Our newest Associated Researcher, Dr Michael Iyanaga, recently visited us for a packed week (4th-12th March). During his time with Modern Moves, Michael taught a seminar to the project’s MA module, ‘Decolonising Bodies: Drums, DJs and Dance Floors‘. His class, called ‘Inside the Roda: the shape of embodied history and resistance’, which drew on the circle formation of samba de roda and capoeira, captivated the students and team members alike. Michael, together with Ananya Kabir, Madison Moore, and Camilo Soler, also attended a seminar on anti colonialism and slavery at the Centre for History and Economics, Cambridge, where Ananya is Research Associate, shared his extensive knowledge of samba with the team, and accompanied Ananya to her weekly samba de gafieira class in London to help her with the work of dance analysis. He also drank a lot of tea, as befitted someone on his first visit to London.
This was the first time that Michael, a veteran of the trans-Pacific crossing, had found occasion to cross the Big Pond, and we are proud to have been the catalyst! We look forward to his next visit in May.
The most famous song about Brazil, ‘Aquarela do Brazil’, celebrates Brazil for being, tautologically, ‘Brazilian’- ‘Brasil Brasileiro‘– and it’s more than just clever (or stupid) play with words. Brazil is essentially and deeply, Brazilian, more than any other country or culture I’ve known is ‘itself’ (and I’ve been fortunate to know a few). It is happily and confidently autonomous. Its expressive cultures seem to fragment and multiply to suit new needs without worrying about dilutions of essence, without provocations of submitting to external influence.
Brazil’s leading cultural myth is ‘anthropophagy’ or cannibalism, and, indeed, Brazil cannibalises external cultures, swallows them up to suit its needs, and uses them to generate newer variations of cultural forms established as ‘Brazilian’. In the field of social dance, this makes Brazilians versatile dancers and Brazilian dance floors open to all kinds of dance and music forms. But it also means a bewildering variety and sub-forms within Brazilian social dances. This adaptability combined with inwardness is what makes Brazilian dances, just like Brazil itself, Brazilian.
‘Aquarela do Brasil’ celebrates Brazil as land of the samba and the pandeiro but as anyone with a faint knowledge of Brazil knows, there is no one samba. In the words of Jimmy de Oliveira, founder of Rio de Janeiro’s Academia de Dança Jimmy de Oliveira, ‘many sambas, but one single passion’. At the Academia’s Oficina do Samba that I attended last week (14th-17th of January) in Rio, this reality was manifested in the timetable for the weekend’s classes, which alternated between samba tradicional, samba funkeado, samba fragmentado, and some offerings of samba rock and samba no pe thrown in.
Samba no pe, or the samba that is danced solo rather than in couple hold, is only one kind of samba, though the love that Brazilians feel for it was evident in the massive ovation that the class of samba no pe received from the workshop participants. This is the samba that is showcased in the Rio Carnival, and fittingly our teachers Ale Vilar and Kaila Mara were members of the historical samba school Mangueira. While teaching they insisted that samba is ‘alegria’ (happiness) and ‘sorriso’ (smile), so that smiling and a radiation of good energy was part of the learning process as much as the actual steps of the dance.
While samba no pe developed in the Carnival schools of samba, in the dance halls (gafieiras) of central Rio also developed samba de gafieira, or samba as a couple dance. Today we can still visit some establishments that were founded at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the Centro Cultural Estudantina Musical, Rio Scenarium and the Clube dos Democratos. Here excellent live bands play and you can either join the locals singing along while doing what I call the ‘samba shuffle’—a basic movement of the feet to samba time—or show off the samba de gafieira skills that you’ve honed in a dance class at Rio, London, Buenos Aires, or indeed, the Oficina do Samba.
But samba de gafieira is only the beginning of the story. I had already encountered the curious hybrid Brazilians call ‘samba rock’ at the Exalta Afro festival that I had attended in Sao Paulo some years ago. It seemed to me then that samba rock was a dance style devised by hipster Brazilians in the 1960s to enable them to continue dancing in partner hold to rock music from the Anglophone world- music with a strong downbeat and pretty much zero interest from the perspective of rhythmic syncopation and layering. Despite the blandness of the rhythms of rock compared to the sounds of bossa nova and samba people wanted to dance to it because it was cool music; and they continue to do so.
The same impulse—to adapt samba as a couple dance to new music, rather than abandon couple dance completely—has led to samba funkeado or ‘funky samba’. Its creator, Jimmy de Oliveira, said to me that it arose from his hero-worshipping of Michael Jackson, and his desire to create samba styles that could respond to ‘funky’ and ‘groovy’ music. Samba funkeado allows the dancer to syncopate and exaggerate the codified steps of samba de gafieira. As the samba de gafieira rhythms are already syncopated to begin with, this exercise in re-syncopation breaks through normalisation of the rhythm by creating new, surprising, and playful ways of keeping the relationship between dance, music, and dancer fresh.
It is also a way to keep the conversation going between Brazil and the USA as two major inheritors of the Black Atlantic. Thus samba funkeado responded initially to North American music seen as ‘funky’, rather than the Carioca funk and other forms of Brazilian funky music. If we accept these principles as intrinsic to the way Brazilians feel about samba, then ‘samba fragmentado’, the latest form of samba de gafieira that Jimmy has created, is a logical development. Here, samba steps are deconstructed into successive poses that are held for a micro-second—or longer—depending on the call of syncopation. The appropriate music is hiphop or R n’ B, or Brazilian music created in that mould.
When asked about the difference between samba funkeado and samba fragmentado, Jimmy and his team responded not in words but by demonstrating to me the different feel of each style. But as an Australian participant in the Oficina helpfully articulated to me, samba funkeado is ‘photo-finish’; samba fragmentado is ‘time lapse’. In both cases there is a playing with and stretching out of and collapsing of time. We as dancers experiment with and experience time and counting in a multiplicity of possibilities, exploding the unevenness of syncopation when it has become absorbed into the framework of the dancer’s expectations.
Yet while all this teaching of funkeado and fragmentado is going on, there is also due respect being paid to ‘samba tradicional’ (traditional samba)- which is what samba de gafieira is called now to distinguish it from the newer styles. This re-labelling is as necessary as is the retention of the style for dance pedagogy: the newer styles do not abandon the 56 steps of the samba de gafieira repertoire (would be interesting research to unearth when and how this codification took place) but play with them and develop them to suit different musical demands and moods. I asked Jimmy de Oliviera whether the funkeado and fragmentado styles represent an evolution of the dance style in response to new and non-Brazilian music, and he enthusiastically agreed: ‘Isso!’
This acceptance of ‘evolution’ in dance is in sharp contrast to the debates around kizomba’s evolution into urban and so-called traditional styles, and indeed the stiff resistance by many to the label of ‘traditional’ for kizomba styles that had developed initially in Angola. It seems to me that the difference lies in a sense of collective security that surrounds a dance that is accepted universally as national heritage and indeed whose strong status within the nation is matched by weak transnational presence—unlike kizomba, which has transnationalised spectacularly over the past decade and whose newer styles are being developed amongst Afro-diasporic communities in different European locations, most strikingly, France.
Practitioner of the Haitian dance style kompa Cliford Jasmin has pointed out that a strong dance identity for a genre is not necessarily matched by a strong music identity for the same genre. While this realisation can help us understand some of the debates around kizomba, I feel that what has let samba fragment and multiply without any depletion in the symbolic charge of samba is the co-existence of a strong music and dance identity for it, as well as the Brazilian tendency to cultural cannibalism and autonomy which has kept samba happily and comfortably Brazilian. This additional dimension would explain the differences between the global fates of samba de gafieira and another Afro-diasporic genre which exhibits an equally strong dance and music identity— salsa.
In the end, all Afro-diasporic social dance is about evolution, resistance, adaptation, subterfuge, and swag. These were the conditions under which samba de gafiera was forged out of the maxixe, the earliest urban Brazilian couple dance, which itself emerged from the dialogue between African dances of the Plantation such as jongo and lundu, that freed slaves from Bahia brought south to Rio, and European couple dances such as the waltz, the polka, and the mazurka. The maxixe, Jimmy de Oliveira explained to me, was a dance of humour, caricature, and exaggeration, and indeed, while dancing it with him, I was strongly reminded of images and old footage of the Cakewalk, that dance of the North American plantation, which mocked the masters through exaggerated homage to their elegant couple dances and balls.
