All posts by Modern Moves


The Costume Institute of the African Diaspora launches new exhibition, “Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora”

On the evening of the 4th of August, CIAD launched its compelling exhibition “Tartan: Its Journey Through the African Diaspora”. Drawing on the journey of tartan fabric, from Scotland to Zulu and Masaï people, via the creation of Madras cloth in India sold in the Caribbean, this thrilling project goes to the heart of Modern Moves’ interests and the team is looking forward for further collaborative work with CIAD. Catch the exhibition daily at Craft Central from 10am to 6pm until August 31st. “Tartan: The Wrap Event,” including a dance performance along with a documentary screening, will take place at the Victoria and Albert Museum on 12th September 2014. Do not miss it!



Ananya Kabir writes on Afro-Brazilian culture for Brazouka

Brazouka, the scintillating new dance-drama, premiered on the Edinburgh Festival stage on July 31st, thrilling audiences with the best of Brazilian social dance styles from lambada and forro to samba de gafieira. Capoeira, football and Candomble were also in the mix, making Brazouka a great statement of the organic nature of Brazilian kinetic practices and their deep connections with Afro-Brazilian culture. Explaining these connections to audiences was the role of Modern Moves director Ananya Kabir, who was delighted to write the lead essay, ‘Brazil-Africa-Lambazouk’ for the programme notes. It was a great experience to be part of Brazouka’s opening show in Edinburgh. London audiences can enjoy the production during its week-long run (September 16th- 23rd) at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Get your tickets now!



Modern Moves is partnering with Batuke!

From August 22 to 25 the Batuke! Festival is going to set London on fire with Afro-Luso music and dance culture. Modern Moves is proud to be part of the festival. We’re curating Kwenda Lima’s cape verdian dance class and Kaizen workshop and we’re also holding a seminar on Afro-Luso culture in collaboration with the Association of Dance of the African Diaspora. Have a look at the programme there and come join the team on the dancefloor!

batuke pic

The Moving Blog

7 Sexy Dance Songs To Power You Through The Weekend

The thing I love most about going clubbing is the anticipation that comes before actually putting a single pump in the venue itself. What are you going to wear! What music will you blast while you get ready! Clubs are real-time fantasy lands where music, sound and space come together as one. I always think about the booming, rattling sound a club makes, the anticipatory muffled bass you hear on the outside at the door as you make your way inside, I think of this as a clubs’ heartbeat. (Boots and pants and boots and pants and boots and pants. Say it aloud.) It’s the kind of sound that makes you excited about the weekend.

Here are 7 dance songs — or club heartbeats — that are currently preoccupying my brain space. See if you can make it through these songs without getting your groove on. You know what they say — it’s five o’clock somewhere.

1.”I Got Werk,” Moodyman

Moodyman is an American DJ and producer who is keen on retaining an distinctively black sound on techno and house music. “I Got Werk” is one of those tracks that makes you want to jive instantly.

2. “Kymestry,” Damon Bell

Damon Bell is an California-based producer and DJ whose genre-bending sounds draw from a variety of musical genres, from afro-beat to house and soul.

3. “Life Cycle,” Jeff Mills

Jeff Mills is one of the most iconic DJs on the global techno circuit. Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, where techno was invented by three black youths who wanted to create a type of “high-tech soul,” Mills is particularly known for his minimal sound. “Life Cycle” is one of those tracks you imagine blasting at you in an illegal party basement somewhere.

4. “Multiply,” Terrence Dixon

Like Jeff Mills, Terrence Dixon is also known for his minimal techno palette, with sounds focusing primarily on mood and hypnotic, repetitive melody than on beat. I love this track in particular because it reminds me of minimalist composers like Philip Glass.

5. “Distane,” Psyk

When people say that techno is hard to listen to it’s because techno can often sound too repetitive, which to some can make the stuff feel like it has no “groove” in it. Those people would probably point to a track like this one by Psyk, a Spanish DJ and producer, where over the entire six-minute long track nothing really happens. The thing is, sometimes to really enjoy techno you have to pry yourself away from the idea that “something is supposed to happen” and instead focus on the beats and how the beats impact your body.

6. “Mind of Mars,” Rødhåd

I’ve been completely obsessed with this Rødhåd track since I discovered it a few days ago. Anyone who knows me knows I love minor keys. This track is in D# minor, so check. What does it for me is the way the beat feels slow and relentless with melodic arpeggiations on top of the beat.

7. “Do You Wanna Funk?,” Sylvester

I’ve always got Sylvester on my mind, that beautiful black queer diva who produced some of the most iconic disco tracks. “Do You Wanna Funk” is, of course, a play on words, funk being the type of soulful dance music that makes you want to get on your feet. And then there’s that other F-word, which sometimes goes hand-in-hand with dance music.


The Moving Blog

The Sunrise: Yuri de Cunha Concert in Lisbon

The Meo Arena, with a capacity of 20, 000 people, was almost packed last 19th July for the concert of the celebration of the 20 year-long career of Yuri da Cunha. This was an incredible show of three and a half hours, during which he shared the stage with the most important artists that have collaborated with him and have contributed to the development of his artistic identity.

This was a show that did not need to depend on elaborate scenic production: instead, it opened with just two female dancers presenting movements from traditional Angolan dances, to testify since the very beginning the artist’s emphasis on the importance of Angolan popular and traditional roots for his own work.

The Angolan singer made this concert an authentic homage to Luso-African rhythms: the first round of music presented Yuri’s classics and ended with the powerful performance of the Mozambican singer Lizha James, whose “Quem te mandou“ got the audience really excited and made everyone get up and dance.

During the first part, we enjoyed some of Yuri’s best known songs– “Amigo”, “Tá doer” and “Zig Zig”– mixed in a unique harmonious sequence that revealed in a lively and animated manner the incredible qualities of Yuri’s orchestra and his own unbelievable sensibility as singer. In contrast, the second part of the concert was dedicated to calmer and more songs. An unforgettable moment was when guitars and drums fell silent to slide gently into the theme “Viola” dedicated to the memory of the great musician Beto de Almeida (one of the Irmãos Almeida, who disappeared in October 2013), to remember to all those present the important historical and political value that music has in Angola and to commemorate Beto’s important role in the valorization and development of popular national music.

