Tag Archives: Modern Moves fieldwork

Moving Stories


Prelude: ‘Paris is about life’

On the 14th of November 2015, I was at the Eurostar check-in at the Gare du Nord, Paris, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. A quote from the French Cartoonist Joann Sfar, (who in fact works for Charlie Hebdo) reposted by a Parisian friend, caught my eye: ‘Friends from the whole world! Thank you for #PrayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #Parisisaboutlife’. As it so happens, I was carrying with me back to London my dancing shoes and a bottle of champagne gifted to me by one of the nicest people I know in Paris. The previous night, I had had dinner with some members of the Modern Moves team and friends. Two of us had been out for Kizomba research just the night before (the 12th November) at the club Khao Suay in the heart of the Bastille. The only reason we were not all back there on the 13th November is because we were recovering from the excellent conference ‘Orchestrating the Nation: Music, Dance, and Transnationalisms’.

Kizomba on thursdays at Khao Suay.  image taken from Facebook.
Kizomba on thursdays at Khao Suay.
photo taken from Facebook.

Professor Ulrike Meinhof from the University of Southampton had closed the conference with the remark that while the whole world was antagonised and divided, through music and dance human beings continued to connect with each other. However, even as we were celebrating this sentiment and our successful conference in one part of Paris, in another part, carnage and bloodshed was unfolding around the Bastille where we might have been dancing. The attacks were aimed at decimating people who were engaged in convivial and modern leisure pursuits typical of the concept of ‘Friday night’ in a city both global and intensely local: enjoying themselves at bars and restaurants, enjoying a sports spectacle, and enjoying a music concert at a venerable Paris venue, the Bataclan.

Since only coincidence and tiredness had prevented me from being right in the scene of action, I couldn’t help thinking of Khao Suay, the restaurant in the Rue du Lappe, Bastille, whose basement has been serving Paris’s kizomba dancers for quite a few years now. What would I have experienced had I actually found myself at Khao Suay that night? Through Facebook I pieced together the story. It seems that, as the terrifying drama unfolded with little clarity on the doorstep of the club, the owner of Khao Suay, Henri Lee, had the presence of mind to issue an all-night lockdown. Apparently, a club full of kizomba lovers danced the night away in each other’s arms, as the DJs played on. Henri Lee’s role was recollected in several posts as one of paterfamilias, saviour, and comforter, creating a temporary safe haven in the middle of mayhem and danger, even opening his kitchens at 3 am to serve chicken and French fries to the famished and frightened crowd.

I contacted Henri Lee (whom I didn’t know yet personally) on Facebook to ask him for his words. He graciously replied that he didn’t like to talk much about himself, and directed me to the same Facebook post that had caught my eye. Since the privacy of that post had been set to ‘public’, I reproduce a translation of it below:

‘Impossible to fall asleep… All this is a nightmare! Thousands of cops, firemen in the streets of such a deserted Bastille (although usually so lively on Friday evenings), thousands of sirens that we hear all over the place and all the people bursting into tears in the streets!!! One always thinks that this will happen to others yet this time it happened here. This is terror!!! I have to thank Henri Khao Suay Lee!!! Who kept us safe in his establishment and who took good care of all of us!! Opening the kitchen at 3 in the morning to offer chicken and frites to everyone, keeping us updated of what was happening and handling everything for the best, not everybody would have done so!!!! Huge hugs for the victims, their families and relatives!! I have no words.’

Having studied trauma for many years, I found it easy to detect its signs in this as well as other Facebook posts attesting to that evening at Khao Suay. All commentators remembered the poulet-frites, some even posting photos of the chicken ready to be consumed. The deep connection between food and social dance has been reiterated in Modern Moves events and investigations. Here, the food that arrived like manna from heaven was functioning by association to recall another activity involving shared enjoyment of sensation, and collective proof of the body’s vitality: dancing kizomba.

Once again the ‘kizomba hug’ came to rescue human beings caught in a web of violence and uncertainty, when the rhythms of the music induced a sense of order and calm within the space of the dance while chaos and curfew ruled outside. I say ‘once again’, because it was in similar conditions, during Angola under civil war, that the steps of the social dance we now call ‘kizomba’ were forged out of older dances. Stories of dancing until curfew was lifted, of talking, joking, and singing when the electricity disappeared for hours, are now part of kizomba lore.

Kwenda Lima demonstrating the kizomba hug at the Vienna Salsa Congress, 2013. Photo by Valentin Behringer.
Kwenda Lima demonstrating the kizomba hug at the Vienna Salsa Congress, 2013. Photo by Valentin Behringer.