The couple dance, formed in equal parts through resistance, mimicry, sly civility, and play, a dance of desire between the forbidden and the seized, the master and the slave, is, in my opinion, a foundational scenario of the Americas. It is a mythical moment of the birth of a culture through the process of creolisation. Its survival and adaptation in Brazil through the continuing evolution of samba de gafieira is one of the ways in which we can understand both how Brazil can both be intensely Brazilian and intensely part of the wider world of the Black Atlantic African diasporas. Watch here a video we took of a moving choreographic sequence by two dancers in Brazil which enacts the meta-narrative of movement from the African dances brought to the New World by slaves to couple dances such as samba de gafieira.
With thanks to: Minkyoung Kim, my Research Assistant in Brazil and dancer extraordinaire; Jimmy de Oliveira and his entire dance team; Flavia Amiral; Anderson Mendes de Rocha, my first teacher of Samba de gafieira; Arthur and Aiste, my gafieira teachers in London, and a special ‘obrigada’ to Arthur for introducing me to Jimmy in Rio de Janeiro.
All photos are by Ananya Kabir; except where otherwise acknowledged!
‘Grandparents’. ‘Suriname’. ‘Malaya’. ‘Rubber Plantations’. ‘Migrated’. ‘India’. ‘Australia’. ‘Utrecht’. These were the words that announced the presence on stage of two young men half hidden in the shadows—words that were fragments of two fragmented histories now sedimented in their bodies- their dancing bodies. Wrapped in an orange-gold silk sari that was at once placenta, straitjacket, security blanket, and creative inspiration, these Siamese twins conjoined by history now leapt, struggled, and contorted their bodies in a confrontation with themselves, their ancestors, their pasts, presents and futures—indeed time itself. When they broke free of this material, it was to initiate a movement-dialogue using their respective dance styles—bharatanatyam for Sooraj Subramaniam, and hip-hop for Shailesh Bahoran.
This was Material Men, Sooraj and Shailesh’s inspired collaboration for the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, unfolding before my stunned (and tear-filled) eyes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s Southbank Centre.
Earlier this year, I had already enjoyed Lalla Rookh, Shailesh’s inspired intervention into the history of Indian migration using a moving combination of Afro-diasporic street dance styles and Indic ritual. That experience had convinced me that through dance there is indeed a way to link the African and Indian diasporas that empire and capitalism had triggered in waves— the diasporas from the African continent instigated by slavery, and the subsequent diasporas from the Indian subcontinent instigated by indentured labour. Shailesh revealed the universal address of the language of hip-hop and created new solidarities between diasporic cultures which, even though embedded in the same national and transnational spaces, don’t often collaborate or dialogue—except through dance. With Material Men, we went a step further in this use of dance to effect a meeting of histories, diasporas, and the oceans.
While Shailesh’s ancestors had migrated to Suriname from eastern India to work on the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of slavery, Sooraj’s grandparents had been part of the Indian diaspora that answered Malaya’s need for labour on the British Empire’s rubber plantations. They are the inheritors, therefore, of migrations across the Western and Eastern paths of the Indian Ocean and—in the case of the Indo-Caribbean diasporas, further across the Atlantic. Material Men’s use of Sooraj’s dance repertoire alongside Shailesh’s highlights two possible embodied responses to dance as liberation from this history.
While Sooraj chose to train in the ‘classical’ styles of India, Shailesh took to an African-diasporic style. In Material Men, their dance styles bend, flex, and gesticulate like their bodies to respond to each other’s life path in dance. Bharatanatyam and hip-hop bleed into each other to create a new thing without a name, yet another witness to the continuous production of newness that ‘creolization’ indicates.
Of course, each dancer had already ‘creolized’ his chosen dance style through personal twists and interpretations before meeting each other. Shailesh has been using hip-hop to reproduce the robotic machine-metronome of Plantation time, while Sooraj’s pairing of traditional gold necklace with grey trousers and orange belt attested to his own creative take on a classical dance. Now, each with his own vocabulary struggled to make sense of history on a shared stage but in the process freed each other from their individual oppression by that history.
As the agility of Shailesh’s hip-hop met the raised palms, mudras, and stately postures of Sooraj’s bharatanatyam, the difficulty and exhilaration of the experiment was apparent. Starting out as antagonistic, ending up supporting each other, their sweating, breathing, and panting bodies embraced and intertwined and strained to converse while retaining individuality.
Different ancestral histories and dance trajectories notwithstanding, Material Men is the process whereby two dancers recognise and celebrate (not just mourn) their similarities grounded in modernity’s collective traumas of displacement and deracination. The sari that opens the show is the ‘material’ of histories of the heart — difficult loves and private domains that lurk beneath official narratives and their deafening silences.
The sari is the mother– ‘mother India’ with its heavy demand of fidelity to an idea of ‘home’ left far behind. Where and how does the diasporic subject find a toehold in that material/maternal vastness, always just out of reach? How does one acknowledge the caste-based oppression, collusions between colonisers and elites, and poverty that one’s ancestors would have fled, or indeed the adventure of new lives across the oceans (as is the story of Sooraj’s grandparents, who left India of their own volition to seek work)? Is turning to ‘Indian’ dance the answer, or adopting the styles forged by another diaspora?
Dance allows all answers to be right answers. The point about dance is that it allows a non-narrative freeing of histories that imprison. We talk of provincializing Europe but the need of the hour, which Material Men recognises, is to universalize Asia. The intimate chamber music composed by Elena Kats-Chernin that formed its score enabled this universalizing process, especially when, at a climactic moment, it was punctuated by the vocables of Indic dance. The heaving ribcages exposed by the dancers’ bare torsos, which radiated masculinity, fragility, labour, and beauty in equal measure, paid homage to another universal truth of modernity: the human body and its capacity to extract enjoyment and transcendence through labour and exhaustion. In Sooraj’s words, ‘there are moments in the striving for perfection that we forget to enjoy. In enjoying we get to just be, to embody, which is the true meaning of bhava. Shailesh and I were discussing recently that it is in enjoyment that the spirit of the dance is finally revealed. It is in that enjoyment that perfection, ananda, is attained.’
Material Men premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre, London), on the 17th of September 2015, as part of a double bill by the Shobhana Jeyasingh Company. It continues on a UK-wide tour. Many thanks as always to Shailesh Bahoran whose work always inspires me to write, think, and feel better, and to Sooraj Subramaniam for making me appreciate the true beauty of bharatanatyam after a lifetime of being exposed to the dance.
All photos by Ananya Kabir (except feature image, taken from the event programme)
After last week’s visit to one of the classical African houses of Lisbon, A Lontra, today I propose taking us to a newer one. The landscape of houses for dancing African music in Lisbon is so dynamic, and the craze for dance is so strong that we can find new clubs opening even in the hardest times of financial crisis in Portugal. A good example of this is Kalema Club: each disco has its own personality, and Kalema attracted my attention from the first time I stepped into the house.
Kalema Club is a warm and welcoming house with a capacity of a bit more than 100 people. It is situated in the northern zone of Lisbon, at Avenida Frei Miguel Contreiras 18C. The golden and earthy colours of the lights and furniture, the comfortable sofas where you can sit freely and the non-huge but crowded dancefloor make you feel at home since the moment you arrive.
Whenever you decide to go to the bar and ask for a drink, you will always find the beautiful smile of Zanatt, barwoman and co-owner of the club with Ricardo Rodrigues.
One night in Kalema: ethnographic description
“Raluca, the promotor of Friday nights of Kalema Club is waiting at the door to welcome us with her shiny smile as we arrive. She is a really nice Romanian young woman who became a lover of African music in Lisbon. As she has great social skills, she has been recently included in the team of promotors of Fridays nights in Kalema. It means that we are on her guestlist and she invites us to sit on her table. The security man gives us a paper card of consumption. This is the most extended system in this kind of clubs in Lisbon: you don´t need to pay when you enter, and everything you ask for will be marked on your card. To anyone who is used to pay right in the moment of serving, this card system makes you feel that you are not spending money at all (until the moment of leaving, of course!). Before you leave, you pay the total amount and your card is stamped. This is the proof of payment that you must show to the security staff to be allowed to leave.
