All posts by Modern Moves


Moving Conversation #9: Thomas Presto and Gladys Francis

Moving Conversation #9: Thomas Presto and Gladys Francis

30TH JUNE 2017

A conversation between
THOMAS PRESTØ, Norway and Trinidad
Artistic director of Tabanka Dance Ensemble and creator of the Talawa Technique
PROFESSOR GLADYS M. FRANCIS, Georgia State University, Atlanta
Director of the South Atlantic Center of the Institute of the Americas,
specialist in the cultures of the French Caribbean, Creolization, and Francophone Africa,

This event will take us back to a theme much loved by Modern Moves: the creolized cultures of the Caribbean, and their spiritual, kinetic, and emotional relationship to West and Central Africa
In signature Modern Moves style, our conversationalists will traverse both sides of the Atlantic and cross Anglophone and Francophone worlds.
With performances and demonstrations by dancers from Thomas Presto’s Tabanka Ensemble, and the energy and dazzle of London’s only Gwoka group, Zil’Oka, whom we are delighted to welcome back to the Anatomy Museum.
On the menu: Rum Punch (of course!) and our specially curated Caribbean Canapes.
On the decks: John Armstrong, the DJ of DJs.
After-party from 8.30 till 10.30 pm at the Anatomy Museum.

Check out our Facebook event page here!

This will be Modern Moves’s FINAL Moving Conversation. Don’t miss this last opportunity to make history with us at King’s College London. Make sure to BOOK your tickets for the night through our eventbrite link you can find here!


News, Other Events

Jazz Dance Up in Heels: a Special Guest Lecture by Prof Thomas F. DeFrantz

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the European Research Council, which funds MODERN MOVES through an Advanced Research Grant awarded to Professor Ananya Kabir, The Modern Moves research team is delighted to present a very special lecture by our advisory board member: PROF THOMAS F. DEFRANTZ of Duke University, USA on the 15th March 2017, at 6.30 pm, at the ANATOMY LECTURE THEATRE, King’s College London.


Prof DeFrantz is one of the leading intellectuals in the world of Black Dance and is a dancer and performer as well as a thinker. His is truly a ‘mind in motion’. His talk will take us back to a formative moment in African diasporic social dance, the Jazz dance era in New York. Who was dancing, who was watching, and who was imitiating whom, and with what consequences? Come to this lecture to find out more!

A reception, enlivened by Mint Julep cocktails and retro canapes, and sponsored by the Department of English, King’s College London (Ananya’s home department) will follow from 8.30 pm- 10 pm at the TERRACE CAFE, King’s College London.

This will be a special event, so please make sure you sign up below and come to enjoy our characteristic mix of erudition, entertainment and conviviality!
Register here and follow the event on the Facebook event page!


Moving Conversation #8 with Alex Wilson & Lucy Durán

Moving Conversation #8 with Alex Wilson & Lucy Durán
2nd March 2017, 6.30-10pm
King’s College London, Strand Campus, Anatomy Museum

Modern Moves presents a very special Moving Conversation centered on musical and choreographic transatlantic dialogues featuring renowned Latin Jazz pianist Alex Wilson and ethnomusicologist and music producer Lucy Durán of School of Oriental and African Studies.

The conversation will touch upon Alex Wilson’s musical creativity and artistic journey that connects different parts of the world through music, making links especially between Cuba, Latin America and West Africa. In the light of the promotion of intercultural dialogues at the global age and the correlative issues, the second Moving Conversation in our third series will enlighten and discuss the work, challenges and aspirations of key personalities in the world music network.

Following on our guests’ interest in Afro-descendant music and dance from Latin America, we are delighted to present a tailored dance show that focuses on the Afro-Colombian dances from both Pacific and Atlantic Coast from Yurupari Grupo Folklorico, a dance company based in London specialised in Colombian and other Latin American dances directed by Xihomara Zentner.

In addition to this exciting outcome, we will have the pleasure to welcome Colombian percussionist Emeris Solis on the congas and DJ John Armstrong on the deck for the after-party, as well as refreshing mojitos and a mixed Cuban-West African canapés menu in the true Modern Moves’ style.