My close brush with the ISIS attacks on Paris through kizomba at Khao Suay made me remember that parallel. More than ever, it impelled me to articulate some of my evolving ideas on war and peace and kizomba. I have noted in particular the warmth with which kizomba has been adopted in certain European countries which seem to have no shared history with Angola or any other part of continental Africa—either that of colonization or cultural exchange– those arising from the former Yugoslavia, the Baltic nations, Sweden, Hungary….

Couples dancing at the Budapest Kizomba Connection Festival, August 2015.  photo taken from the BKC Facebook page.
Couples dancing at the Budapest Kizomba Connection Festival, August 2015.
photo taken from the BKC Facebook page.

The propensity of people from these countries to embrace kizomba intrigues me and I’m searching for an answer through a combination of methodologies: through alternative frameworks for explaining cultural connections– most importantly, the Cold War, in which Cubans, together with their music and dance, moved between Europe and Africa— and a ‘psychosocial’ approach to society, where I read symptoms of collective traumas of different kinds together with ‘responses’ or ‘solutions’ (in this case, couple dance with African origins). The bigger question remains the basic Modern Moves one—why do people, often with no connection to Africa, turn to dances of African heritage for leisure, pleasure, or healing?

Kwenda Lima's Kaizen Dance at the Budapest Kizomba Connection, August 2015
Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance at the Budapest Kizomba Connection, August 2015

In my search for answers, I have found extremely important the life stories of individuals in the world of dance. So in this Moving Story, I present three individuals with no ‘personal’ or ‘ancestral’ connection to Africa, whose love for kizomba developed in cities far from the African continent, and with small or non-existent African diasporas. The subjects of each story are very different from each other, but they also share many things—most importantly their practice of kizomba, and the generosity and trust to open up their innermost selves to a stranger (me). I like to think that these two factors are connected.

Read on!

1) Ljubljana: ‘We feel it’

Urska Merljak met me at the foot of the statue of France Preseren in the centre of Ljubljana. It was a sunny Sunday in January 2015. She sat waiting for me, holding a magazine, the Slovenian equivalent of The Big Issue. On my arrival, she showed me the word ‘Urska’ heading an article on the first page. It seemed some kind of sign: one of the things I’d asked earlier was the meaning of her name. I joined her at Preseren’s feet as she started telling me about his famous poem about Urska, a young girl from Ljubljana, who loved to dance.

Preseren's statue
preseren’s statue

One day, a river god rose from the waters of the Ljubljanica—which was flowing right by us under the city’s famed Triple Bridge. He joined her in the dance and spirited her away from the city to the waters. ‘A black cloud appeared and when it disappeared, so did they. No one saw Urska again.’ We contemplated these (non) coincidences: the poem (which is about couple dance as practiced traditionally in Central Europe), the protagonist and her namesake, and our convergence at the poet’s statue. She pointed to me a house across the street. ‘That’s the balcony under which Preseren used to serenade his Juliet’.


Clouds, unspecified demons, and the romance of connection were everywhere in the conversation we had about why kizomba is meaningful to her. If intuition is a sixth sense, then to dance kizomba is to invoke the sensual part of ourselves as a seventh sense to be discovered. Hugging each other [which kizomba necessitates] leads to a connection of two souls. Indeed, each soul is a fragment of a larger whole, waiting to be united with each other. ‘We are stuck’; kizomba allows us to be unstuck, to unblock ourselves. The proximity it demands to a member of the opposite sex both releases ‘sexual energy’ and requires its reorientation towards ‘sensual energy.’ ‘People don’t think about [these energies] but they feel it. It’s up to them what they will do with the feeling.’

maps, monsters, and magic  juxtaposed in Ljubljana
maps, monsters, and magic juxtaposed in Ljubljana

Despite having a lovely Friday evening in the Kizomba room at the Magic Salsa Festival, which included meeting new people, talking to Kwenda Lima, and dancing hours of kizomba at the opening party, Urska had woken up that morning with ‘a feeling of overwhelming loneliness. We have our demons— we have to embrace them.’ Kizomba does this to us— it releases inexplicable feelings, and increases our vulnerability. ‘We are sometimes afraid of being hurt.’ At the same time, ‘we are starving to get some meaning into our lives—we are not just a body, we are a soul—indeed, a grand unified soul. When we relax our bodies in dance, embrace another body that is vibrating on the same level as us, this is so natural and divine at the same time. We need each other to awaken the parts of each other.’