This intense moment reminded us all that music has had its martyrs in Angola, and that the cheerful character of most Angolan music can still, as always did, even in the most dynamic carnival rhythm, accompany the tragedy of history, the fight for freedom as well as the mourning of political deaths.

That wasn’t the only profound moment of the night, and as Yuri stated, the best was yet to come!!! Yuri invited on stage Don Kikas with whom sang the theme “Pura sedução”, a classic, known by almost the whole arena, and then continued alone with two romantic pieces: “Regressa” and “Sanzala”, a theme that flows from a semba structure to a mixed structure of Semba and Samba, and that prepared the public for another rhythmic journey and a new artist, when the diasporic Caboverdian artist Nelson Freitas appeared to sing “Saia Branca”. Finally, the artists sang together two more songs: “Ir mais longe” and a funana that Yuri had composed some years ago as a tribute to Caboverdian music and culture.

What a night! Different generations of star Angolan musicians– Maya Cool, Paulo Flores, C4 Pedro and Big Nelo, The Groove– all participated in this enormous event and gave their best– all of them showing highest quality of musical and stage performance.

Then Os Piluka arrived on stage for the climactic moment, showing the power that makes them the most sought-after kuduro group today.

he concert was almost at the end when Yuri da Cunha decided to pay homage Angola and asked the audience to sing with him the Angolan National Anthem. It was the most touching moment of the night, as Caboverdians, Portuguese nationals, and many foreigners sang together with the enormous Angolan community of Portugal to express their respect and love for Angola and its culture. All singing in unison in a spirit of friendship and familiarity and celebrating the continuous cultural exchange existing between Angola and Portugal.

Anselmo Ralph was the last artist to appear on the stage. He sang “Curtição” e “Única mulher” together with the public, who could accompany every word till the point of singing last song till the end leaving Anselmo listening and admiring the effect of the whole theatre interpreting his song.

The celebration of this 20 years career ended with the hits “Atchutchutcha” e “Kuma Kwa Kie” (which in kimbundo means: The Sunrise) while, appropriately, a new day was almost about to dawn. The last song lasted more then 10 minutes to give all the artists the time to re-enter the stage and to dance all together while Angolan carnival started exploding with the increase of the percussion and speed of the Semba flowing briefly into kazukuta to then go back again to the original version.

The whole Meo Arena was jumping and dancing, all people hugging each other celebrating friendship, just as Yuri had asked. This all couldn’t end, of course, without Sabonete Sabão: a popular song to cleanse energies and kill evil.

The dancers on stage began demonstrating the typical carnival movements, improvising and just following the music. Carnival really appeared in all its spirit and all became movement, and the Angolan community was united, proud, happy… and generously open to those who were there to show their love for Angolan music and dance. When Yuri da Cunha presented on the stage his MTV African music award, won for the Best Collaboration, he raised up the award, saying: “Lisboa, Portugal, Angola, this is not mine! This prize is ours Lusophone people, and it’s here for you”.

Yuri da Cunha, this great musician and amazing performer showed another side of his artistic activity: a commitment to Angola and its traditions as a central point for the development of the future of Angolan musical and cultural identity. With his words “only protecting the past we can build the future” he declared that a great part of Angolan past still needed to be analyzed and re-elaborated and in its roots there are the seeds for a much-awaited, democratic development.

His music is the narration of this journey.


The Moving Blog

Tribute to Cape Verde in Lisbon

From July 16 to 18, Modern Moves team members (Ananya, Madison and Elina) went to Lisbon for a special encounter with Afro-lusophone music and dance cultures.

Unfortunately, Francesca was not there as she was giving dance classes in France (yes, MM team members are often playing musical chairs!), but we met Livia Jiménez, Spanish anthropologist now working at the University of Lisbon as a postdoctoral fellow with a project analysing interethnic relations and ethnic constructions in contexts of social dance (through kizomba and bachata). It is an understatement to say that we had some topics to discuss!

She led us to lunch in a secret place, on the 8th floor of a building near Marques de Pombal. We were excited to discover there the Associação Caboverdeana restaurant where we could enjoy “almoços dançantes” (live music from Cape Verde and people dancing in the middle of lunch) only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

(Video Courtesy of Livia Jimenez)

The taste of the typical Cape Verdian meal cachupa watered with a nice vinho verde, the beautiful voice of Zézé Barbosa singing moving morna songs and energetic funana and coladera pieces on hearing which we could not stay seated, the amazing view of Lisbon from the large windows and the joyful atmosphere in this unexpected dancing place transformed this moment into a special day for Modern Moves.

Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari
Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari

As Ananya explained us that it was in these kinds of places that kizomba was born, among people sharing a certain nostalgia for Afro-luso culture, we were able to feel more deeply the historical power of such hidden venues. Even more, when we learned that this place is not only attended by people from Cape Verde but also by all sorts of Lisbon-dwellers, e. g some mature gentlemen who served the Portuguese empire, including some who had even fought in Angola on the eve of its independence, we could feel how music and dance can be a site for people to reconnect themselves with a part of their personal life histories, and for those histories to become part of a larger story.

Before this unforgettable lunch, our immersion in the Cape Verdian heritage in Lisbon had already started with Kwenda Lima’s show Muloma on the evening of our arrival and oops, we did it again on the second night of our stay.

When we entered the venue, the Malaposta Cultural Centre, all our senses were attracted to the distinctive smell of incense pervading the space, the sound of the rhythms played by a jembé player on a corner of the stage in front of the heavy velvet curtain, the red and white flowers and candles in the foreground of the stage, aesthetically arranged.

Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari

All these items were creating a very special atmosphere even before the beginning of the piece. Indeed, the entire show was going to unfold like a ritual, from the start to the end, from the two little girls dressed in white coming from the back to the stage holding a plate with lit candles to the ultimate scream of one of the dancers, a birth and a death.

The piece, which lasts one hour, is divided in three parts and performed by five female dancers and Kwenda. Apart from their physical movements, the evident work that went into the assemblage of the soundtrack has to be acknowledged as it definitely contributes to create a powerful and moving atmosphere, carrying different kinds of spirituality, from the Middle East to Africa. These different musical ambiances were unified by the dancers’ moves (undulations) and some ever-present sounds like the layers produced by synthesizer, cello or bass and the use of breath throughout.

The quite slow tempo of the music, the natural colours (brown, magenta…) and blurred shapes of the costumes, the lights like dawn and sunset, the feline moves, the whispers and the growls, all was there to suggest the (lack of?) border between human and animal, the primitiveness of sexual instincts and the primal need for spirituality.

The mix between latent eroticism, spirituality and nature of the first part reminded me of the famous Nijinski’s piece L’après-midi d’un faune, with regards to the work on the virility of the male body and to several scenes, when copulation was suggested or when Kwenda was promenading in the middle of the female dancers (the nymphs?) who were on their knees in an attitude of prayer in a sort of pagan ritual. In a striking tableau, Kwenda dances in the foreground with a calabash while another dancer moves slowly across the backdrop. Both almost nude, they suggest —among other things— the emptiness of materialism and the difficulty of dialogue.

The hinge between the two dancing parts is a video screening, which first celebrates nature and mother earth — an ongoing concern of Kwenda’s, but suddenly switches to images of manmade disasters.

In the third part, the video element continues, but screens fragment, mysterious images multiply and the predominant colours change to red and white. reminding us of the orisha Chango. All the candles are now lit, and calabashes and straw brooms are incorporated by the dancers. A single dancer swirled fabric around herself, whirling dervish-like; in the final scene, this use of fabric by all the dancers reminded me in a way of Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine Dance.

This piece is symbolically complex and uses many items from different sources to critique capitalism, consumerism, and ecological neglect. It provoked numerous questions in us, besides also simply moving us. Kwenda Lima, born in Cape Verde, performing in Lisbon for an international audience, offered a syncretized Afro-contemporary dance piece that has its place on a globalized stage. And as Ananya said to him after the show when he asked if we were surprised to see another part of his choreographic work, we were especially very happy to discover a “continuation” and the embodiment of his philosophy, which we had already discovered through his kaizen classes.

Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari

Even though Muloma was the main goal of this trip to Lisbon, we not only enjoyed the Cape Verdian ‘dancing-lunch’, but also visited Jazzy Studio and the B. Leza club —in a word the main places in which Afro-lusophone music and dance culture in Lisbon is performed.

Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari

And even if the locals may not be particularly interested in what we were looking for, you could not walk in Baixa Chiado without encountering some Capoeira dancers (from Sweden!) in the street or listening to a Cape Verdian orchestra in front of Café a Brasileira. Yes, in Lisbon you can’t avoid the African connection, and it is for the best!

Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari
Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari
Photo Courtesy of Elina Djebbari


The Moving Blog

Of Checked Skirts And Big Drums

It was hot and sweaty and we were swathed in fabric. Big bias-cut skirts in bold and bright checks. Barefoot, barely pausing to gulp down water, we danced to the beat of the gwo-ka drums. While Christian marked the rhythm for us dances on his gwo-ka (the ‘big drum’), Ralph’s sounded out the intricacies of the toumblak, or the Guadeloupean rhythm of joy. Ten women dancing the toumblak in madras fabric: it could have been in Guadeloupe, but no– we were in a studio in East London on an unusually warm English summer’s day. One more example of how dance collapses time and place through the trans-corporality of the body.

This Saturday, Francesca and I attended a masterclass by Zil’oKA, a London-based percussion and dance organisation that focuses on the rhythms, songs, and movements of the French West Indies- the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. At the end of May, we had enjoyed their tremendous performance at a day dedicated to the French Caribbean at the Hoxton Arches. Ever since then, we had been waiting for an opportunity to hang out with and learn from Zil’oKA. Excitement mounted when we were informed by email of their plans for their masterclass in toumblak, one of the seven rhythms current in Guadeloupean rhythm repertoire.

Zil’oKA at the Hoxton Arches. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir
Zil’oKA at the Hoxton Arches. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir

‘What is a masterclass?’ A friend asked me that evening. I guess in the context of dance, it indicates a few focused hours of accelerated learning, which pushes the pedagogic envelope because a higher level of dance experience is assumed. My dance-learning capacities have certainly improved over the years that I’ve been dipping into Afro-diasporic movement worlds: could I have imagined, even a few years ago, walking into a dance class, learning the basic steps of a new form, and ending up with a mini-choreography at the end of three hours!!! Yet that is exactly what we accomplished together on Saturday! Hooray for great teaching!

Ananya, Francesca and Zil’oKA teacher Sara Brucy. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Ananya, Francesca and Zil’oKA teacher Sara Brucy. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.

My body recognised steps from other Afro-diasporic traditions: for instance, the umbigada (belly-button-bumping), which was such a talking point for Lusophone colonial authorities, gave rise to the Angolan social dance semba (from the Kimbundu word ‘massemba’, or the touching of navels) and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Brazilian samba…. So amazing to see it reappear as the Guadeloupean piting bo!! A jump, kick and back-cross reminded us again of carnival samba. A four-step move with an accentuated hip thrust recalled both Dominican bachata and Colombian cumbia. It was delicious to sense the echo of a Cuban three-step move in one of the tri-page basic steps.

Ananya trying out the tri-page pas-de-base with Zil’oKA teacher Rita Lencrerot. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Ananya trying out the tri-page pas-de-base with Zil’oKA teacher Rita Lencrerot. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.