Check out our Facebook event page here!

Join us for this second last Moving Conversation of the year by getting your eventbrite ticket here!

Moving Conversations

Moving Conversation #7: Vjuan Allure, Stephane Mizrahi + Melissa Blanco Borelli

Moving Conversation #7, held on November 18th, 2016, was red hot. For this edition Modern Moves put two iconic pioneers from the global voguing and ballroom scene — Stephane Mizrahi and DJ and producer Vjuan Allure — in conversation with Melissa Blanco Borelli, Senior Lecturer in dance studies at Royal Holloway University. As a dance form, culture and movement language, voguing is more popular now than ever. With artists from Yelle to FKA Twigs incorporating (or appropriating) voguing into their aesthetic, not to mention the release of new documentaries on voguing and ballroom culture such as Kiki, voguing has reached a cultural apex. For this conversation, which was centered on queerness, sexuality, and a strenuous critique of heteronormativity, we heard from the pioneers of the field.

It all started off with a teaser dance by Mother Steffie, known for a style of vogue called Old Way which centers on clean lines, geometry and posing-as-dance. Steffie, who wore a captivating red catsuit with opulent fringe dangling in all the right places, his face covered with a matching red feather fan, worked every corner of the room — the floor, the space aisle between the seats, the back, the front as well as the balcony.

At the end of the performance, Melissa Blanco Borelli asked the panelists to describe what voguing is, particularly for people in the audience who may be unfamiliar with the culture. “I was there at 11 1/2 years old in the club when I learned about voguing,” Vjuan Allure said, locating the origins of voguing to the drag balls in Harlem of the 30s and 40s. “Voguing is a dance to express yourself but it’s also a battle dance. It is actually a fight between people in the club that don’t like each other. That’s what it’s supposed to be but it’s more amicable now.” This particular kind of fight, to be clear, is more of a creative fight, not one with blood and actual punches. It is a battle of aesthetics, an attempt to see who can throw the hardest punch with the best outfit and who can outdo the competition with better moves or another type of surprise performative element. The battle sentiment of voguing is a way of having creative tricks up your sleeves that will make you and your performance come out on top.

“It’s self-expression,” Allure says. “It’s also fabulous drama. It’s moving [in the way] of model poses. Stretch, acrobatics, and definitely a lot of attitude. You cannot vogue without attitude. It’s you coming out of your shell and being presenting it on the floor.”

When Mother Steffie finally caught his breath, he joined in the conversation.

“Voguing is a dance style that takes its roots from poses, lines. You can use also Egyptian influences when you do your poses. It’s about being elegant, present. Now in ballroom culture you have different styles of voguing, which is Old Way, New Way, Vogue Femme, and in Vogue Femme you have two different styles: soft and cunt and dramatics.”

We weren’t going to let him talk about the styles without demonstrating them to us, of course.

Old way, as the audience initially saw in the teaser dance, privileges strong lines, cat walking and posing. “Each time you go a new direction, you pop,” Steffie told us. New way, on the other hand, is really all about the stretch — stretching muscles and awkward, bone bending poses. Vogue Femme, a form created by trans women of color, includes the catwalk, hands performance, duckwalk, spins, dips and is all about attitude, femininity and being “pussy,” a ballroom term used to indicate heightened femininity and which also points to the de/construction of gender. That point was made clear when Steffie added a crucial element to Vogue Femme performance. “When you vogue femme you have to bounce.”

Old way is straight and linear, whereas with vogue femme you push your hips out to give off heightened femininity. “Transsexuals used to dance vogue,” Steffie said, “and they took the style and owned it, made it appropriate for them. They didn’t want to be masculine. They wanted to be feminine.”

“And the reason there’s a category called vogue femme,” Allure jumped in, “is when you’re a gay club you have what we call “butch queens,” which are guys, which would be us. Then you have people that are drags, which are guys who get into drag. But you also have transsexuals and when they were in the club, they wanted to vogue, too, but they made it very feminine. That became their style.”

“There used to be a category in ballroom called “butch queen voguing like a femme queen,” so a guy imitating how a transsexual vogues. That’s what became vogue femme.”