After crossing the entrance door, as you go downstairs you can feel the beats of kizomba reverberating closer with each step. Once at the level of the dancefloor, we go to the table where some friends are sitting. After being introduced to the rest through the smile-and-kiss ritual, we can sit down as part of the group. We can now be considered part of the collective social subject “our table”. I look around and see that all the sofas are occupied by groups of people that chat together and lean their drinks on the tables beside. Everyone is dressed in a weekend fashion, in varying degrees of formality that don´t go to the extremes (neither suits-and-ties, nor sport shoes-and-jeans). All the tables and sofas are oriented looking at the dancefloor and, as the space is not big, it is possible to observe almost every corner from any seat. The dancefloor is never totally empty but never totally packed up, leaving space for dancing without accidents. Most people come back to their original tables of reference after each dance.” (Fieldwork Diary)
This continuous cycle of going to the dancefloor when favourite songs are played and coming back “home” afterwards made me remember what I had witnessed in other African houses such as Mwangolé or Sussussu. But…this is not what I was used to see in any of the typical kizomba parties I have attended here in Lisbon…
The riddle of Kalema
Kalema became a mystery for me since the first night I went there: I was very curious about was what I perceived as a striking mix of ambiences. As far as I have witnessed in my fieldwork until today, in a “typical African disco” of the old style (80s and 90s), we will find people drinking and chatting in groups sitting on sofas beside tables around a dancefloor. Most of the time they will be talking and watching people dance (what is usually called convívio), and only in certain special moments they will jump on the dancefloor. By contrast, in the houses and parties that kizomba school people prefer, most of the time they are not sitting: instead, they are dancing or standing around the dancefloor, so that chatting and drinking is much of a secondary activity. In these contexts (such as Barrio Latino on Thursdays or, more recently, B.leza on Sundays), chairs and sofas become an obstacle for the dance or an improvised bengaleiro (place to leave their coats and bags). Apparently, Kalema broke that rule: being frequented by a mix of kizomba school people and Africans, all of them shared the habit of sitting on the sofas in groups and talking. Why? What was going on? I decided to resolve this intriguing fact that made Kalema such a special place. An interview with the co-owners, Ricardo Rodrigues and Zanatt, finally led me to the answer.
History of Kalema
Kalema Club opened just a few years ago, the 8th November of 2013, as Ricardo remembered immediately. The place already existed, and it was known as Terra da Música. To give it a new life, it was essential to change the name, the decoration, and the ambience. Interestingly, Ricardo spent a part of his life in Cape Verde and opened a house that called RClub. He used to go to another disco that was called Kalema, and the name inspired him. “Kalema” is the name given to a strong swell that beats the Western African coast (what could be considered a metaphor for the emotional state in which people get into through dancing.) Apart from the beautiful sound of the word, one of the reasons why Ricardo chose this name is because, according to him, we can find this term everywhere in the PALOPs: a general reference of Portuguese-speaking Africa that is not specific of any country. In this way, it could make people from diverse African countries feel identified with it. The two co-owners are well knowers of the African nights of Lisbon: Zanatt, from São Tomé, has lived in Lisbon for a long time, and Ricardo, Portuguese, has a quite interesting history of relations with Africa. Their intention was opening up a new African disco with a special personality that could make it different from the others. The boom of kizomba changed their plans: school kizomba lovers started to come and introduced their social rules. As the house started receiving more and more clients of this kind, it became an unexpected social mix and it had to adapt to the needs of both types of public: a good balance of recent hits and old music, a combination of living-room-like space with kizomba workshops some nights. As a result, today we can find a quite interesting mix of nightclub cultures, social rules and dance styles that develop through crossed influences in a small-medium space.
Nevertheless, these cultural diversity provide with some difficulties to keep everyone happy. The first key point is the music: how can the DJ guide such a heterogeneous community through the night?
For this reason, the solution found was the following: Kalema offers the possibility of experiencing a night more focused on kizomba on Fridays and a more “African night” on Saturday. At this moment, on Friday night we can find some of the DJs most appreciated in the world of kizomba schools and festivals joining DJ Klaus, the resident DJ. On Saturday, the invited DJs are specialists in African audiences; for example, DJ Zauzito was there for a noite do semba (semba night).
Summing up, if you go on Friday, you may find a kizomba workshop or a show by a well-known teacher; if you go on Saturday, you may find something more similar to the nostalgic African discos of the 80s and 90s. Or you may find a surprise, as new realities are being created every weekend. What are the new shapes that African-ness is taking in Lisbon´s nights? Are we helping the blending of social groups and night cultures through the love for music and dance? The answers are waiting on the dancefloor of discos like Kalema in the next years, starting from tonight. We´d better not miss it!
Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator of Modern Moves Project and will become a full member on September 2015.
The first time I heard about A Lontra disco was the night that Luísa Roubaud, one of the best experts in the dance scene in Lisbon and a great colleague and friend at INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia), talked to me about it. We were enjoying a night out with some of her friends who used to go to African music clubs since the eighties. Having witnessed all the transformations of the last decades, they were making a contrast between nowadays´ kizomba fashion night life and the golden times they remembered in the 70s and the 80s. As memories started popping up, their eyes shone when talking about A Lontra, a mythical dance club that opened in Lisbon after the outbreak of the independence wars of Portugal’s former African colonies. The owners were a married couple that came from Luanda and landed in Lisbon in 1975, running away from the war of independence in Angola, like other more than 500.000 people after-25th April 1974 (see Machado 1974). These frequent visitors of A Lontra remembered that the couple consisted of an incredibly beautiful Black African lady (Dinah) and her husband, a White Portuguese gentleman (Carlos Correia). Just like in fairy tales, the beauty of Dinah was well-known and admired in the kingdom of the African nights of Lisbon. They insisted that I should go and speak to her to know the whole story from her lips. Since that day, I had been looking forward to meeting her and making her an in-depth interview. I had seen the front door with the old metal sign representing an otter (that´s the meaning of “Lontra”) many times when passing by Rua de São Bento, and it was the night of Saturday 28th February that I decided to visit the place.
DOOR OF A LONTRA
METAL ICON OF A LONTRA
As I entered and approached the bar to ask about the politics of consumption, an ageless beautiful lady dressed in an elegant black suit came along walking slowly to attend. At that very moment, I said to myself: “no doubt, there she is”. Indeed, she was the legendary Dinah. I was lucky enough to get an appointment for an interview to know more about the history of the place and its secrets.
A Lontra was opened in 1977, right after Angola achieved its independence. This means that it was one of the first African discos of Lisbon. Like all the people who went to Portugal running away from the African wars of independence, they had to restart their lives from zero. Until they could find a way to make a living, they depended on public subventions aimed at “retornados” (“returned people”) and on the hospitality of their extended family. As they were experienced in managing discos in Luanda (such as the ones they owned, Cave Adão and Veleiro), they decided to start up a new business in the same branch. It was directed in principle to an audience of “retornados” that missed Africa and their lifestyle there. Gathering for listening to their beloved music became an urgent need, and A Lontra came to offer a home to alleviate homesickness through dancing together. The following images show some of the original spaces of A Lontra.
FIRST BAR, A LONTRA
SECOND BAR, A LONTRA
DANCE FLOOR, A LONTRA
A Lontra is situated in an emblematic place (Rua de São Bento 157), less than 5 minutes from the Assambleia da República, the most emblematic political institution of Portugal. It was not long time before some deputies, as well as intellectuals and artists heard of A Lontra and came to satisfy their curiosity. This nucleus of the political, artistic and intellectual elite of Lisbon became a faithful group of clients: these were the golden times of A Lontra, between the 80s and the 90s. In those days, DJing was combined with live music. Among other treasures, Dinah still keeps a large chest full of old vinyl discs of African music:
THE CHEST OF VINYLS
SOME OF THE OLD VINYLS (WE SEE IMAGES FAMILIAR FROM OUR RECENT VISIT TO COTONOU!)
Dinah also possesses a beautiful collection of art handcraft bought during travels to Angola, which are also displayed in the disco.
ELEPHANT WOODEN CHAIR
FEMALE FIGURE IN WOOD
MASK IN WOOD
Another jewel that she keeps carefully is a collection of pictures of those days. Some deputies used to gather in A Lontra for a drink after their sessions in Assambleia da República. Sometimes, they held meetings in a private room that Dinah gently opened for them. It means that important decisions for the future of Portugal were taken inside A Lontra´s walls.