For me, it was so exciting finally to do a class in the rhythms of the French Caribbean. I have long enjoyed a range of music from these islands—from the oldest creolized Biguine songs (I adore most of all Leona Gabriel, diva songstress from Cayenne), to the funky world music sound of Kassav’, as well as the cerebral experiments of Malavoi and the return to the islands’ roots music, chouval-bwa, by Dédé Saint-Prix. These are on-going dialogues with the rhythms of the gwo-ka, which, like creole drumming through the Caribbean, continues to be a flashpoint of debates around policing, identity, and reclaiming of tradition.

Kassav’ at the Zenith, Paris, in June 2013 (Ananya was at this concert!)

With my apprenticeship in this musical tradition, I wasn’t too slow in picking up the names of the steps and even some creole phrases that we had to chant with attitude during the choreography! – So much so that Zil’oKA members asked me if I actually spoke Creole! But it’s not only sounds and rhythms that had begun to enter my world in the past ten years that I discovered: there were unmistakeable traces of Indian dance movements in some of the basic steps. Rita Lencrerot of Zil’oKA did not find this surprising. ‘Our islands are full of Indian people’, she reminded me. Yes! Another step forward in Modern Moves’ excavation of hidden histories across the oceans….

Celebrating Indian Arrival Day across the Islands. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Celebrating Indian Arrival Day across the Islands. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.

Of course a material reminder of these entangled transoceanic histories is the madras fabric, which finds its way into the folkoric costumes of almost all the smaller islands of the Caribbean, starting with the Francophone ones. And where there is folkore, there is dance… As the name indicates, these striking checked fabrics were woven in Madras and shipped to the Caribbean through imperial trading routes. Till today, in the era of post-slavery, post-indenture, and postcolonialism, they are produced in South India and exported to the islands- as a new exhibition by the Costume Institute of The African Diaspora will soon demonstrate in glorious detail.

When I was growing up in India, the story of Indian diasporas on sugar plantations were a completely sealed off corridor of history. Noone went down those corridors. Despite some welcome new ways of talking about those old Indian diasporas today, there is still very little out there about the Indian populations in Francophone islands like Guadeloupe, and nothing at all about how Indian and African populations creolized each other in the realms of music, dance, language and food. It meant something indescribable to me when a student of Indian origin from Guadeloupe presented me recently with a swathe of madras fabric to make into a sari—watch this space for the transformation!

Ananya’s Guadeloupean proto-sari. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.
Ananya’s Guadeloupean proto-sari. Photo by Ananya Jahanara Kabir.

For me, dancing in a Madras skirt on a hot London day, marking the toumblak, the rhythm of joy, was an act of performing and reclaiming a supressed history of displacement, survival and encounter. As we moved in unison, and performed the piting bo to each other and the drummers, giving and taking energy, the heaviness of the fabric (which was for me also the heaviness of history) transformed into something that gave the body velocity and grace when we moved. As I spun around, knelt down, struck the floor thrice, I noted with pleasure how my skirt settled around me- when I sprung up, flicking my skirt just so, I felt feminine and powerful. Who said skirts couldn’t be serious??? And that long skirts couldn’t be fun?! Here’s to making and remaking history with a long skirt and a drum!

**Feature Image Courtesy of Francesca Negro**



Modern Moves Research Activities June 2014

June 2014 has been a really productive month! Although we were recovering from our launch events of 21st and 22nd May, various networking opportunities arising from those events meant that we have been kept on our toes!

As Madison reported earlier, on the 31st May we were at The Place, enjoying the ADAD (Association of the Dance of the African Diaspora)’s VIP reception. Here we met up with several luminaries of the London dance community who had attended our symposium Creolizing Dance in A Global Age– including Namron, OBE, Jackie Guy, and H. Patten. Namron- one of the founder members- told us a bit about the early history of The Place- from an ammunitions storage space to a hub for African and Contemporary dance!


We carried on that evening to the Hoxton Arches and a celebration of French Caribbean culture– Haitian food and French West Indian drumming and dancing courtesy Zilo’ka- here, too, we met people who had attended our symposium. If that were not enough, some of us went to the monthly ULU salsa and kizomba night organised by MamboCity, where we shared the dance floor with others in our academic-dancer network!

Through our symposium we had clearly created the conditions for being recognised as a group that adds value to the work being done by Afro-diasporic cultural producers in London. We are beginning to understand how these cultural producers link up with each other and are connected through personal and professional networks. We also get to know of some pretty awesome concerts, gigs and parties!

passing clouds 2

So on 13th June, we attended the concert of the band Family Atlantica at the legendary Dalston venue, Passing Clouds. Fronted by the charismatic Luzmira Zerpa, the band came highly recommended by our advisory board member Manuel Barcia Paz. We also enjoyed an insider’s tour of über-trendy Dalston, where even ‘pop-ups have pop-ups’; secret community gardens thrive as folksy England 2.0 (kind of Bilbo Baggins meets WOMAD); and the C. L. R. James Library reminds us of London’s relationship to Black intellectual history.


The gig itself was somewhat marred by poor acoustics in the venue and too much dancing of the ‘jumping up and down’ kind. Nevertheless it was fascinating to watch the charismatic Luzmira with her feathered headgear, retro shades, generic ‘tribal’ outfit festooned with bells and whistles- a kind of Venezuelan Frida Kahlo reuniting with African roots. As she announced, ‘Family! We all know the history between Europe (points to the audience), South America (points to herself), and Africa (points to her musicians).

(Where does that leave an Indian from India, whom Columbus set out to discover before chancing on the Americas, I wonder???? Thought for another day!)

The next day, Elina and Ananya attended a Cuban Bootcamp organised by some of our favourite dancers of the Cuban style, Anneta Kepka and Osbanis Tejeda of Deakocan Dance. What we shorthand as ‘Cuban salsa’ (it’s a bit inaccurate to call it ‘salsa’, but again, that’s another topic for discussion) definitely demands a certain kind of body work that is – in Ananya’s opinion- linked to the conversion of that island’s Plantation history to socialism and its precarious economic identity in a post-Cold War world. This was an opportunity to brush up our Cuban techniques, think while moving, practice switching from tiempo to contratiempo, and also reflect on the growing use of the word ‘Bootcamp’ in social dance circles!