With all of these various communities coming together — drag queens, gay men, and transsexuals, all of them interested in vogue — Melissa Blanco Borelli wondered what factors were in play that allowed these parties to innovate, to seize voguing in a way and make it their own.

“There was an ostricization regarding certain styles,” Allure said, “because old way was the classic style. When things started getting more acrobatic, people started to bend their bodies differently, including splits and clicks and doing more hieroglyphics that were more than just straight lines.”

But because not everyone could dance that way, Old Way became its own style. Like all forms of dancing, voguing requires precision, attitude and conviction in order to deliver a compelling performance.

After talking through the various elements of vogue, a perfect tool kit for the free voguing workshop Mother Steffie led after the panel, the conversation shifted towards a discussion about beats, or the importance of the DJ in pulling out a successful, emotive performance from the dance floor.

“We didn’t have our own music. What we used at balls was music that was older or anything that was out at the time. I started to make beats and I kept making them. I made hundreds of them, almost thousands of them, and now we have a whole arsenal of beats. We have other beat makers that make these hyper beats. The hyper beats are there to garner this energy.” To achieve that level of energy, balls are constructed of various layers of sound: the call and response feedback from the crowd, who shout house names at the competitors, the commentator, a master of ceremonies who spurs the performers on while also narrating what they are doing and keeping the show moving, and finally the DJ, who knows how to play the right kind of beat that will pull out the right kind of performance from the dancer.

We all have some kind of relationship to beats, a point Melissa Blanco Borelli knew all too well when she asked Mother Steffie to talk about his favorite ballroom beat.

“The ‘ha’. I like ‘the ha,'” he said. “I like Vjuan’s stuff. I like MikeQ’s beats, too. Also in Paris there’s some producers that want to venture into [beat making] and the first thing I told them is, ‘If you want to make some voguing beats, you’ve got to learn how to vogue! How else are you going to get the inspiration to get the girls going if you don’t know what’s about and how you feel it?”

“The beats give you the energy,” he continued, pointing ultimately to voguing as about endurance, especially in the battling stage. You advance to the next round of competition in a category if and only if the judging panel unanimously agrees that you brought the category with your performance. A single “chop,” or disqualification, from any judge kicks you out of the competition and from advancing to further rounds. You need “10s across the board,” as it is said. Let’s say a category starts with 10 contestant. The entire goal is to find a single winner of that category, meaning that people are “chopped” until there’s a winner, and the winner from a previous round, usually seen as the best, keeps competing until they win or get beat by someone else.

With this in mind, beats have a special meaning in ballroom. “When you have to do one battle and then you go through. Then the second battle, you’re going through again. Then the third battle you’re going through. You’re already out of breath and then there’s this saying, ‘No Breather’ so you gotta go through the next battle again. You need hard beats that are going to give you energy to keep going again, surpass yourself.”

In as much as voguing is about self-expression, community and self-acceptance, Melissa Blanco Borelli noted, what are the ways that voguing as a uniquely queer of color political-aesthetic cultural form become a tool for capital. What does something like RuPaul’s Drag Race, for instance, do to the history of voguing?

“It’s great to have someone like RuPaul in commodity culture,” Blanco Borelli noted, “and showing these different creative expressions of the queer self. But then it’s also what happens to the history and to the innovators and people like Vjuan Allure, who were around from day one. What happens when it’s commodified?”

Vjuan Allure spoke about the way he always grills newcomers to the ballroom scene whenever they want to write a paper about voguing or do anything related to ballroom at all.

“Why? You have nothing to do with this culture. You’ve never been to a ball. How are you going to write about it? What are you going to say about it? The community has been taken advantage of before, so they kind of very on their Ps and Qs when someone comes in. RuPaul walked a ball in drag in his earlier career, but he did not compete. But on his show he does have people that are in the ballroom scene that are actually drag queens that are part of the houses.”

