Coasts (details of the repertoire below). From the energetic Contradanza and Jota couple dances to the majestic and emotional Bullenrengue via Abozao and La Mina, the show ended with a cheerful and colourful Danza del Carnaval in homage to famous Baranquilla’s carnival.
After some group photos and another DJ set by John Armstrong, the penultimate Moving Conversation of the year went finally to its end, fulfilling our minds and bodies with food for thoughts, new dance moves and precious memories.
Yurupari’s repertoire at Moving Conversation #8:
Cumbia is the most popular, celebrated and representative rhythm of Colombia. It has its origin in the slavery period of the 17th century. Despite its strong African ancestry, cumbia is also influenced by the native indigenous people, as shown by some of the instruments that are played, especially the flauta de millo and the traditional Colombian gaitas. Performed with the exceptional participation of Alex Wilson and Emeris Solis.
Contradanza and Jota: These two dances are said to be the slaves’ version of their masters’ European dances. Performed in groups, the choreography shifts from group circles to couple motions, it can be said, often mocking the European movements.
Abozao is said to be connected to a womb ritual dance from Africa, because of the importance and emphasis of the hip motions of the dance. This hip pattern is seen in other dances in Colombia and also in Ecuador and Peru within the African communities.
La Mina (Mapale) is an original idea of professor Jacinto Jaramillo, a precursor of Colombian folklore in the 1930s. Danced to the rhythms of Joricamba and Mapale, both from the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia, with a song by Toto la Momposina. It tells the story of a slave rebellion and their fight for freedom.
Bullerengue is a ritual dance performed exclusively by women, sometimes for the initiation of young girls to puberty or to show their fertility, and also for the loss of a child.
La Danza del Carnaval: Barranquilla’s Carnival is the second largest in South America. This dance is typical of these festivities with all the popular songs and movements.
Dancers : Xihomara Zentner, Gloria Mendoza, Carolina Quintero, Yamileth Estrada, Nubia Merchan, Valentina Ross, Sam McCormick, John Fredy Peralta, Martin Montero, Jeray Montero, John Jairo, Hugo Tabares.