Photo7544 copy

The following morning, fieldwork continued with Madison, Elina and Helena attending Jaded, South London’s beloved Sunday morning/afternoon techno party. Held at Corsica Studios, a secret venue right next door to the Elephant and Castle tube station, Jaded is a throwback to the ubiquitous rave parties of the 90s and offers dark big room techno vibes in a space that feels like you’re not supposed to be in and flashes of underground grit, topped up with a sound system that’ll shatter your rib cage.


That day Ananya had to come back to Manchester to attend her samba de gafieira choreography course led by Arthur Araujo Gontijo of Arthur and Aiste, London. So two very different kinds of dance activities conducted simultaneously. The Sunday techno party was enjoyed by all and provoked certain great comments on the phenomenon of the dropped beat during the team’s second recording session around Time in Afro-dance.


Our on-going comparisons between the Afro-Electronic and Afro-Latin dance floors were beautifully aided when Madison accompanied Elina and Ananya to London’s monthly Latin social, El Grande now in a new venue, Scala. The irony of a native New Yorker entering a salsa floor for the first time in London actually proves the transnational nature of our work and world! Madison’s keen observational eye heightened our own self-reflexivity on the dance floor. Knowing he was watching and taking notes of us dancing meant we thought and danced harder! One of the conclusions- Ananya has a definite ‘dance face’!!!


On Sunday the 22nd of June, matters continued in their usual fashion- Ananya at her samba de gafieira class, Elina and Helena at a khassonke workshop with Yahael Camara-Onono at The Place, Madison at Sunday morning techno, and Francesca wowing the elite dancers at the Criola Festival in Barcelona with her multilingual abilities- including counting the beats in kimbundu while teaching her dance class….! (who thought that, with Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, Portuguese and English, she couldn’t possibly have room for more languages? You were wrong!)


Dancing is not all that we’ve been doing to establish our presence in London’s Afro-diasporic rhythm networks. The last week we’ve had some incredibly productive meetings with key individuals within these networks: Mercy Nabirye, director of ADAD; Teleica Kirkland and Paula Allen of The Costume Institute of the African Diaspora, Cecile Bushidi of SOAS, and the dancer-academic Akosua Boakye. In all these conversations, what kept recurring was the dynamic and historical relationship between photography, style, dress, and Afro-diasporic dance. We are really excited about the possibilities opening up for productive collaborations with all our new friends!


What is most interesting is that the (positive) pressure of these networks seems to have drawn the centre of gravity of our research activities away from social dance with African roots to institutions invested in the choreography of Afro-dance. But does this shift impel us to reconsider the relationship between choreography and social dance in the Afro-realm? Are we not performing in both settings? Questions, questions! All the better for pushing the frontiers of knowledge!

To complement our teamwork in formulating these questions, we have also been reading and discussing our own work as well as key texts in our bibliography- our reports on the festival AfricaDancar, Katherine Dunham’s Island Possessed, and Joseph Roach’s article on sweat, work and play in the creation of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras costumes have given us some great opportunities to talk through our individual approaches to our research theme and construct the common ground shared by them.

In July we return to travelling—Paris, Lisbon, Bangalore, for a start. Indeed, the last weekend of June already saw the first of these field visits by a team member to the Janet Jackson Tribute Ball at the Social Club in Paris. Here’s to a great month ahead of thinking on our feet!

Moving Stories

What (Or Who) Is ‘Afro-Tribal’?

On June 28th 2014, Mestre Petchu and his partner Vanessa ‘Ginga Pura’ Carvalo were in San Francisco, conducting a workshop of ‘kizomba, semba, and African tribal dance in the Bay area’. The photo advertising this event on facebook shows the two of them in typical semba pose, wearing outfits in which African fabric features prominently. Face markings in white paint are also visible on both dancers’ faces. The facebook event description states that ‘Dança Makèzú brings you Mr. Tarraxinha & Ms. Ginga, Mestre Petchu & Vanessa Pura Ginga of Angola, to the Bay Area!! Sass, funk, attitude, swagger, confidence, sweat, laughs are all part of learning, as Mestre Petchu and Vanessa lead us through a two-day fun-filled workshop full of kizomba, semba, and African tribal dance. This is not to be missed!!’ (nb: ‘tarraxinha: slow tempo Angolan couple dance; ginga: Portuguese; this term, originating in capoeira, can be translated as ‘swing’, with the added implication here of ‘sexy and dexterous movement of posterior’)

Courtesy of Batuke
pV Tribal: Courtesy of Batuke

According to the schedule, each day concluded with an hour of ‘African tribal dance’. Unlike the kizomba and semba classes, these ‘tribal dance’ classes were not structured to reflect progression. The final version of the schedule also indicated that an attempt would be made to trace the ‘African tribal roots’ of semba. The dances ‘kizomba’ and ‘semba’ are recognized by social dancers of Afro-Latin style worldwide as having emerged from Angola. Likewise with ‘kuduro’, another widely recognized Angolan dance style (danced solo rather than in partner-hold). All three forms are strongly connected to the history, politics and identity discourse of colonial and postcolonial Angola. But what is this ‘African tribal dance’ that Petchu and Vanessa offered to Bay Area dancers? It seems that nobody really knew: a question I left on the event page- ‘Hi! Interested to know what the ‘African tribal dance’ class will be about?! Thanks!!’ – remained unanswered. The photos of the event now uploaded on the page show Petchu and Vanessa leading the class with physical movements broadly reminiscent of an African kinetic repertoire used when dancers are out of couple hold.