“He wanted to do an album as a tribute to the ballroom scene, and that was the album called Butch Queen, and that was the one I worked on. Purposefully I did not give him ballroom beats. I gave him beats that were different, that were things he didn’t have. A lot of people believe that RuPaul has nothing to do with the ballroom scene when actually he does. As long as we continue to monitor what people are doing with the ballroom scene we keep appropriation out of the works. Or at least try to.”

The spirited question and answer session included questions about whether or not it’s cheating if women are involved in ballroom; safe spaces; the presence of voguing on YouTube and the internet; about the problematics of racial dynamics and competing with fellow people of color; and personal confessions about how voguing has shaped their own lives.

The depth of this seventh conversation was in the power of thinking through popular culture and dance while simultaneously thinking seriously, and in an intersectional way, about race, gender, sexuality and dance. We learned that it’s hard to talk about dance, really any kind at all, without also taking into account how that dance is impacted by sexuality and or queerness, gender and racial dynamics.

We closed the Conversation with a free voguing workshop led by Mother Steffie and an after party with beats by Vjuan Allure, a party where everyone got to be a diva for the night. And isn’t that what it’s all about?


News, Other Events

Katherine Dunham Research Showcase by Modern Moves

Katherine Dunham Research Showcase by Modern Moves featuring

– La Boule Blanche at London: An Evening of Partying and Performances (16th May)

– Archive Re-Posesssed: A Day of Presentations and Discussions (17th May)

Guest of Honour: Ms Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt

/// Report updated by madison moore ///

In May 2016, Modern Moves celebrated our 3rd birthday in our usual decadent fashion with a party and research showcase in honor of dancer, choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. If you didn’t know by now, Dunham has been a major source of inspiration for us here at Modern Moves as well as a driving force of the research work we do. In the summer of 2015 the Modern Moves team took an “All-American” road trip from New Orleans up to Chicago with a pit stop at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which houses the official papers of Katherine Dunham. We spent a week digging through her papers and watching archival footage of her performances, uncovering prized documents like records of how many luxury suitcases she kept, her housing deeds, tax returns, not to mention the juicy details on her love life and letters dealing with the pressures of being a successful black entertainer performing in an America still struggling with racism and segregation.


Modern Moves knows how to party, and what’s a research showcase without some dancing at the end? One of the things we discovered in Katherine Dunham’s archives is that the lady also knew how to party. Dunham researched dance across the Black Atlantic and created the first company of Black dancers in the world. Every month she organised a dance social in New York called La Boule Blanche,after nightclubs of the same name in Martinique and in Paris. At these socials, Brazilian, Antillean, Cuban, and North American musical genres were equally popular. Guests dressed up and shared Black Atlantic social dance and music with panache and flair. For our 3rd birthday we honored Miss Dunham’s playful and irrepressible spirit as well as Haiti and the French Antillles with La Boule Blanche London.

Audio story produced by Brenna Daldorph.

On the menu that evening was dancing, rum punch and Haitian canapés, of course, but also a lecture demo, performance and mini lesson on Artistic Kompa (Kompa is the signature couple dance of Haiti) by our friends Clifford and Gaelle Jasmin of Salsabor, Florida. We also enjoyed a very special pan-Caribbean DJ set by Modern Moves resident DJ WIlly the Viper from Paris, a floor-stompingly good performance by the London-based Zilo’Ka, known for their high energy Gwoka percussion, chanting, and dance, and lastly (but certainly not least!) special performances by our associated researcher Francesca Negro and advisory board member Magna Gopal– two original choreographies that would have definitely spoken to Katherine Dunham’s own heart. Francesca performed a pan-Caribbean piece inspired by fragments of silent film and sound recordings we discovered in the Carbondale archives, incorporating movements from Antillean, Cuban, and Brazilian sacred dances, Magna brought performed a salsa choreography honouring the orisha Obatala, touched in an ineffable way by her Indian heritage.