A LONTRA, A NIGHT IN 1996
Through the 70s and 80s, more African houses opened up in Lisbon. Dinah and her husband Carlos opened a second house in 1980, “Cave Adão”, following the style and fame of the disco they had opened in Luanda, and in 1989 Dinah opened the disco “Rainha Njinga” (an epical Angolan queen known for her fierce resistance to the Portuguese colonizers). The clientele changed through time, and A Lontra started being visited by more and more people from Cape Verde. Vinyl music changed to CD, and later to digital files in the DJ´s computer, and the styles and ambience of the house changed too. With the recent boom of kizomba music and dance throughout the world, A Lontra adapted to the new times and DJs started introducing the most recent hits of kizomba. This is an excerpt of the fieldnotes I took that night:
“The night starts with loud afrohouse music, what indicates that the audience will probably be mainly people in their twenties. As expected, young boys and girls start coming since approximately two o´clock at night. The first beats of recent kizomba hits make some couples jump to the dancefloor. There is a pair of couples doing school-like steps, but the rest are dancing free style. Two boys leaning on the bar encourage themselves and finally leave their glasses on the counter to go and invite some of the girls that gather in groups by the edge of the dancefloor, but they refuse. Only when one of them insists and pulls a girl´s arm she accepts with a facial expression of resignation. Anyway, she abandons him in the middle of the song. It seems that it´s a hard job for boys. Then the DJ turns to Brazilian and international commercial music, such as Enrique Iglesias´ “Bailando” hit. Girls go crazy dancing in groups and having fun. The moment of funaná creates a new atmosphere: there are not many people dancing in couples, but mostly girls dancing among themselves and joking with and through the music. There is a girl dressed in a stripped blue and white tight dress who dances in an amazing and crazy way, moving her hips and feet in every possible way without ever losing the beat. Dinah is looking at her from the counter and smiling with pleasure. Then the DJ moves to batuque and people get even crazier, shaking hips and bumping navels on the dancefloor. Popular music from Cape Verde, mostly from Santiago, is played for a long time and intertwined with musical blocks of kizomba and afrohouse.” (Fieldwork diary, 28th February 2015) (To know more about batuque music and dance in Lisbon, see the work of Ana Flávia Miguel and Jorge Castro Ribeiro, INET-MD)
In conclusion, A Lontra can be proud of being one of the oldest African houses of Lisbon still open today and of having witnessed the recent history of Lisbon. It has resisted the changing times through adapting to the social and cultural transformations of the city. The dance steps of artists, politicians, intellectuals, curious visitors and people of all ages and from every corner of the PALOPS, have written on its dancefloor the history of relations between Portugal and Africa for at least the last 38 years. But, unlike an old museum, music has kept A Lontra young and alive. When asked about the secret for this, Dinah smiles and says: “this is something you do because you love it”.
Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently a member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator in the Modern Moves Project and will become a full member of the team in September 2015.
Machado, Fernando Luís (1994) Luso-africanos em Portugal: nas margens da etnicidade. Sociologia: Problemas e Práticas 16: 111-134
Featured image: Archival photo of A Lontra, a night in 1996
Deep red earth and lush green vegetation: the road to Ouidah, an hour or so out of Cotonou, Benin, takes you past the most incredible colours.
In the historical city of Ouidah, the power of nature mingles with the tragedies of modern history and the resilience of the sacred.
We at Modern Moves know about the sacredness of pythons. I have devoured, from cover to cover, many times over, Katherine Dunham’s account of her complex relationship with Damballa, serpent god, which first started during her fieldwork in Haiti. In Ouidah, I saw the same coiled and terrifying beauty, the same egg yolk stains proclaiming sacrifice and offerings.
Our tour companions from Nigeria and Ghana were both drawn to and terrified by the pythons. I have not heard a grown man scream so loudly as when the python was draped around one of their necks, and yet– he did not reject it! The python, coiled around his reluctant yet eager neck, radiated the uncanny presence of mystery in the midst of deep historical rupture.
The journey through the Route of Slaves, through the heart of contemporary Africa, had begun for our group of dancers, visiting Cotonou as part of the Benin International Salsa Festival.
TREES: OF MEMORY, FORGETTING, AND RETURN
Trees: the tree under which future slaves were paraded to be sold; the Tree of Forgetting, and the Tree of Return. These are now part of the structured journey of memorialisation that has been created by the postcolonial State of Benin in reparation for the complicity of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the transformation of human beings into commodities.
The lieux de memoire combine mercantile and sacred dimensions. Can the sacred ever come to us unmediated in modernity?
The sacred can confront and defeat banalisation. Of this I am convinced, as we drive past statues whose obviously recent vintage does nothing to diminish their strange and disquieting power.
Perhaps this strangeness is merely a product of the distance between the belief systems they belong to, and what I know. But having grown up India, I am comfortable with the idea of syncretism, of the mingling of one God and many gods, of many possible manifestations of the sacred. I am a believer and an atheist, a lover and a sceptic. What I respond to in Ouidah is an accretion of strange sacrality, the confusions of modernity, and the power of the human imagination to contort, distort, resist, and reclaim.
This is the same aesthetic that is so powerfully present in Haiti. In the car the radio bombards us with a combination of African salsa and zouk, including retro zouk numbers that clearly sound out the debt to Haitian kompa. In the haze of monumentalisation, a fresco-ed wall flashes past us. I read the magic words ‘Bois Cayman’. Stop! I implore. This petite escale is not part of the tour we have paid for. But the guide recognises the urgency in my voice. ‘Why did you want to stop here? What is Bois Cayman to you’? I look at him in amazement. ‘are you joking? This monument recognises the most important moment in the history of slave rebellion in the Americas and we are not stopping here?’ We are now complicit spirits.
We walk around the Memorial Zomachi. Panels on the walls depict in painful detail the departure of the slaves, their captivity, their degradation, and their rebellion in Haiti, the world’s first Black Republic. We enter through the gate, but the panelled walls enclose only nothingness.
INTERMISSION: ‘BLACK C’EST LE SWAG’
The void asks us to meditate, to commemorate, to reflect. This is also what the State asks us to do. But the void’s request is easier to heed.
…. for some of us.
My companions are busy posing. Their postures are those of hip hop, of swag, of attitude- new incarnations of Black Power. They have come on this tour to discover a shared history, they tell me. What kind of discovery involves noisy, even celebratory posturing? Then it strikes me: theirs is an act of collective reparation in and through the body.
Melancholia comes in many colours. What we feel in response to a history that we did not shape but yet feel as ours can require words that are beyond European lexicons. As postcolonial subjects we feel the European words in our mouths and reshape them with our tongues . Our bodies play out different affective trails. Memory is physical, its burden lightened through laughter, through movement. Through posture. Through swag.
Beyond the sepulchral, monumental, cavernous lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) of French metropolitan historians, can we not posit the possibility of ‘mouvements de mémoire’ (movements of memory)?
(Salsa: when this dance of the African diaspora returns to Africa, it is precisely the movements (in multiple senses) of memory that take place).
The void elicits from us our own methods of commemoration .
THE MERMAID CALLS
Portals: The Door of No Return. A vast number of Africans left the shores of Dahomey for the plantations of the Americas. The final monument in Ouidah that we are led to is, fittingly, the Door of No Return.
I note the now-familiar routine. The guide intones the horrors of the slave trade. The visitors strike their poses. Elina and I wander around, taking pictures. The sand is hot beneath our feet. The sea is out there- it seems close, but the sand is far too hot to walk to the water.
The guide is talking about Mami Wata. She is the water goddess. I say, in the Brazilian way, ‘Iemanja’. He spins around. Once again, he is surprised by me. ‘How do you know of her? Where are you from?’ I’m just an Indian woman who lives in the world and loves to know about everything. Oh and I dance. And like to think through dance.
We stand by the shore. I hear the guide describe the mode of worship appropriate to Mami Wata. ‘Are there temples to Mami Wata here?’ I ask. He peers into my face and his voice drops. ‘She doesn’t need temples. She is here, she is everywhere.’
My own voice drops in synchronicity. I feel we must speak low. ‘Do you see her then?’ The guide looks at me. ‘I sense her presence everywhere. At night, I see her here, on the beach. She is a mermaid…. she has no legs, just the body of a fish….’ Then…. ‘she is like you.’