IMG_1206We were by now sitting outdoors at a café on the banks of the river. The rays of the setting sun illuminated the scene and the church bells started ringing– a fitting son et lumiere show for our discussion on the natural and the divine—but also a reminder of the different temporalities, sacred and secular, which punctuate and order human lives in the past as well as the present. The streak of anti-rationality with which Urska started our conversation, returns. ‘Maybe there is no point in knowing everything. We have to allow ourselves to feel it.’ Sensual energy can heal us and make us stronger. At the moment, we are easy to lead: ‘they are leading us. If we become strong, we will destroy the system.’

IMG_1208As I had also encountered this mysterious ‘they’, and the ubiquitous ‘system’ in my discussion the previous day with Kwenda Lima himself, I felt compelled to stop Urska and ask: ‘who is the ‘they’? What is this ‘system’? Her response was quite clear. ‘The leaders.’ Visions of Tito and other strong leaders of the socialist era floated up in my memory. Are these socialist leaders or capitalist leaders, I asked. ‘These are those with money and ego. It’s a problem of all humans, not of socialism or capitalism per se.’ Yet a reassessment of life under socialist Yugoslavia and capitalist Slovenia shows this problem to be exacerbated in the capitalist present.

Urska went on to elaborate. ‘I was seven years old when the system changed. I remember the feeling I had then. We were more connected then [emphasis mine]. My parents were building a house and the whole village helped them. Nowadays, it’s all about paying each other to help each other. Then, people were together in the streets. Now, we are in the house. This is individualism. Its not about the country that we live in, or the nation that we are, we are all the same,’ she reads out from her notebook. ‘But in today’s Western world of capitalism and individualism, money and ego power, we are more and more disconnected with each other and ourselves.’

We need to find our souls to get over the ego, and it is here that kizomba can help. But this power of kizomba lies not merely in the dance as a formal activity: it is intimately linked to Urska’s awareness of kizomba’s African affiliations. ‘I feel Africa and people coming from that continent have a socialist impulse, transmitted through the generations. They live differently in relation to their environment.’ Even if this is a romantic fantasy, the feeling of ‘Africa’ transmitted through kizomba serves as solace and utopian hope to this citizen of the former ‘Yugosphere’.

2. From Belgrade to Tallinn: Feeling Africa

Nemanja Sonero is a kizomba dancer and teacher living in Tallinn, Estonia. I met him online on the many Facebook forums in which the origins, evolution, meaning, and music of kizomba are hotly debated. He and I were usually in agreement. We became friends, exchanging ideas through private messages, only meeting face to face at the first iKiz Kizomba Festival he organised— extremely successfully— at Tallinn this November. A tall Serbian man in a dashiki and retro glasses, he cut a striking figure. While dancing he was gentle and fun, able to close the ‘height gap’ between us with ease, and this was his attitude during conversation and interaction.

IMG_0406In his choreography with his dance partner, Laura, we saw a Finn and a Serbian, who met in Finland, dressed in ‘Afro-Tribal’ mode, dancing expertly and with passion Angolan semba (the precursor of kizomba, which has developed both in step with and independent of kizomba), enlivened with touches from belly dance (Laura is also an expert belly dance artiste). How did a Serbian come to ‘feel Africa’ while dancing in Tallinn? Nemanja and I finally found the time to have a morning coffee ‘together’ where we discussed his story through Facebook messenger.

The trigger for this conversation was a comment he had made ages ago to me— ‘we were dancing in the streets when there were bombs exploding all around us.’ In my understanding of the Bosnian War and its aftermath (the NATO bombing of Belgrade which was the crisis Nemanja had referred to) I had never spared a thought for the Serbian, who was equated in my mind with ‘perpetrator’ status. Here was my first contact with a Serbian who was far from the images I had held, and whose memories of the NATO bombing were connected closely with his memories of dance. Apart from dancing kizomba, Nemanja spoke English, Spanish, Portuguese, some Estonian and Russian, and his native Serbian…. Where in the story of a war-torn adolescence was there place for all this cosmopolitanism?

Let us imagine, in Belgrade in the late 1990s, a bored, hyperactive and highly intelligent high school kid, trapped between a difficult home life and an educational system that responds to abnormal social conditions by regimenting its students even more than is normal for school. As Nemanja recalls, ‘I just didn’t find school interesting, the whole system of repeating like a parrot.’ In his neighbourhood are young boys slipping into drugs and other criminal activities. Our protagonist’s brother, sensing this fate as a real possibility, introduces him to— capoeira.