Day 2 of the Katherine Dunham Research Showcase, which we dubbed “Archive Reposessed,” featured traditional, conference style presentations by the Modern Moves team. Gina Athena Ulysse set the stage with a performance lecture on “I$sland Repo$$e$$ed: Katherine Dunham*Post-Quake Ayiti* and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” Drawing on race, queer studies and star studies, madison moore gave us “Diva Theory,” a look at Katherine Dunham as diva. From there Leyneuf Tines spoke on Damballa and Yanvalou,” with a follow up by Elina Djebbari on “Katherine Dunham and the Black Atlantic: An Artistic Journey from the Caribbean to West Africa” Ananya Kabir gave us a close look into Dunham’s relationship to Brazil with “Brazil in the Imaginary of Katherine Dunham,” and we closed the show out with a very special conversation between Magna Gopal and Katherine Dunham’s daughter Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, who flavored the room with anecdotes and growing up on the road.


All told it was a superb two days of conversation and music, exchange and cocktails. But it was also an excellent way to think about how to marry pleasure and scholarship, fun and research. We at Modern Moves are deeply committed to exploring the politics of pleasure. Stay tuned for the announcement of our next research showcase because there’s definitely more to come.


To mark our third birthday, and ten years of the passing of the  pioneering dancer, choreographer, and intellectual Miss Katherine Dunham, Modern Moves presents La Boule Blanche at London: A Retro Party Miss Dunham researched dance across the Black Atlantic and created the first company of Black dancers in the world. During the 1940s and 1950s, she organised a monthly dance social in New York called ‘La Boule Blanche’, after nightclubs of the same name in Martinique and in Paris. At these socials, Brazilian, Antillean, Cuban, and North American musical genres were equally popular. Guests dressed up and shared Black Atlantic social dance and music with panache and flair.

After Fort-de-France, Paris, and New York, La Boule Blanche moves to London! To honour Miss Dunham’s playful and irrepressible spirit as well as Haiti and the French Antillles, the deepest sources of her inspiration, our legendary Anatomy Museum parties will be retrofitted and antilleanised on the 16th of May!

On the menu:

– A lecture-demo, performance and mini-lesson on ARTISTIC KOMPA by Clifford and Gaelle Jasmin of Salsabor, Florida! The return of DJ Willy the Viper from Paris with his inimitable pan-Caribbean sets!

– The return of Zilo’Ka with their high energy Gwoka percussion, chanting, and dance to the Anatomy Museum! A reconstruction of Katherine Dunham’s pan-Atlantic rhythms by Francesca Negro!

– And a guest appearance by Magna Gopal with a performance that will speak to Katherine Dunham’s own heart!

COME DRESSED in your RETRO BEST! Party like its 1955!

 Commissioned from the KCL kitchens:

Rum punch and Haitian canapes, including griot, piklis, and accra!

Book your tickets here for La Boule Blanche Party!


Modern Moves presents Archive Re-Possessed: A Day of Presentations and Discussions

In April 2015, the Modern Moves research team spent an intensive period researching Miss Katherine Dunham’s archives held at the Southern Illinois Library, Carbondale, USA. This rich visual, aural, and textual material supplements her published work, including her magnetic memoir of fieldwork in Haiti, ‘Island Possessed’. In homage to Miss Dunham’s extraordinary imagination, intellect, vivacity and spirit, we present our work in progress on her archives to her fans and to aficionados of Black Atlantic music, dance, and performance.

Long papers will be presented by Ananya Kabir, Madison Moore, Elina Djebbari, and Leyneuf Tines, with responses from Drs Michael Iyanaga, Melissa Blanco Borelli, Serena Volpi, and Zoe Norridge. We are delighted to open the day with a keynote lecture/ performance by Professor Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan College, USA, entitled: “I$sland Repo$$e$$ed: Katherine Dunham*Post-Quake Ayiti* and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.”

The day will close with a ‘dancer’s response to the work of a dancer’, by Ms Magna Gopal, and with a q and a session with our guest of honour, Ms Marie-Christine Dunham Pratt, the daughter of Katherine Dunham and John Pratt.

Come and learn more about the life, art and heart of an extraordinary, audacious, and inspiring woman who was ahead of her times in countless ways.

Book here for Part 2 of our fabulous Research Showcase!