Prufrock has ‘seen them riding seaward on the waves/ Combing the white hair of the waves blown back/ When the wind blows the water white and black.’ Trapped in the modern dichotomy between reason and enchantment, he (or possibly the poet himself here) declares, sadly, ‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’
In Ouidah, however, we linger (unable to stop taking photographs), touched by some secret knowledge of the sacred that still persists on that sea shore– on the other side of which so many thousands woke up to be drowned- but also survived through the persistence of cultural resources.
Africa shows the way. Ex Africa aliquid semper novi.
All photographs by Ananya Kabir.
Thank you Elina Djebbari for being such a perfect travel companion, Thank you, Ines Ahouansou and Steve Deogratias Lokonon, organisers of the Benin International Salsa Festival, for arranging this memorable visit to Ouidah.
Korzo Theater, The Hague: sunny afternoon outside, total darkness inside. Out of the dark emerge footsteps and the faint outline of bodies. Slowly six bodies, sitting cross-legged in a circle, are revealed. An Indian soundscape– tablas, Sanskrit chants— makes itself audible. A South Asian sacred ambience is unfolded through hand gestures that combine mudras, Islamic ablutions, and Hindu rites. We are in a meditative memorial space. Gestures that have become hegemonic in a majoritarian context are here, in double diaspora, as fragile and precious as a rose.
The bodies rise, their writhing movements around a single central box-like frame. The minimalist prop (which will stay on stage throughout the performance) is complemented by the outfits of the six dancers—short kurtas and dhotis of white homespun cotton—the signature garb of South Asian migrant labour down the ages. Beneath them we can glimpse the black stretch tops and leggings—the uniform of contemporary dancers. We are in a layered world. Here, bodies, space, sound, and movement bear witness to migration and mixing, to the subaltern’s labour that laid the bricks of modernity. This is the history commemorated in Shailesh Bahoran’s magnificent piece, Lalla Rookh.
Lalla Rookh was the ship that transported the first Hindustani emigrants from colonial India to the Dutch colony of Suriname. As the flyer accompanying the show reminds us, ‘the first group, consisted on 399 emigrants, came to shore at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam on 5 June 1873.’ As elsewhere throughout the imperial world, they came to fill the labour gap left after the abolition of slavery in 1863. ‘Between 1873 and 1916, over 34,000 Hindustanis chose to leave their homeland to go to Suriname to work as a field labourer or to work in the factories’. Bahoran and at least some of his multi-ethnic cast claim this history as their own. At the end of 50 minutes, Lalla Rookh leaves the audience with the realisation that all of us, subjects of late modernity, are also part of that history.
Lalla Rookh’s six dancers move from the particular to the universal through a versatile dance style with global reach: hiphop and associated kineasthetics (b-boying, breakdancing, funk, popping, locking). Afro-diasporic dance heritage here tells the story of the pagal samundar: Hindustani for ‘the mad sea’ that the ships encountered as they turned the Cape of Good Hope. Popping and locking suggest the ship tossed on high waves, and the dislocation of a body and mind in extreme agony. Whirling movements executed on the knees suggest incapacitation, even dementia. Two dancers lock their bodies; their crouching, swaying, and headstands remind me of capoeira. Battle steps forged through resistance on the slave plantation now enact the birth of the jahaji-bhai—the new camaraderie of the ship-brotherhood.
In this twilight of passage from the old to the as-yet-unknown, a young woman is wrapped in a sari and disrobed by her ship-companions. This extremely powerful sequence draws on the myth of Draupadi from the Indic ‘epic’, the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s kinsmen had tried to rape her in public by disrobing her, even as the god Krishna came to her rescue by merging his infinitude with her sari that consequently never left her body. But this is a new world; there is no Krishna here; the woman writhes as her sari is ripped off. A male dancer whirls it around his body in a mad frenzy; the sari becomes the ship’s sail. New myths for old: Rape, brutality, and the violence born of violence constitute the jahaji-bhai’s baggage.
The remainder of the production uses hiphop and urban dance to evoke the complete transformation of the new arrival to what, in the Fijian context, was called the ‘girmitiya’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girmityas: the subject of Empire whose body is worth the labour it is contracted to deliver, measurable in years, months, days, and hours. The soundtrack highlights this extreme measurement of human worth by capitalist time through the predominance of a metronomic ticking clock and the dancers’ breathtakingly accomplished body isolations. These movements peak into a long sequence of body shudders to a percussive line that becomes increasingly industrial and machine-like. These are the Robots of the Plantation and the Factory, the zombies of the Caribbean imaginary, the cogs in Capitalism’s monstrous wheels.
Periodically, melodies and chanting voices revive a sense of the sacred. Fragments of a thumri in a minor key are interspersed with atmospheric crackles. An existential problem emerges: how to heal through these fragments? Can the trauma of Lalla Rookh and kala pani (black waters)— the dark passage that robbed one of identity and moorings—ever recede? The box-frame that signified the ship is viciously and urgently rejected. But it never leaves the stage. The suggestion is of identities lost, but new ones born— without amnesia. This is why a New World dance vocabulary, forged through the embodied experiences of those who had been displaced earlier by slavery, makes such poetic sense here.
Yet Indian-ness persists in the little traditions that Lalla Rookh lovingly celebrates. The ritual gestures of meditation and prayer return. The labourer who dies after an all-consuming burst of physical rebellion and exhaustion is anointed on top of that same white box-frame. His companions consecrate his body with drops of water shaken from fresh leaves dipped into small ritual vessels, in the same way as his ancestors would have done in the plains of India’s great rivers. As the five remaining dancers circle the prone body in course of the ritual, their sobs mingle with the already layered soundtrack. I wonder—is this the end? Let there be something else. Please.
Suddenly, thankfully, we get the release we crave. A series of shudders unite the group and transform into a burst of triumphant movement. There are many deaths in the piece, but there are rebirths, too. And what is reborn is a new creolized body— with Indian hand mudras and b-boying lower bodies, with relentless metronome of Capitalist time overlain by the lovely notes of the wooden flute—Krishna’s flute— carrying the essence of Indic sweetness across the mad seas. As I resurfaced in the minimalist foyer of the very Dutch Korzo Theater, blinking away my tears, my understanding of the Netherlands’ inner history and its hidden connection with my own postcolonial Indian-ness was once again expanded— in a process that started when I visited Suriname a few years ago.
From the CaDance Festival brochures, banners, and website, an arresting figure has been watching us. It is Shailesh Bahoran himself, a contemporary Amazonian river-deity rising from the edge of where Plantation meets Rainforest (or so I imagine); painted blue like Krishna, wreathed with feathers and grass like a mythic figure from a Wilson Harris novel; sunglasses jauntily proclaiming his swag, and body arrested in a ribcage move that is typically Afro-diasporic. This palimpsest of a body is what Suriname, one of the most culturally and demographically mixed up places in the world, brings to our consciousness. We are all more or less like that body. It is the labours of that body to which we owe the modern world. The search for culture is now conducted through a creole language. And we all must learn to speak it, recognise its fragments within us, treat it with love and respect. That’s what Lalla Rookh‘s visionary director and its superbly talented dancers teach us.
Thanks to the dancers and director for a wonderful and moving theatre experience!
All photos of the Lalla Rookh performance courtesy of Shailesh Bahoran
All photos of Paramaribo, Suriname, and final photo of the CaDance brochure courtesy of Ananya Kabir
‘Africa habla en mi’ (Africa speaks in me): 8th-13th November 2014
My last week in Havana reflected the usual double-life ‘routine’ of my fieldwork– with research in the archives during the day and research in music and dance places at night.
I spent most of my days during the week in Archivo nacional and Biblioteca nacional and by increasing the work around what I was supposed to be limited to, I managed to access some nonpublic documents issued by different Ministries — and of course, these were the most interesting ones, like the cultural agreements established by Cuba with African countries between 1964 and 1975.
Cultural agreements between Cuba and African nations
I continued to look for what could be of interest for Modern Moves as well and collected more documents about couple dance genres, some of which should provide enriching information about the Cuban political involvement in supporting these popular music dance forms.