Belgrade in the midst of the disintegrating Balkans, offering its youngsters capoeira: how come? It so happened that a British capoeirista was in Belgrade at that time, teaching capoeira for free in the ‘Angola’ style in a house for homeless and destitute children, including those of Roma stock. As with slaves on the sugar Plantation, where capoeira first developed as a means of resistance and physical and spiritual training under difficult conditions, so in the urban dystopia of Belgrade in 1998: capoeira was serving as an ad hoc social glue.

The young Nemanja, who was already skating, skateboarding, climbing trees, and listening to hip-hop, finally found in capoeira something challenging, fun, and new. ‘Capoeira gave me something to focus on, so I would not go to school, but go train.’ With his British teacher, he also practiced English, which he had already absorbed like a sponge through subtitled television programmes. In time, capoeira also opened the door to Portuguese, a language that he lives and breathes now as part of the Lusophone world of kizomba. When, because of the war, the teacher was forced to leave, it was Nemanja who took over his classes.

Again, as on the Plantation, so in Belgrade: from capoeira to couple dance was the next step. At that time, one of his female students took him to a Cuban bar, where he encountered Choma, a Cuban graphic designer who was offering Cuban style salsa classes. Nemanja was soon picking up Spanish as well, and learning about the orishas and Afro-Cuban percussive spirituality. The Cold War had ensured that there had been plenty of Cubans in communist Yugoslavia. They didn’t need a visa, Nemanja recalls. What is rather surreal nevertheless is the image of a Cuban holding salsa classes in a bar while Serbia was grappling with all kinds of social, economic and political effects of coming out of long war. The video below gives a general idea of the continuing popularity, in Belgrade, of the Cuban style of dancing salsa:

On the streets, in the meanwhile, people were selling pirated music on cassettes and later CDs. From these sellers and his friends, Nemanja expanded his music education, listening to reggae, Cuban music, what we call ‘world music’ in general, and even Angolan semba. His brother being an amateur computer enthusiast, they always had Internet at home, so, like Neo in the Matrix films, Nemanja reached out to the world through those early retro computers. He became ‘friends’ with Brazilians and African Americans online, journalists and teachers, who ‘helped me understand many things’: ‘the history of capoeira’, ‘reggae history, and Ethiopia, and slavery.’

Through ‘guerilla’ methods of accessing the wider world, this young man in Serbia was learning about the deeper histories of slavery and colonialism that connected the different kinetic and performative practices that he was increasingly drawn to. From his scattergun exposure to capoeira, reggae, hip-hop, percussion, salsa, the orishas arose a desire to join the dots through accessing information as well as physical expertise. Was he at all aware that all these forms were linked to the history of slavery and Black culture?

‘Not as I do now’, Nemanja reflected, ‘but very much, yes. And I always had a thing for folk traditional dances from Latin America and Africa… I always felt comfortable falling into that feeling of a trance or expressing myself with it.’ The next step then was to embrace kizomba. Already in the mid 2000s, friends in the Angolan embassy were lending him CDs and videos of semba music, while some of his dance friends were being exposed to the dance kizomba, during travels to Portugal. In the late 2000s, he invited a white Portuguese teacher of kizomba, Benjamin Nande, to the Serbian Salsa Congress, which he was organizing.

By the time Nemanja received his first invitation to teach salsa at the Vilnius Salsa Congress in 2008, kizomba was already in his dance repertoire. That first trip to Vilnius led to Nemanja’s eventual relocation to another Baltic country. ‘Somehow destiny and events took me to Estonia in the end. I liked it here, because it was calm and nice and no stress.’ Although a dance polyglot who ‘loved dance so much and the possibilities’ that he ‘wanted it all’, he realized that the life of a dance professional in Europe necessitated a self-presentation as a specialist of some kind.

Kizomba makes Nemanja ‘feel very comfortable and relaxed’. Teaching first at salsa festivals and events which had scope for kizomba, and then at exclusively kizomba events, while building up the kizomba scene in Estonia (culminating in the organization of his own kizomba festival in Tallinn this year), Nemanja is clear about what kizomba allows him to feel: ‘I love to feel my partner… to get close to my partner, and kizomba and tango give me that, and I feel this is what I need more.
But I will always do different dances, and always learn something new, that will never stop no matter what I do.’

True to his word, Nemanja is now dedicating himself to pole dancing. While it is probably impossible to establish an African-heritage basis to pole dancing, we can nevertheless see how the Black Atlantic expressive arts have been crucial for a young boy from the war-torn Balkans to become a cosmopolitan man of the world. But it is too simplistic to draw stark distinctions between Serbia in the shadow of bombing, the peaceful Baltic region where he now lives, and indeed Angola where kizomba came together as a dance. All these regions were deeply impacted by the Cold War, and the same Cold War produced its own cosmopolitanism in which Serbia, too, participated.