Full programme here: DUNHAM SHOWCASE PROGRAM

The Moving Blog

The Muse of History

This past June, 2016, I went to do doctoral  field research in Haiti. And oh my, what a month that was! In addition to my own research project, my fieldwork trip overlapped with Modern Moves’ participation in The Caribbean Studies Association’s Annual Conference entitled ‘Caribbean Global Movements: People, Ideas, Culture, Arts and Economic Sustainability’, June 5-11 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Here, I presented my paper in Modern Moves’ panel discussion ‘Staging a New Creolité: Katherine Dunham’s circum-Atlantic World’. After the rest of the team departed,  I continued on to collect materials on textual and embodied representations of vodou and their significance in shaping afro-diasporic imaginaries and futurities. Endangered and elusive, it was my intent to see how the nation treats and engages with its vodou influenced past and treats it in the present  to explore its contemporary manifestations, both in terms of the vodou practitioners as well as cultural and artistic expressions. I wanted to find the ruptures in which it recaptures the memory of a shared but disrupted past of the three abysses of estrangement, dislocation and relocation created during the Middle Passage.

It wasn’t my first time in Haiti, but much had changed since visiting in 2009 before the earthquake. It was also in an extended tense political climate due to the continuously delayed presidential elections which the majority of the country is at odds with. During my stay, the temporary president was urged to step down, a move to be followed by new elections which ended up not taking place. There was a rise in protests, in murders and robberies throughout Port-au-Prince and Petionville, where a lot of the violence was moving to revealing a tired and upset public engagement with governmental politics, which are strongly influenced by US involvement.

Children stories in Haitian Kreyol

Obviously to navigate my way through communicating with people, learning Haitian Creole was on my agenda and took up a good amount of my time and mental focus. I managed to make my way through 1.5 levels of an overall 4 within the three and a half weeks I spent there, which provided me with a solid foundation. Still, a lot of my interviews and communication in general were in French and English but I felt much more confident moving around being able to speak the local language and what rhythm it has to it! Definitely want to complete all 4 levels which will prove significant to my overall research as the majority of Haiti communicates in creole and the entirety of vodou ceremonies are expressed in it.

cont 24 23


Fear and endangerment of vodou stretches across spheres of society, despite close ancestors having been direct believers and practitioners of the spiritual system. Yet contemporary expressions of vodou and artistic approaches were everywhere to be found. The Centre d’Art had an incredibly diverse archive which approached the cosmology from all sorts of angles. I conducted the majority of my research at the Bureau d’Etnologie given the diverse approaches and political approach to dissemination of vodou practices and expressions. It was founded in 1941 by Jean Price-Mars, Haitian ethnographer, diplomat and writer who was the first prominent defender at a political level. His writings championed the Negritude movement in Haiti and embraced a national Haitian identity as African through slavery. The Bureau was conceived in the context of a renewal of interest in archaeology and the desire to safeguard cultural objects. and dedicated to the collection and study of material culture. The material culture of vodou has been a domain under researched, with few exceptions such as of the collection of Marianne Lehman, for example, which Rachel Beauvoir-Dominique has written about. This raises questions and concerns about new perspectives on the representation and creation of Haitian identity that embrace vodou. With Erol Josue as the newly appointed director of the Bureau of Ethnology, there has been a strong concern with documenting and preserving the material culture of vodou, which in previous years had not been a priority on the agenda. There was a significant amount of research archived that underlined the penalisation of vodou from the colonial period until recently. Despite being recognized as a religion in the 1930s, it remained juridically prohibited until the Constitution of 1987. The religious impact of Protestantism continues to dominate many national understandings and acceptance of vodou. The penalisation and processes of folkorisation of vodou are seemingly intricately associated with the advent of the Haitian school of ethnology. This demonstrates that the first investigations of the ethnographic movement we developed in the context of the prohibition of vodou which uncontestably influenced the form and content of the results.  The approach adopted currently by the director Erol Josue is to place vodou high on the agenda, and has signalled towards thematic diversity, as well as methodologically and theoretically marking a new turn in Haitian ethnographic studies. His mission has been to create platforms that embraces vodou heritage as part of Haitian identity.