Centenario del danzon
As for the nighttime, I organised private dance classes in various Cuban dance genres, from danzon and danzonete to son and salsa via chachacha, mambo, rumba and ‘yoruba’ (orisha-related dances). In so doing, I was able to feel in my body a kind of continuity from danzon to son to salsa, even if I was trying carefully to not recreate a pre-established genealogy outlined in the official history of Cuban music and dance. Despite these precautions, the observations I made in the field helped me to understand how what is now globally known as ‘salsa’ could emerge from all the various Cuban dance genres, and as I discussed with Ananya during her visit this weekend to Paris, even a link between reggaeton dance and guaguanco can be felt from this perspective.
Guaguanco at Callejon de Hamel
These specific Cuban dance forms help us to rethink the notion of couple dance itself, as they are undoubtedly couple dance with the exception that other parts of the body play the role of linking the two dance partners together. And the Afro-Cuban dance genres I experienced in both their social and staged settings helped me to understand how the Afro kinetic heritage has been uniquely reshaped in Cuba. Despite the knowledge and practice of West African dance I already have, I was really challenged when it comes to learn rumba and orisha- related dances, as the apprehension of the rhythm and how you coordinate your feet and your arms and how you basically move on sometimes a quite slow tempo were completely new for me.
En route to a rumba event
Besides these dance classes, I continued to enjoy music and dance events Cuba has to offer on a daily basis. Among others, I was invited to a private event called ‘toque de santo’ celebrating a Santeria birthday of a young woman recently initiated under the patronage of Yemaya. Ironically, even if I in a way dedicated my life to understand the social power of music and dance, I am always amazed to witness and be part of this kind of phenomenon.
Altar for Yemaya
As for a global overview of this month of fieldwork in Cuba, it was both hard and enjoyable, and I feel happy to be able to say: ‘I did it!’. For a first-time Cuban experience, I think I did my utmost, dealing with the no-other option than speaking Spanish (which as a result quickly improved!) among other fieldwork difficulties. Despite the fact that I did not find some specific documents I was looking for, I followed every trail and the clues I dug out, and I collected findings that were very interesting in any case. I will now be now able to return more equipped to face a potential other fieldwork trip, my notebook and pockets full of numbers of new friends!
fruits of fieldwork labours!
Stretching my limits through this enriching experience and learning every day a bit more about the complexity of multi-faceted Cuban society, I am now about to leave for the other side of the ‘Black Atlantic’ to go to Burkina Faso after a quick stopover in Paris. Keeping in mind all the different kinds of references to Africa I encountered in Cuba, from the most discreet to the most tangible, like the message written on the t-shirt worn by the drummer of Conjunto Chappottin ‘Africa habla en mi’, I am sure that the Cuban experience will allow me to perceive differently this forthcoming African trip.
The time has come to close here this last dispatch from the field, on the eve of this new adventure, let’s go!
Oshun, ‘la muchacha francesa’, and her ‘Maravillas de Mali!’: 1st – 7th December 2014
As usual, what was planned barely happened and each day brought its share of surprises.
This week I chased up pending meetings, I came back to places I already visited and I continued to explore some new ones. I went to the headquarters of OSPAAAL (Organización de Solidaridad de los Pueblos de África, Asia y América Latina), Museo de la Danza, Universidad de la Habana and Instituto Superior de Arte. The latter, Che Guevara’s project, was quite amazing: the atmosphere was filled with sounds made by young music students who were training everywhere in and around the Facultad de Música. Creativity, inspiration and labour were palpable, and I really enjoyed this experience.
Instituto Superior de Arte
Young music student rehearsing outdoors
After coming back for the third time to the Instituto Cubano Radio y Televisión (ICRT), I could finally start the long process of asking for the authorisation for consulting their archives, both for my own research project and other Modern Moves interests. I really hope that it will yield something tangible.
Like every week I came back again at EGREM studio to try to obtain something there, but even if I got a few little new things, it is not really what I was hoping for… Each time I met other people there, they seem to be aware of who I am and what I am looking for since when I start explaining, they interrupt me by this kind of comment ‘¡Si, la muchacha francesa, Las Maravillas de Mali!’
Well, as it is written on a little piece of wood in the ‘casa particular’ where I am staying: ‘Todas las personas que visitan esta casa nos dan mucha alegría, unas cuando llegan y otras cuando se van…’ – ‘All people who visit this house give us joy, some when they arrive, others when they leave’ —, I think that EGREM studio and some other places where I keep coming will be relieved to see me leaving their premises! However, I know that some people acknowledged my ‘obstinación y perseverancia’ and they really tried to help me in my quest.
I also returned to the national archives and national library, and dealing with sudden interruptions of service due to untimely fumigation, electricity or water cut, or other unexpected problems, I managed to collect interesting documents, like the telegrams exchanged by Ministerio de relaciones exteriores and African countries at the time of their achievement of independence.
I am also working on finding documents for other Modern Moves purposes but it seems that, like everywhere else, the topic of couple dance has been less explored than the music linked to these forms.
Books at Biblioteca nacional
Speaking of which, I diversified my discovery of Cuban music and dance landscape by exploring new places. I was advised to go to Teatro Brecht for a Latin jazz, rock and funk event; I danced salsa, merengue and rueda de casino in ‘al fresco’ places or during live concerts of the new generations of mythical orchestras Conjunto Chappottin and Conjunto Arsenio Rodriguez; I went to nightclubs where I could definitely not deny that the Cuban way of dancing reggaeton is extremely far from how I learned it in Paris. As I was told, it is considered here as a couple dance, and indeed it is, with the difference that they don’t face each other.
Another interesting thing I saw in nightclubs and other places: at some points the crowd moves together with the same steps on various kind of electronic-like music and the steps they do, labeled under the name of ‘discoteca’ for which I could know so far, correspond exactly to what I learnt as kuduro when I was in Mali. In front of this manifestation of globalisation on the dancefloor, I would really like to find out more about the circulation network of such dance moves which are differently interpreted worldwide despite their shared kinetic basis.
I also attended a santeria ceremony and it was really impressive to see the initiated respond to the songs and rhythms played on the bata drums, how the crowd does certain things at specific times, all being expressed through gestures, dance moves and songs.
Bata drums played in honour of Chango
Later in the week, I watched a show made in honour of the orishas by a group of female drummers, singers and dancers. Through a completely different setting and with the representation of some orishas, it was interesting to see how Afro-Cuban religious items are used and mixed in a contemporary dance performance.
Oshun the group of female drummers Obini Bata
I set up classes of different Cuban dance genres for next week, and I am now about to start with danzon and danzonete!
In August 2014, the Modern Moves team collaborated with London’s Batuke! Festival of Afro-Luso dance culture. This month’s Moving Story presents a kaleidoscope of our individual responses to the weekend, which included classes, parties, and participation in the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday.
Four very different perspectives here, which are not shy to reveal the intensely personal impact the festival had on each of us—and each one emphasizing the ‘exhilaration’ alongside the ‘learning’. 1. THE (JOYFUL) WOUND OF HISTORY- Ananya
Batuke 2014: In a basement room in central London, a group of dancers are going through the steps of the Angolan dance ‘Rebita’. The Rebita involves men and women promenading in a circle. When the ‘Commandante’ (here, the teacher Mestre Petchu) calls us to attention—‘atenção!’— we shift our steps from tempo to contratempo. Stepping into the circle with a crossed step, we shift back, face our partners, and flex our torsos towards each other. After this movement, we resume our Rebita promenade.
What we were performing in that group was the infamous gesture of ‘semba’— which Portuguese and other colonial authorities found the most scandalous element in the dances they observed amongst the Africans they encountered in the region that is now Angola, as well as amongst those transported to Brazil to work as slaves. It is a gesture that – despite this heavy weight of disapproval—has survived and lives on in various social dances across the Afro-diasporic world; it has even given its name to the modern dances ‘samba’ and ‘semba’.
A very specific experience that recurs in my dance research is the feeling, while I’m dancing, of being transported to another time and place. This uncanny encounter between my dancing body and a history that is not mine per se repeats itself often enough for me to not want to dismiss it as the product of an overheated romantic imagination. In the course of my research I constantly ask myself about ‘methodology’. What do we scholars actually do with social dance? How do we use living practice to reveal the past, and why should that past be of any importance and interest to the present?