'no worries': healing the split self. Nemanja teaching at his festival, iKiz, November 2015.  Photo from the iKiz Festival Facebook page.
‘no worries’: healing the split self. Nemanja teaching at his festival, iKiz, November 2015.
Photo from the iKiz Festival Facebook page.

It is more worthwhile to consider African dance and movement forms as allowing someone like Nemanja to channel back into himself the best of Serbian society— what he remembers as ‘not only its messed-up history and war and violence, but a really wonderful place and people, even in those hard times’. Different kinds of ‘African heritage’ dance passed through his body over time to be assimilated into and to expand his kinetic vocabulary. Their swag, their style, and their very different energies– from the explosiveness of hip-hop to the meditative possibilities of kizomba, have sent him healing messages at different stages of his life.

3. Budapest, Stockholm: Moving into Mindfulness

In August 2015, I visited the Budapest Kizomba Connection, a festival now in its fifth year and organized by the superbly capable Nikolett Hamvas, a Hungarian woman who lives in Lisbon, speaks Portuguese, and appreciates Angolan and PALOP culture as her own. This year, the festival took place on the cruise ship ‘Europa’ moored on the Danube. On Saturday night it slowly cruised under the romantic bridges of this grand Central European city. Beautifully lit buildings floated past. Dressed in white, bathed by the full moon, we reconnected to the elements through kizomba. (see this story’s featured image). ‘Africa’ was reconfiguring ‘Europa’.

IMG_1409At BKC I enjoyed reabsorbing the energies of kizomba into my body and mind. I was learning to change the temporality of my enjoyment (of everything) and kizomba was part of the journey. I was content to watch the dancers whose style I appreciated rather than rush to ask them for a dance. This was how I spotted on the dance floor a young man, slender, pale and dark haired in a Mediterranean kind of way, with his name emblazoned down his trouser legs: ‘Ronie Saleh’. His style mesmerized me.

photo courtesy Ronie Saleh
photo courtesy Ronie Saleh

This style was not the kizomba that the Angolans and PALOP people first brought to Europe and which is danced alongside the more upbeat, playful style ‘semba’; but neither was it purely one of the newer styles developing from kizomba that have proliferated in France in the past five years, the most recent of which is being called ‘urban kiz’. BKC was a bit of a battleground between the so-called ‘urban kiz’ styles and the so-called ‘traditional kizomba’ styles– in keeping with debates raging through the kizomba world about the meaning, movements, mood, and music that are appropriate to this dance and its developments.

Despite those debates and differences, the same dialectic between war and peace, between violence and its overcoming, that brought forth kizomba, and that we have been exploring through my previous protagonists, also gave rise to a dancer who appears to veer towards urban kiz. In 1990, when he was but a year old, Ronie’s parents escaped the war in Iraq and arrived in Sweden. Growing up in a secular Muslim household, the young boy thrived on the opportunities Sweden offered: theatre, singing, writing music and playing the guitar, and the usual set of Black Atlantic urban dances: hip-hop, breakdance, popping. He performed on stage and regularly won dance and music competitions.

Perhaps it was this confidence that allowed him to overcome something that could have been an impediment in his encounter with the world: the stutter he had as a child, and his long experience with speech therapists. But—in a positive and farsighted move– Ronie decided to ‘work with something that I know myself how it feels,’ eventually obtaining a Masters degree in Speech and Language Pathology. Around the same time, something new entered his life: he started to dance foxtrot and ‘got hooked right away’, because ‘the connection and feeling was amazing.’ An interest in feeling and connection thus underlay both his choice of subject for study and his new dance.

It’s not at all uncommon for dancers in search of connection to switch from the sharp and dexterous moves of Black Atlantic urban dances to couple dances like salsa and kizomba. But I had never come across a narrative in which foxtrot featured as the couple dance of choice. Indeed, I knew little about foxtrot beyond a basic awareness that, like the charleston and lindy hop, it was one of the classic swing dances of New York. When, under Ronie’s guidance, I watched some foxtrot videos, I realized that it has been evolving along lines similar to others from the swing family, most obviously West Coast swing; moreover, the path towards ‘foxtrot nuevo’ and ‘dirty fox’ discernible from the titles of youTube videos recalls parallel developments in tango.