Bayarea Afrotribal, Courtesy of Danca Makezu)
Bayarea Afrotribal, Courtesy of Danca Makezu)

The Modern Moves research team has been intrigued by the word ‘tribal’ as used often by our postdoctoral associate Francesca Negro to report to us developments in the pedagogy of Angolan social dance. This is a word that, in both Anglophone and Francophone discursive contexts, is currently deployed with caution, and best within quotation marks, to signal a troubled semantic and ideological history. Postcolonial theory and colonial discourse analysis has flagged up the use of the category of the ‘tribal’ by all European imperial powers seeking to reduce Africa and other colonised regions (e.g. the South Pacific islands) to a stereotype of primitiveness and savagery. Even in Anthropology, the discipline fashioned around the study of ‘tribes’, the accepted term now would be ‘ethnic group’ or ‘ethnie’. Indeed in mainstream usage the adjective ‘tribal’ is most often seen in semantic contexts where the group described is anything but— e.g. a certain type of urban reveller, a particular sort of fashion choice, etc. It is usual amongst those who work in Africa to point with disdain and exasperation to comments from friends and family enquiring after the ‘tribes’ of Africa.

On querying Francesca about this puzzling use of ‘tribal’, it came to light that the phrase ‘African tribal dance’ in the Angolan context can be attributed almost certainly to one actor: Mestre Petchu himself. It is he who has popularised this term within Angolan dance pedagogy, and his most prominent students (e.g. Paulo Cruz) have generated its subsequent popularisations. The Mestre and his disciples have both defined and captured this part of the Afro/ Latin social dance market. Kizomba is now gaining popularity in the US through an axis of interpersonal connectivity that has brought its earliest American practitioners into contact with established ‘autocthonous’ leaders such as him. The concept of ‘African tribal dance’ is spreading precisely through this axis to neophyte, Anglophone, consumers across the Atlantic. The word ‘tribal’ is, in the process, constantly and progressively ‘re-normalised’ (at least for this group of users), the quotation marks silently being done away with.

After all, if a visibly ‘African’ person, a professional dancer in fact, uses the word ‘tribal’ to describe his dance practice, can the rest of us find it objectionable? I do not propose that we start berating Mestre Petchu for this (non politically correct) use of ‘tribal’; rather, I propose we use it as a point of entry into his psyche as a postcolonial Angolan person currently living in Portugal. Thinking harder about why he would use the word ‘tribal’ in this manner can, moreover, help us clarify our methodology as a research team in the face of some criticism from dance scholars that many of our activities that involve dance practitioners of African heritage succumb to ‘essentialism’ and ‘anti-intellectualism’. As a team, we acknowledge Mestre Petchu’s right to express a preference for the word ‘tribal’. Indeed, to analyse it as an example of what Gayatri Spivak first termed ‘strategic essentialism’ is more helpful for our overall research aim: to elucidate the intricate, often hidden relationships between dance, identity and the phantasm of ‘Africa’ for a spectrum of differently formed modern subjectivities.

Let me, at this point, quote from the following biographical notes on Petchu (Pedro Vieira Dias Tomas) and his partner Vanessa ‘Ginga Pura’ Carvalo. This information is supplied within the same facebook event page referred to earlier: ‘Mestre Petchu and Vanessa are one of the greatest world authorities in the field of Angolan culture of music and dance. Living in Portugal for many years now, Petchu was the first to teach kizomba and semba there. He is known to have spread kizomba, the dance, throughout Europe. Petchu is the founder of the African ballet group, Kilandukilu and has been leading this group for 25 years of his 30-year career. Vanessa, also a member of Kilandukilu, is [known] internationally for her Ginga, and is one of the best female Kizomba and Semba dancers in the world.’ While Petchu was born in Luanda in the 1960s, Vanessa is from Sao Tome e Principe. Their weekly classes at Studio Jazzy, Lisbon, conducted under the banner of Ballet Tradicional Kilandukilu, constitute one of that city’s many manifestations of Afro-Luso-postcoloniality.

This postcolonial Afro-Luso flavour of Lisbon is evident in its thorough permeation by dance and music from Portugal’s former African colonies. Downtown in the Baixa Chiado area, one can hear and see African groups playing live music on every street corner, while clubs lining the regenerated quayside play kizomba, semba and Cape Verdian dance forms alongside salsa and r n b. While Brazilian music is known and enjoyed, it is the visible, audible and kinetic presence of Portuguese-speaking Africans in Lisbon that makes Portugal seem an extension of PALOP Africa- as Mestre Petchu himself declared in a recent interview to the TV channel dedicated to the PALOP world, STPtv. In the same way, Luanda feels somehow very European, or at least it did so to me when I visited it a few years ago. I had to remind myself that the Portuguese presence in Africa was centuries older than the British presence in India. One has to really think of the concurrent movement into modernity of Lisbon and African cities of the Portuguese empire such as Luanda and Lourenco Marques (Maputo).

The evolution of creolized couple dances on the African mainland and Cape Verde, like those of the New World, brought together African dance repertoires and the frame of the couple hold (parallel syncretisms were taking place in the music). This evolution reveals long processes of cultural transfer, which would have indelibly transformed the valence of the ‘traditional’ in the realm of social dance and music. The conceptual framework here can draw from studies of colonial modernity and tradition(alism) in Africa and elsewhere (by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Benedict Anderson, Partha Chatterjee, Achille Mbembe, Frederick Cooper). This work needs to be married to our ongoing work on excavating the complex evolution of the couple dances ‘kizomba’, ‘semba’ and ‘tarraxinha’ and of their accompanying music genres (the latter largely through contact with French Caribbean zouk music). Rather than go into those details here I want to signal that when Petchu uses the word ‘tribal’ he gestures, at least subconsciously, to the modern (read: ‘Europeanized’) forms of couple dances which have gained international prominence in post-Civil War Angola.