The Batuke festival presented me with two moments of cutting through space and time. The first was the class in Rebita and Angolan carnival rhythms (such as kazukuta) that Mestre Petchu and Vanessa offered. An exhilarating session of men and women facing each other, led by Petchu and Vanessa; we moved by mimicking their gestures. The heat, the beat, the advance and retreat- the collective energy that warped the present- Petchu and Vanessa coming together briefly in couple hold to dance a few semba steps. I was somewhere in Angola, sometime when the rebita and kazukuta were transforming into semba.
The second class released a different energy. Kwenda Lima led a large group through Caboverdian rhythms: mazurka, coladeira, and batuke. As with the other class, we sometimes formed couples, sometimes divided into male and female groups. The atmosphere was defined by Kwenda’s mix of childlike joy and complete control over the archive he was opening. It was delightful to move from the mazurka, with its clear links to Central European partner dance, through the lively coladeiras and finally our fantastic finale of the batuke (more meaningful for us by being one of the songs in the Muloma soundtrack). Facing each other, keeping the rhythm by continuously slapping our thighs, we performed for each other, gave each other strength.
Once again I was translated to an ‘elsewhere’– an island in Cabo Verde, where women sang work songs and produced percussion out of their bodies—because they either did not possess percussion instruments, or because percussion was forbidden (as with the ‘patting juba’ traditions of the American South). That evening I discovered massive bruises on my thighs produced by the energetic batukeira that I had momentarily become. I remembered the wound that never heals on the ankle of Achille the Caribbean fisherman, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros? Yes, the wound of history– but also the mark of intense pleasure and a physical understanding of what it means to feel the batuque.
There were other moments, too, when the unexpected conjunctions of Afro-diasporic history passed through my body as participant and spectator. Jessica from New York paying homage to her Haitian heritage by dancing the yonvalou (voudou movement in honour of the snake god Damballa) at the start of her kizomba show with her dance partner Phil (also of Haitian heritage via Montreal); Nuno Campos and Iris de Brito teaching us to sing in Criolu (‘Sodade’) and Kimbundu (‘Muxima’), the sounds and words forming in our mouths and throats; all of us at the final class chanting in call and response format, participating in impromptu animations, and cheering on those who entered the drum circle to delight us with their quicksilver movements.
It’s unusual to find a festival that finds space for discussion, history, and reflection, as well as for dance pedagogy. When these elements are integrated into a festival it facilitates a different kind of learning experience. Dance and music illuminate each other in a mutually enhancing manner. The learning breakthroughs for me came in Phil and Jessica’s ‘kompa to kizomba’ presentation, and towards the end of Petchu and Vanessa’s seminar on Carnival. In the kompa presentation we were asked to dance in two-step to different genres- kompa, semba, zouk and merengue, while in the Carnival seminar, different couples danced social semba, funana, samba and carnival semba to the same song.
As each presenter asked members of the audience to dance to demonstrate the co-existence of similarity, difference and continuity, many things that I had only read about in texts suddenly came alive and made real sense.
2. ‘TIME GOES BY SO SLOWLY’- Elina
After a long weekend of dance classes and parties at Batuke! Festival in London from 22nd to 24th August 2014, anyone who has experienced so many different kinds of body activation would be both exhilarated and exhausted.
It was also an intensive brain ‘boot camp’ — as this word is now used in the dance context — that allowed me to experience and to think more deeply about how Afro-Luso dance culture, particularly kizomba, is now so popular among a very diverse range of people.
Besides the dance classes I attended, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen class to Coupé décalé (offered by an Angolan dancer by the way), from Rebita and Semba to Cape Verdian Mazurka and Coladeira, the parties taking place in the evenings were also a space where you could experience another relationship to dance. People are no more in training clothes and running shoes, but dress up according to the different themes (‘Union Jack swag’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Miami Beach’), ready to apply on the dance floor what they learned in the day. The multiplication of possibilities to connect with dance in different ways during the festival allowed me to think about the complexity of spatiotemporal dimension in this frame.
As multi-layers of time are already entangled in the context of dance floors, the kizomba scene adds another dimension that could be related to the world of electronic music: the music is deliberately mixed in such a way that you can barely feel when a ‘song’ ends and another starts, especially during tarraxinha sets.
This also implies that the change of dance partner is not obvious at all and reshapes the relationships between the dance couple and the energy produced on the dance floor. You do not see a moving tide with hands and arms flying around like in a salsa party, but in the contrary, you can see a slow undulation of bodies, head against head with closed eyes, that seems able to never end. Indeed, if the dancers are both enjoying the dance, they can keep dancing without feeling any need to look for another partner for a while.
Thus I discovered during the Batuke! parties that some of the codes valid in the salsa world – for instance- are not accurate here. I am afraid that my ‘salsa’ tendency to move away from my dance partner at the end of the song was surely felt quite rude sometimes. You have to penetrate a world that is not only a space for a completely different kind of couple dance and music but has also its own rules. If you try to apply the ones you know previously without keeping this in mind and accepting your ignorance, you may be ‘chopped’ ¬or seem to ‘chop’ someone by mistake — to use a word from the Vogueing scene that I’ve learnt thanks to Madison!
Thinking about this phenomenon when we are used to dance according to a very specific setting which involves the change of partner after each song, then suddenly, discovering the possibility of being ‘locked’ with a complete stranger for about half an hour or more raises many questions: how the partners feel that it is the time to release each other? Who is responsible for ending the dance? Are both men and women feeling bad for being released only after one song? Besides, how important is the influence of the music production in this setting? Are the possibilities offered by electronic sounds ‘responsible’ for expanding the dance?
This slow dance, which is experienced by an international audience and could be considered, for many reasons, as a product of the globalization process in itself, thus confronts the realities of the globalized capitalist world where – in short – accumulation and speed are emphasized.
The notion of ‘song’ duration is transcended by the need of people to connect themselves with another body through the length of the dance. The longer the better to be completely immersed in a kind of transcendental space, where the two bodies are building a little story, song after song, without any words or even any eye contact sometimes, but with the sharing of a close body contact and the feeling of moving in a compatible manner.
My global assessment of the kizomba parties I first experienced so completely at Batuke is that they completely invert the balance between the couple dance part and the solo dance parts (on Afro House music) as I have experienced as a teenager during the first parties I ever had that we called ‘booms’ at that time. You were mainly dancing in solo but were secretly waiting for the ‘slow’ couple dance moment. At Batuke! parties, it seems that I had to forget all my expectations to be able to go beyond the dance culture in which I grew up!
3. ‘LAS PENAS SE VAN CANTANDO’- Francesca
Batuke! definitely represents an exception among the many festivals of kizomba, in terms of the effort to represent Afro-Luso culture in the most complete way and in terms of the quality of the professionals chosen for the event.
My impression of the teachers was really positive. I realised that they were chosen not just for the quality of the shows that they could produce –which is one common criterion of choice in this kind of event – but especially for their pedagogic qualities and their ability to move in a comparative way between different dances from the most traditional to the most modern ones throughout the Afro-diasporic world.
Some classes — the Kompa, Zouk, Coupé-decalé, traditional dances of Cape Verde, Rebita, Sabar — were really important opportunities to understand how the most contemporary dance evolved, and other activities like the seminars and the singing class very interestingly complemented this approach t o African culture and rhythm. I must say that very few organizers invest in the introduction of these elements in the dance festivals. Among the different classes that I participated in, I found the following ones particularly interesting:
New York Ginga by Jessica of Kizomba NYC: A comprehensive and interesting class by someone who was for me a lovely discovery through Batuke!. She explained basic movement technique for ladies’ ‘ginga’, starting form the opposition between chest and hips and the position of the knees, which is something fundamental to obtain the correct movement but that most teachers forget to explain. She then proceeded to the description of very simple movements as the frontal wave and hip rotation during the second basic, but she was able to deconstruct the movement to demonstrate very clearly the coordination between the changing of weight and the lateral step in order to make the process clear to even absolute beginners.
In the second half of the class, she applied some tango steps –following her own description of the work – to the ladies’ and men’s saidas. Despite my doubts about the fact that this kind of improvisation very hardly can work in couple dance and that very often women in kizomba have neither the time nor the occasion to plan correctly their own embellishments, the exercises were very useful to train quicker change of weight, balance recuperation, and a little improvisation using the contratempo.