At a foxtrot workshop Ronie attended in November 2013, a kizomba song was played during the break. Drawn to the ‘enchanting’ music, he also responded to a similarity of feeling between foxtrot and kizomba. Foxtrot, Ronie explains, ‘is all about body connection and flow on the surface of the dance floor’. Unlike salsa, and like kizomba and tango, this connection is ensured by upper body contact between partners. Interestingly, one of the divergences between urban kiz and kizomba is the diminishing of that upper body contact. Ronie’s retention of this connection, a direct legacy from foxtrot, alongside footwork developed in Paris rather than Angola, is one of the ingredients of what we started calling (only half in jest), ‘Ronie style’.

To this emphasis on connection, Ronie adds a playfulness he inherits from his love of hip-hop and popping. This tendency is apparent in most visually arresting kizomba dancers—from the Panamanian Albir (one of Ronie’s earliest inspirations), who is renowned for his use of hip-hop moves, to the Angolan Morenasso who, based in Paris from 2010, has been one of the earliest propagators of kizomba and semba internationally and whose dance style flamboyantly draws on the Angolan urban dance kuduro. What stands out as ‘Ronie style’ is the mix of body connection, street dance playfulness, basic steps taken from both the ‘Paris styles’ and kizomba, and, most importantly, meaningful variations of time and energy.

‘I like to make contrast in how I dance with my partners, as you notice in my videos,’ clarifies Ronie; ‘some videos are mainly slow motion and peaceful and others have a lot of attitude and firm moves, playing with time, closeness and space—but I always let connection be the main attribute of my dance style.’ These contrasts are a continuation of syncopation, one of the most resilient and recognizable signifiers of Africanity in music and dance. It is another kinetic inheritance from slavery: syncopation was the slave’s mode to overcome ‘Plantation time’ and tease out alternative temporalities for resistance through the body. Ronie’s ability to slow down to an extreme the tempo of the dance highlights the contrast with faster syncopations.

These variations are further enhanced by Ronie’s sensitivity to a deeper difference between foxtrot and kizomba: ‘the feeling and how you walk and put down your steps along the floor. In Kizomba you walk with the energy downward—connection with mother earth. In foxtrot you are more on the surface of the floor.’ ‘It took me a while to get the kizomba movements in my walking (cause I was too much gliding on the floor instead of walking downwards)’, remembers Ronie, ‘and still some foxtrot dancers tells me that they can’t see the difference between my foxtrot and kizomba, but that’s maybe what makes my style bit unique.’ It’s the contrast in energies as much as their coalescence, together with the slowing down of time, which allows him to draw new possibilities out of kizomba.

The overall effect is reminiscent of the body’s mastery over its environment that is the forte of Asian martial arts. Although ‘not religious’, Ronie ‘has been meditating for eight years’, and sees his beliefs as ‘more headed to Buddhism and Mindfulness.’ Like a number of kizomba dancers he has grasped kizomba’s potential to approximate the meditative possibilities that Asian embodied philosophies access and refine. Kwenda Lima’s ‘kaizen dance’ and ‘bodhi kizomba’ has been pioneering in this respect. It is no coincidence that I experienced Kwenda’s unique classes with both Urska and Ronie, who recalls ‘crying with the impact’ of Kwenda’s kaizen workshop on the top of the Europa’s sun deck that blazing hot Budapest afternoon.


Like Kwenda, Ronie synthesizes fragments of the sacred dispersed across the (post)secular world to explicate connection through dance. He turns to the four elements ‘Fire, Water, Air and Earth’ and their attributes: fire’s being ‘firm and sharp movements’; air’s, the ‘flow’; earth’s, the connection created by the body’s downward direction of energy; and water’s, ‘patience’ (‘just imagine how it is to walk in water’, he asks me). This verbalization of a dance style, itself a creolized product with African and European influences, combines ancient Greek philosophy and Asian ideas of energy flow. ‘If we can vary the way our souls move our bodies in accordance with life (the four elements), then we can share a deeper and more three-dimensional experience with our dance partners. The way we dance will not feel like separated steps anymore – all the “Steps” become ONE energy– we`re floating.’

Photo courtesy Ronie Saleh
Photo courtesy Ronie Saleh

Ronie has been dancing kizomba ‘non-stop’ during the past two years, teaching since August 2014 in Stockholm’s biggest dance school, and, a year later he quit his job as Speech Language Therapist to devote himself full-time to dance. He says with a faint air of disbelief, ‘I’m now travelling all over the world sharing what I love the most, to make this world to a better and happier place.’ Apart from giving weekend workshops and teaching at festivals, he still teaches foxtrot (with a kizomba touch), which now has become really popular in Scandinavia. From Iraq to Stockholm and from Stockholm to all over the world, kizomba and foxtrot and hip-hop and popping comes together in this dancer’s body and mind, to reaffirm the salience of the Black Atlantic as a kinetic philosophy but also reconfigure it as a world resource.