I felt like it was a mere glimpse, the insight I got during the month there, one that could expand into an entire vision. I fell in love with Haiti, despite difficulties I encountered and despite so many people described it as a place where they’ve truly lost hope, despite the upheavals and the insecure and violent time it was. I can’t wait to return and continue building relations and learning more about such a treasure of country, history and future.

And how could I leave without a good send off?






Moving Conversations

Moving Conversation #6: Amazigh Kateb & Anjali Prabhu

Moving Conversation #6: Amazigh Kateb & Anjali Prabhu

Report by Elina Djebbari

For the sixth in our Moving Conversations series on the 4th of July 2016 and the final event of this academic year, Modern Moves was thrilled to bring together musician Amazigh Kateb, founder of the legendary band Gnawa Diffusion, son of the great Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, and passionate spokesperson for postcoloniality and resistance through culture, and Anjali Prabhu, Professor of French and Director of the Newhouse Center for the Humanities, Wellesley College, USA, expert in Francophone postcoloniality, and author of, most recently, Contemporary Cinema of Africa and the Diaspora (2014). On the eve of Algeria’s Independence Day, we looked to North Africa and its musical relations with Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean world.

Amazigh Kateb opened the event with a song accompanied by the gnawa lute guembri after which Ananya Kabir introduced the guests to the audience. Anjali Prabhu told us having said to Amazigh when she met him that they had at least two things in common: “our love and admiration for his father Kateb Yacine” and “our belief as Africa as a unity, one entity that can provide and offer a reflection, and perhaps an alternative to our understanding of modernity”. After this statement she asked Amazigh to speak a bit about his music and the meaning of his music. He presented himself as follows: “I am a singer. I organise my artistic life and researches around gnawa music which is like North African gospel. It’s black music of North Africa and I began playing this music in exile, not in Algeria.” “This music was for me like a door open to my own culture” he added, explaining that as a child he was more interested in rock and other western music than in the local music he conceived of as old and archaic. He then recalled how he “discovered a part of [his] identity which is very African” when he went to the Algerian Sahara which culture is rather invisible in the northern part of the country. “I understood that the south, the culture of the south in Algeria was, for me, the best road to go inside myself” he said. This account of his artistic and musical journey to find his cultural identity while outside Algeria is further intertwined with a political vision. “We have a lot of histories, he said, but we have not our history. And our history is in Africa. For me we have to start to write a new history.” With such a statement, Amazigh Kateb let us appreciate how he places Africa at the core of his artistic engagement to play a role in the decolonisation of the ‘official’ Algerian history.


Anjali incited him to elaborate further on his views on the question of aesthetics and the potential obstacles to reach his own goals. Amazigh compared the notion of world music as “a big trash bean” erasing the cultural specificities and social significance of music in any given context. He took the example of Malian Touareg band Tinariwen to illustrate his viewpoint: “Tinariwen is a band of resistance in Mali but in United States, in England, in France, in all the western countries, they are only exotic, they are only a band of Sahara, they drink mint tea and that’s it, it’s only sand and dunes.” Amazigh denounced here the exoticisation and commodification processes produced by the ‘world music’ labelling in a globalised capitalist market that challenge the notion of authenticity, a question that would regularly come back in the conversation.

Then Anjali noticed that the written word and the spoken word are part of Amazigh’s aesthetics and asked him to explain his engagement with his father’s writing that interestingly first came through theatre and performance. Amazigh explained that his heritage was indeed double-sided: the figure of the father on the one hand and the one of the artist and writer on the other hand. He explained how the oral theatre performance was for his father a way to reach a wider audience in 1970 Algeria marked by high level of illiteracy. Taking over this legacy, the singer also feels the need to reach the “people who never went to school” as a very important matter and he tries to reach them through his music. Anjali noticed the same urgency among other African artists whom she worked with.