What was evident to me – and it was also confirmed by the couple demo provided at the end of the class – was that the sequence could be applied only partially, and not easily, in a couple’s spontaneous interaction; yet it represented a very good training exercise. (video available)
Dancehall: This class brought together some nice movements that I recognized as belonging to very different African traditions. The typical traditional African movement of the hip circle was combined with the opening and closing of the knees– elements characteristic of some dances from the southern Congo areas that have evidently been developed in different ways in Jamaica adding to them the special cadence of ragga music and a deep bounce at the moment the movement is linked to another one. The basic ginga of capoeira was also used in the mini-choreography that we danced during the class, the basic step reproduced once with the original cadence and then twice at double the speed.
This dance beautifully demonstrated how Jamaican dances unify the idea of a fight with the idea of smooth and provocative movements that can use similar gestures with a completely different attitude. The teacher himself, Safwaan Ess Daboogie, said that he is constantly surprised by the presence of many heterogenic elements that he discovers in dancehall. Traditional kinetic codes are being constantly renewed in these street dances.
Singing: this class to me really represented the spirit of the festival: led by the teachers Iris de Brito and Nuno Campos we spent one hour trying to memorize and sing Creole and Kimbundu lyrics of the two songs Sodade and Muxima, and we received an explanation of the importance and meaning of the two songs that are really emblematic for the two cultures of Cape Verde and Angola. The experience was fascinating: when we try to reproduce the melody of a song in the singing we immediately feel our body interiorizing the rhythm and the cadence; consequently this starts coming out naturally even in the dancing gestures and in the posture of our own body.
Nuno’s explanation of ‘Saudade’ in Cape Verdean culture as a suspended moment, a calm but uncertain wait really clarified the Cape Verdean spirit and was maybe the most profound cultural topic that we touched: he described Sodade as an accepted sorrow, not dramatized, not desperately assumed, but the brief and intense sound of a drop, constantly falling over the echo of a wide but peaceful loneliness.
Final class: The best idea of the festival, and a moment in which we shared our own work and presence there, giving something back to ourselves and to all the group, to fellow participants and to the teachers, celebrating our own presence and energy. This final class has already become a classic and permanent element in the structure of the festival and is definitely a liberating moment in which people can experience the purest essence of dance and music. The dance can be improvisation on the drums, collective moment following a leader, or even just following with our own body the percussion without almost moving.
Dancing to the sound of live drums and without specific structure to follow is an experience that takes people to another level of interpretation of music and of their own movements. In the same way the experience of playing for somebody else for the first time is something really powerful that puts the dancer in a new position and stimulates new cognitive capacities of interpretation of the music and very physical conception of the rhythm.
Notting Hill Carnival: an amazing experience– one of those moments in which the body is part of the dance and part of the music and we can no longer separate them. People from all cultures participated and mixed in the event. We could recognize people that were not born into the cultural groups that paraded, wearing the same costumes with a sense of pride and love. I felt positively surprised by people’s capacity to embrace a new culture to the point of rebuilding the image of their own body and trying to live it in a new way. This was absolutely evident in the Brazilian parades, where people of all provenances were sharing the exhilaration of feeing the freedom and joy of their own body beautifully dressed and decorated, without any taboo due to aesthetical or social rules. It was truly a suspension of the common regular order and the opening of a new dimension in which the body seemed to surpass its limits and capacities and transform itself into a collective entity that was dancing shaking singing and screaming together.
This moment can be a very rich learning process for newer generations within a particular culture, since we actually experienced movements that were suggested by other people in the crowd without even seeing them, but just by means of the vibration of the bodies, without even knowing what our body was doing. Simply being part of a Carnival group is already a way to learn, and we learn by responding directly to the bodies of the other members of the group that impose on us their movement. The Batuke group was really full of energy and well organized and we danced in the rain for almost six hours without stopping. Nobody left till the moment when we decided to leave.
A very good experience was also the one of seeing represented the symbols that I discussed during my seminar on Maracatu on Sunday: seeing kings and queens opening the parade, Brazilian groups playing stick fights (Maculele), and having our own parade opened by an African folkloric group that had at their head a sort of joker figure with a very long stick pointing at the sky, decorated with colourful strips. Maybe he knew, maybe not, that he was recalling some unknown ancestors from another world, geography, dimension… anyway, we knew he was in the right place.
4. DANCE, RECOVERY, REDISCOVERY- Madison
As someone who can spend hours in nightclubs – so long as I’ve had an adequate ‘disco nap’! – during the Batuke! Festival I found myself experiencing a completely other sort of exhaustion. I participated in a number of classes, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance and Cape Verdian Dances to Sabar from Senegal and AfroMix, but after each course, and sometimes during the middle of the class, I had to stop to catch my breath or sit out entirely. This was my first Batuke! Festival as well as my first hands-on exposure to many of these Afro-diasporic dance forms, and part of the incredible learning experience was staying in tune with my body, how it was moving and what it was telling me.
What’s the difference between dancing by yourself to music in a nightclub and being taught choreography as part of a group? How does the body labour differently in each situation?
The best class for me was the Sabar class, mostly because I loved the presence of the drums (and I would) as much as I loved the movements. The whole time there I kept thinking about Barbara Browning’s concept of ‘infectious rhythms’, where cultural transmissions occur through various types of ‘infections,’ with the powerful rhythm of the drum playing a key role. I loved the interplay between the dancer and the drums, with the dancer in many ways ‘conducting’ the drums. I noticed, too, that at the penultimate Batuke! Finale workshop, as each participant danced by the drums, there was definitely a sort of call-and-response, a direct communicative link between the body and the instrument, or the body as instrument.
If the dancer made smaller movements, the drummer made smaller sounds. If she or he made big movements, the drummer made bigger sounds. Certain sounds even lent themselves to all types of booty pops and pops, and this interplay between the body and the drum really made me think about the work a DJ does on any dance floor in inciting you to move, and to move in particular ways.
What I loved most about the festival was the sense of it being a shared space of learning and cultural transmission. People were there to learn. I bought homemade black hair care products and asked the person who sold it to me the best way to take care of my hair. But in terms of the dance itself I’ve already said that this was my first exposure to many of these forms, and even then I could already see how many of the moves percolate throughout contemporary popular music – and I’m thinking specifically of the global popularity of popping and locking, twerking, booty popping, grinding and all the rest.
But it was also a shared space for expressing one’s own connection to the diaspora. French, Spanish, Portuguese and German was spoken, in addition to English, of course. I was asked by several different participants ‘where I am from’, a question that most brown bodies are used to being asked. When I told folks that I was from New York, which is what I always say, the answer was never sufficient enough and people always dig deeper.
‘No, but what are your origins? What is your cultural background?’
And in that instance I say what I always say: my father, who I have never had any contact with, is Jamaican, and the rest is unclear. My mom made various kinds of curries and oxtail, culinary delights that in America are as much a part of Southern Style Soul Food as anything. I feel more African-American than anything as I have never really had any direct ties to Jamaican culture, not least because of rampant homophobia.
When I said this to one person in particular who asked me about my ethnic origins, she rightly told me that it doesn’t matter whether I feel any connection to the culture. It’s in my blood. The way I move and the way I dance is already impacted by my Jamaican roots because ‘it’ is in my blood.
The festival was also a shared space for experiencing connectivity and the universality of the human experience. More than one person I talked to emphasized the power of kizomba to highlight the feelings of being human. Though Kizomba does privilege heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, which admittedly I do have serious issues with, I did notice at least one lesbian couple, and another gay male I talked to told me that when he dances with a girl in kizomba, clearly for him he is not interested in a sexual experience but more in the spiritual feeling of connecting with another body. There’s something about being so in tune with another person that gives you an out-of-body experience.
Kwenda Lima’s exhilarating and fun Kaizen Dance class ended with an unexpected therapy session where his philosophy to life, as mirrored by the dance, was expounded on. Participants eagerly talked about their feelings, love, feeling free through dance, with some people in tears. Immediately I began wondering about the interplay between physical exhaustion, sweat, tears and confession all within the same dance class. How do all of those emotions relate together?
Some questions are best answered by us performing the answers.
We hope this report has made you both think about dance and want to experience, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the exertions, exhilarations and epiphanies of the Afro-dance floor!
All photos courtesy of Kizomba United Kingdom.
The Modern Moves team thanks Iris de Brito for the opportunity to work with Batuke 2014.
This Moving Story was put together by Ananya Kabir on the basis of individual reports from Modern Moves team members Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Ananya Kabir, and Madison Moore.