Concluding Speculations

The ways in which different kinetic strands of the Black Atlantic, floating away from each other in the tailwinds of history, unite in his and the other two stories I have told here, move the debate over cultural appropriation of Black expressive forms towards considerations of kinetic sharing and the body’s hospitality towards dance and music traditions that are not ‘meant to be our own’. These stories of individuals from the margins of Europe and beyond, take us to a world beyond the binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and make us think harder about who is allowed to take what from whom in the remaking of the self that modernity invariably seems to demand, no matter where we are born and where we grew up.

Kizomba alfresco on the banks of the Seine, Paris.
Kizomba alfresco on the banks of the Seine, Paris.

I started this Moving Story by a recollection of dancing kizomba through the recent attacks in Paris, and I want to return to that scenario by wondering what would have been the conditions under which the young terrorists would have taken up kizomba in the suburbs of Paris, where urban kiz first came together, instead of guns and body explosives. We can’t just point to social marginalisation, religious beliefs, skin colour, and collective trauma as explanations. Some young men and women across Europe have turned to dance to heal, others have not. Trying to work out why (in both cases) means taking far more seriously than ever dances like kizomba and their deeper connection with war, peace, and our global modernity.

kizomba on the boat 'Nix Nox', Seine, Paris
kizomba on the boat ‘Nix Nox’, Seine, Paris

All photos by Ananya Kabir unless otherwise specified.

A heartfelt thank you to Urska, Nemanja, and Ronie! Gratitude always to Kwenda Lima for opening the pathways of consciousness. A special merci also to Henri Lee and Domino Ancete.
Thank you to Nemanja and Nikolett for such hospitality at their festivals; Vedrana ‘Dottoressa’ and Darinka Chebella for talking to me about dance and the ‘Yugosphere’ in Ljubljana; to my ‘Kaizen family’ for all that we learnt together on the Danube; and to a partner who shall remain unnamed- for being the key that unlocked the secrets of kizomba.

Finally, to Brenna Daldorph, who initiated me into kizomba in Paris, a massive thank you for being there from the start of this particular ‘never-ending story’

The Moving Blog


It´s not possible to write a series on houses of African music for dancing in Lisbon without giving a special place to the most emblematic and internationally known place: B.leza, the survivor of the tradition of live music. Following the tradition that started in the seventies with Bana´s place, live music is the main raison-d´être of this mythical house.

The name chosen, “B.leza”, has an extraordinary symbolic meaning for Cape Verdean music: B.leza is the artistic name of Francisco Xavier da Cruz (1905-1958), a composer and musician who inspired the musical genre called morna (Cidra, 2010a). His house became the meeting point of artists, and he trusted in Bana to keep by heart his last poems (Cidra, 2010b). If we take into account that Alcides, Bana´s son, is one of the co-owners, we can understand how strong and deep is the relationship of B.Leza to the transnational links between Cape Verde and Portugal.

For all these reasons and more, B.leza can be considered an institution in Lisbon and it deserves an in-depth ethnography: the symbolism of the space, the artists that wrote the history of music, the personages that circulated and still can be found there, the dancing bodies that still respond to the ritual call of music… If we look carefully at B.leza´s dancefloor, we can see how all this long and deep history is embodied through the most pleasant and smooth of movements.

The tradition of live music in Lisbon

Bana was probably the first musician who opened a space in Lisbon for displaying his art and inviting other artists to play. It was in 1976, and the first name given to it was “Novo Mundo”, that later gave place to “Monte Cara” (Cidra, 2010b, INET-MD). Its final name was “Enclave”, the most remembered nowadays. Anyway, it was popularly known as “Bana” on behalf of the famous owner´s name. He put together live music, food and a dancefloor: this formula met with great success. Other well-known artists opened live music venues, such as Tito Paris and Dany Silva. In this context, José Manuel Saudade e Silva, a Portuguese gentleman who worked as a lawyer, fell in love with African music and enjoyed socializing with musicians. One day, he decided to gather some friends to open a new space devoted to this music and dance culture: in 1987 the dance club Baile was born in the ballroom of an ancient palace (XVI century) to give it new life. We are speaking about the emblematic Palácio Almada de Carvalhais. Previously, it had hosted the mythical Noites Longas (Long Nights) organized by Zé de Guiné, one of the fathers of Lisbon´s African nightlife. Among the legends that circulate around the dancing rooms, it is said that it was the place where Marquês de Pombal designed the reconstruction of the city of Lisbon in the eighteenth century! It was some years later, in 1995, that the house would be reopened with a new name: B.leza was born to become an icon that is still alive today.