By analysing how Amazigh’s music is both culturally situated and outward looking, Anjali asked the singer how this combination might challenge the notion of authenticity by acknowledging some contradictions inherent to the artistic creativity. These are complementary processes expounded Amazigh: “When you are alone and when you are in a self-reflection, you need the collective. But sometimes, when you are in the collective, you need to be alone to think by yourself. So we need the two aspects of the life.” Switching to French to further clarify his ideas applied to his music: “l’universel est toujours dans le particulier” he said, that is “the universal is always in the particular”. The dialectic relationship between the particular and the general is at the core of Amazigh’s work summarised Anjali, as well as a tension between the desire to be relevant in the present days to a given context and yet reach beyond. Amazigh stressed the social and political role of the artist and the potential power of music to reduce antagonisms within society.


Anjali asked him to explain what his use of gnawa music and culture means for him. Not only gnawa music brought him back to his own identity he recalled, but he also started playing it when he was in exile in France in the beginning of the 1980s. He thus made a parallel between his own artistic trajectory and the fact that gnawa music has been created by the slaves brought from sub-Sahara to North Africa. The sense of “double exile” is then conveyed by both his own identity history and artistic trajectory as well as by the “gnawa spirit” that he wished to spread through his music. Therefore the name of his band Gnawa Diffusion was for him a way to “musicalize the exile” (“musicaliser l’exil”). He added that he also created his own “little Algeria” within his music as a means to keep the link with his home country while living in France and not returning to Algeria for at least ten years.

He conceded though that his work does not address that much the religious aspects that are also part of gnawa music although this is through the lens of the religious practice that it mainly features in the representations. It is indeed particularly stressed as such within current festivals and other commodification processes. He is rather interested in the resistive voices and sounds conveyed by gnawa music.

He also acknowledged that he is not a gnawi master specialised in the genre and therefore explained how he liked to mix some of its features and instruments with other kinds of music such as reggae for instance. It is for him a way to put some “relief”, some contrast to makes his music visible and different. As he put it “If you put me in Algeria, I am like invisible, you can see me but you don’t see me […] but if you put me in Sweden, you will see that I’m Algerian.” Yet again music and identity formation were linked in their reciprocal constructive and transformative capacities.


The conversation then turned towards Amazigh’s new project called Argel de la Havana. This project arose from his encounter with a Cuban babalawo (orisha priest) in Havana in 2015 and their mutual discovery of the links between Afro-Cuban and gnawa music as well as their differences. He emphasised his intention to put side-by-side gnawa and Afro-Cuban music in order to explore their common African heritage as well as their “latino/Mediterranean” aspects as in Algerian chaabi for instance. He also recalled how much he conceived of Cuba as the “island of resistance”, therefore confronting two very different post-revolutionary histories. Through this musical exploration, he also wants to draw on the political context that linked Cuba to Africa in the frame of the Non-Aligned movement and the Tricontinental ideology in the Cold War era. This political background amplifies thus his feeling to be closer to a Cuban than to a Qatari for instance. He feels the need to fight against the media invasion and the militaro-financial dominance of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the continent through his music in order to find an alternative to the conception of the world on a religious bias. Through his project, he would like to bypass the current Manichean way of seeing the world as muslim and non-muslim and to this extent, “I trust the music to speak about it” he said.

To conclude the conversation and illustrate his new project, Amazigh performed a song called “Congo Managua”, a song that he learnt in Cuba and enjoyed for he felt it very close to gnawa music.

The audience had questions about the mixing of Cuban clave rhythm with gnawa music and about the overall concept of the project Argel de la Havana; about the sanitation of aesthetics versus the question of authenticity to which Amazigh explained the need to conciliate heritage and present creativity without erasing dust and grime; about the reception of his music; and about the anti-capitalist potential of improvisation!

The depth of the sixth Moving Conversation asserted the power of music as a tool for resistance and as a site for political utopia able to overcome colonisation and capitalism. Amazigh’s will to use music politically while denouncing the use of music by politics was then celebrated with mint julep cocktails and North African mezze-type inspired canapés. The Anatomy Museum vibrated to the performance of gnawa music by London-based artist Simo Lagnawi and his band to which Amazigh joined in, danced and played the qraqeb. A DJ set offered by John Armstrong culminated the event that coincidentally happened at the end of the month of Ramadan marked by terrorist attacks all over the world including in the Muslim world, stressing the relevance of the thoughtful reflections unfolded during the conversation.