Angola’s double trauma of recovering from colonial rule, followed immediately by a prolonged Civil War, complicated immeasurably nation-building attempts after decolonization. These postcolonial processes must be seen on the micro-level of individual subjectivities as creating a yearning for an authenticity coupled with what Stefanie Alisch calls the ‘postcolonial schizophrenia’ binding together Portugal and its African ex-colonies. This contradictory psychosocial state may well be the reason why an Angolan such as Mestre Petchu can propagate couple dances with evident European genealogies on the one hand as ‘authentic Angolan dances’ as well as ‘African tribal dances’ comprising a repertoire of steps that are meant to transmit another kind of ‘authenticity’. It appears that by ‘tribal’, Mestre Petchu actually means ‘traditional’; Francesca explicated that he reserves the adjective ‘tribal’ for the actual nomenclature of the classes (whether he gives them in Lisbon or abroad), replacing it with ‘traditional’ in discussion with her and others. The Mestre’s interview with STPtv corroborates this statement but also nuances it in ways that confirms my hypothesis.

Within this interview, broadcast under the title ‘Amor e Danca’, 2nd June 2014, Mestre Petchu describes the work of his company, Ballet Tradicional Kilandukilu, through repeated use of the word ‘traditional’. Although he refers to breakdance and (non-specified) modern dance as examples of what they do not do, the major point of contrast is with the social dances kizomba and semba, which, all present at the interview agree, has been the door through which Angola has entered transnational dance. Kilandukilu, however, which means ‘enjoyment’ in Kimbundu, was formed in Luanda, in response to the needs of young people to return to their dance roots. These traditions demand the gravitas of pedagogy. They must be distinguished from kizomba, rather dismissively (but affectionately) described by interviewer and Mestre Petchu as the dance of the street (rua) and backyard (quintal). This understanding of Kilandukilu’s manifesto accords with Francesca’s explication that Petchu sees his ‘tribal dance’ classes as a way to ‘save’ steps but from other parts of Africa from ‘disappearing’– presumably due to a generalised modern malaise.

It is another matter that some of these dance steps and forms– for instance the sabar of Senegal and the khassonke of Mali– are neither purely ‘traditional’ forms (what, indeed, is?) nor in any need of rescuing. What is interesting is that an Angolan dancer based in Lisbon should see this rescue act as his mission. A certain kind of aspirational latter-day rough-and-ready pan-Africanism emerges through these attempts to forge an African tribal/ traditional dance style. A similar logic underlies Maxwell Xolani Rani’s creation of pedagogy for the B.A. in African Dance awarded by the University of Cape Town and taught at its once exclusive School of Dance that was renowned for Ballet. But Maxwell Xolani Rani has– thanks to the structure imposed on him by the needs to devise a university degree course, travelled through the African continent collecting steps and styles, whereas Mestre Petchu admits repeatedly in the STPtv interview that by Africa he really means ‘Angola’, which is what he knows best. I also doubt that UCT would use the word ‘tribal’ to describe the origins of these steps.

Bringing together these two points, we can deduce that Mestre Petchu’s adoption of the word ‘tribal’ occurs in the context of a self-confessed lacuna in detailed knowledge and a self-evident desire to invoke an idea of Africa that is greater than the nation he represents. This conglomeration is increasingly evident in the STPtv interview, where the word tribal first appears only two-thirds of the way into the 50-minute interview. Until that moment, Mestre Petchu has been using the word ‘traditional’ several times; he even corrects the interviewer’s use of ‘traditional African’ with a ‘parenthesis: by ‘African’ I mean 90 percent Angolan’. Only when describing the classes he conducts at Lisbon, he mentions that the class of traditional dance is called ‘tribal’. The interviewer picks this up, signalling through an exaggerated intonation the existence of quotation marks, ‘these “tribal” dances, these African dances- who are the foreigners who want to learn them?’ But even she is soon transfixed by the spell of the word– the next time she uses ‘tribal’ towards the end of the interview it is with a palpable note of pride- ‘our African tribal dances’.

It must be clarified here that the host of the STPtv show, Abigail Tiny Cosme, is from Sao Tome and Principe, and the channel’s raison d’etre is to promote art and culture in the wider PALOP world. So it is striking to see the speakers– Mestre Petchu and two female dancers of Kilandukilu, and Cosme herself– progressively bond over this idea of ‘us Africans’, with dance in our blood, with dance penetrating and shaping every activity of ours, even ostensibly sombre ones like funerals. ‘Africa is all the rage’, Cosme concludes the programme triumphantly while saying, and thanks Petchu for his work in bringing African culture, ‘our continent’, to the world. Given this desire to embrace rather than reject a (presumably) pre-modern communal corporeality as coded in the joy of movement and festivity, the idea of the ‘tribal’, proposed by Mestre Petchu and enthusiastically adopted by Cosme in course of the programme, makes quite a lot of sense. The Mestre’s use now seems a strategic attempt to re-articulate postcolonial schizophrenia into a viable and autonomous concept that has the added value of marking a distance from ‘non-tribal’ Europe.

It is one thing for a host from the archipelago of Sao Tome and Principe to go along with Mestre Petchu’s use of ‘tribal’ and ‘traditional’ in positing an overarching ‘Africa’ within whose kinetic regeneration all things Angolan are apparently playing a prominent part. What about representatives of other African nations– how would they feel about this capture of ‘Africa’ by Angola? This process of approximating ‘Africa’ to ‘Angola’ marks all scales and levels of the kizomba dance scene– most prominent being the dance competition and festival ‘Africadançar’ which started out eight years ago as a platform for a range of African social dances but now has become almost exclusively the showcase for Angolan forms– including Mestre Petchu’s version of ‘African tribal dance’. The organisers of Africadançar, being mostly from Portugal, are apparently not so concerned about the implications for the meaning of ‘Africa’ – their concerns appear far more pragmatic and commercial. In the meanwhile, individual actors enact the Afro-tribal’s dialogue with ‘modern’ in a postmodern-postcolonial way to reinterpret all the terms in the mix- ‘afro’, ‘tribal’, and ‘modern.’

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Some other African practitioners of Angolan social dance appear as not too worked up about Angola’s strategic capture of ‘brand Africa’. Thus the Atlanta-based teacher of Angolan dance, Mwangi Maina, reveals in his facebook page and on his website that he is from ‘Kenya (Africa)’, where he grew up with music, and describes kizomba as an ‘African contemporary social dance’ with no mention of Angola at all. Here we see the de-Angolanisation of kizomba being manipulated to become useful for another African in diaspora to create a sense of self and identity through what the dance represents to him and to the world. As Mwangi Maina is one of the instructors gearing up to receive Petchu and Vanessa on their soon-to-begin US tour, it can be surmised that he does not see his act of self-definition vis-à-vis kizomba as intruding on his relationship with or respect for them. In the meanwhile the other promoters of this tour, who are organising the ‘African tribal dance class’ in San Francisco, are a dance couple consisting of a Latina woman (Chalianna) and a Haitian man (Yair).

Danca Makezu, Courtesy Danca Makezu)
Danca Makezu, Courtesy Danca Makezu)

The ‘Afro-tribal’ via Angolan dance offers what Achille Mbembe calls African Modes Of Self Writing, and these are clearly also open to use within ‘Afro-diasporic modes of self-writing’. Mbembe concludes that essay with some suggestive comments about ‘stylizng’ in the process of ‘self-writing’. His term goes beyond Stephen Greenblatt’s influential earlier coinage, ‘self-fashioning’, returning decisively to the body as the ground of style (and fashion)—although Mbembe’s article itself proffers a philosophical rather than materialistic exploration of what we can call ‘self-styling’. In short, then, ‘Afro-tribal’ participates in acts of self-styling by people who wish to demonstrate ancestral connections to ‘African-ness’. It operates – not unproblematically– within the rebuilding of a post-diasporic, postcolonial self through bricolage, and it works best through a visual register. Face paint, animal skins, grass skirts, horn and bead jewellery, patterned textile, even spears and other ‘primitive weapons’, are thrown into the mix.

A fascinating supplement to this visualisation of the ‘Afro-tribal’ within dance is the use of ‘Afro-tribal’ by some DJs to label a particular kind of electronic music. In “>DJ Ras Sjamaan’s ‘Afro-Tribal’ mixes, rhythms typical of house and techno music are overlaid with sonic flashes of Africa to remind the listener what s/he is listening to. On a deeper level, dialogue between binary and ternary rhythms brings these mixes closer to the rhythmic logic of some kinds of African music. But less subtle references to Africa are established through human vocal items– voices, style of singing, chorus, shouts, often in non-European languages— and additional sounds produced by acoustic instruments– idiophones (bells, shakers…), drums. In case these descriptive sonic tags are not enough, geographical indications are liberally sprinkled throughout- such as shouts of ‘AFRICA’ and ‘ANGOLA’. A heightened version of this anxiety of recognition reappears in other examples of ‘Afro-tribal’ music, such as the ‘This Is Afrodelic’ series featuring tracks like ‘Afrika’, ‘Africa’, ‘Stereotype’, ‘From Apes to Humans’, ‘Tribal Work’ and, yes, ‘Tribal Ways’.

What work does the word ‘tribal’ do for these tracks? And what does it mean to ‘tag’ Africa — geographically as well as sonically — in them? These tags operate on a descriptive level within the tracks, and on a suggestive level paratextually. They insist on connecting the listener to a ‘afro’ and ‘Africa’, but coded as ‘tribal’. But who is the listener and where is s/he located? At home in front of a computer, or on a dance floor? If the latter, where in the world might this floor be? The mobility of music combines with music’s fundamentally abstract representational mode: if this track traveled out of Africa and onto another dance floor, who would know it originated in Africa? Did it, in fact?. We do not know where this track is composed, we do not know who assembled its YouTube pictoral version embellished with visual images of ‘Africa’. There is an anxiety of authenticity here—somehow the track’s value is augmented by its alignment to the African, where the African is ‘tribal’. It doesn’t matter if the Africa it references is the urban Africa of Afro-house music- as indicated by the debt of one of Ras Sjamaan’s mixes to ‘mete mete mete, não estou a sentir nada.’

Mestre Petchu’s use of Afro-tribal and house music’s use of ‘Afro-tribal’ seems to arrive at the same term through different routes, with rather different consequences for consumers (both African and non-African). While it is the black or brown body (especially, it seems, the male body) that participates in Afro-tribal self-styling through dress, the dance styles taught under this rubric are of course available to anyone who wants to embrace (for whatever purpose) their ‘inner African’, channelled— it would seem— through their inner ‘tribal’. However no one actually adopts that sort of costuming for party outfits. Inspiration for self-styling on the dance floor comes from fashions that are definitely Afro-modern, even Afro-Dandy– such as the style statements of Kizomba and Semba dancers, or the famous Congolese Sapeurs. In the realm of music, in contrast, we are less committed to changing our body style to declare our adherence to the ‘Afro-tribal’. The visual contrast between the typical world music aficionado and the AfroPolitan exhibiting swagger on the dance floor could not be starker.

Last week, examining the Afro-tribal against a reading of Mbembe’s essay (‘Modes of African Self-Writing’), the Modern Moves team was led to reconsider our own embodied relationships to Africa. Discussing our tattoos, hair braids, African saris and –even in one case—the decision not to overtly self-style after African style, took us back to our earliest years, the roots of our intellectual formation, the foundations of our curiosity about that which is not ‘us’. While we are still thinking about the range embedded in ‘Afro-tribal’, this self-examination suggested how we may take further Achille’s concluding observation: ‘Because the time we live in is fundamentally fractured, the very project of an essentialist or sacrificial recovery of the self is, by definition, doomed. Only the disparate, and often intersecting, practices through which Africans stylize their conduct and life can account for the thickness of which the African present is made.’ Not just the African present, then, but a planetary present through which ‘Africa’ and Africa traverse.

This Moving Story was written by Ananya Kabir, with generous inputs from Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, and Madison Moore. Its concepts and arguments have been developed during the Modern Moves team’s weekly conversations.

All photos by Ananya Kabir unless otherwise noted.