Entrance to old Bleza
Entrance to old Bleza
Backyard of old Bleza
Backyard of old Bleza

B.leza, an icon of African-ness in Lisbon

Those who were lucky to live during those times describe the old days with emotion and agree that there are no words to define what it meant: the ancient candelabras hanging from the high ceiling, the corridors where you could find the big stars of African music chatting and smoking, the impressive dancefloor, the mix of solemnity and decadence because of the passing of the years, and the magic of the ambience. It was the meeting point for artists of every genre and intellectuals, and it became the university of African music and culture for those who were interested in it. All the big names of African music played in B.leza: Bana, Bonga, Justino Delgado, Tabanka Djaz, Tito Paris, Don Kikas, Sara Tavares, Lura, Nancy Vieira, just to name a few. DJ Sabura, one of the DJs that you can find there making people happy every Sunday, speaks about the old B.leza as his place of initiation into dance:

“B.leza is a cultural icon of African-ness in Portugal, in Lisbon (…) It was a place that had a mysticism that transpired the walls. There were verses written on the walls, there were red giant candelabras of high value, there was a dancefloor in darkened wood, there was a giant ceiling (…) and apart from the main hall, there were all those narrow corridors where people went to smoke and chat. It was a place where you could find painters, writers, singers, musicians, everyone spoke about it…it was a really special place, and it had a spectacular energy. Everyone was there, look, my initiation into dance took place there, with the friends I met at B.leza.” (Interview with DJ Sabura)

Nevertheless, it was not only about music: from the first day, the vocation of the house was the promotion of African culture (and not only) in all its dimensions: there were also poetry recitations, film exhibitions, visual art exhibitions, and more. Although it has always been open to art from all PALOPs, Brazil, and beyond, B.leza’s fame rests on its special relationship with Cape Verde, to the point that the President of Cámara Municipal de Lisboa (local government of the city) said once that the house can be considered “one more island of Cape Verde”. The owners insist that B.leza is not a disco: it is a house of culture. In fact, the first thing that strikes any lover of African culture is that the house offers a luxury cultural programme for inexpensive (sometimes even merely symbolic) prices.

B.leza, a love story

If we go to the dancefloor, we can read this message on the wall: “In 1995, B.leza was born from a love story. In the noble hall of Almada Carvalhais Palace, the music from Cape Verde danced in Lisbon. Recognising the city as a natural space of encounter of the people that History joined together, B.leza hosted artists from Mozambique, Angola, Brazil and many others that made of the stage the pretext for life to take place. The Palace closed but the history didn´t end. B.leza (re)encounters now the river Tejo and its audience to receive old friends with a new house, and sing the poetry and magic of lusophone culture with them. Good evening, welcome to B.leza!”


What is this love story that this welcoming message tells us about? An interview with Sofia, one of the co-owners of the place, leads us to the answer. The magic of D. Jose Manuel Saudade e Silva´s dream was imperilled when he unfortunately passed away in 1994. It was then when his two daughters, Sofia and Magdalena, two strong-minded and determined Portuguese ladies, decided to carry on with their father´s dream as an act of love for him. The musician Alcides (Bana´s son) joined them in the adventure. And they succeeded, there´s no doubt! Now we know the mysterious love story that the walls of today’s B.leza tell us about…

The opening of B.leza was kind of a risky adventure, as the two ladies were quite young and they didn´t have much experience in the field. They didn´t know whether the house would come to life again. The inaugural night was a difficult moment for them. Fortunately, the success went beyond expectations. This is the way Sofia, one of the current co-owners of B.leza, remembers that day:

“We opened in 1995, with a bit of fear because it was something new for us to some extent (…) it was kind of surprising how it became so successful (…) Baile had been falling down in its final years, and we wanted to do something that represented a continuity while making it also clear that there had been a change. (…) I remember the inauguration day, it was 21st December 1995, we went back home to change clothes and come back, and before I phoned Fernanda, a lady that worked there with us in that time. I asked her: “how is it going, Fernanda, how is the house now?” because I was afraid that nobody would come in, those anxieties…she said: “girl, come quickly or you won´t be able to get in”. It was absolutely crowded, things went just great.” (Interview with Sofia co-owner of B.leza)

Exiled from the palace

Unfortunately, nowadays we cannot experience a night in the palace because the owner finally decided to sell the property and B.leza´s soul had to pack up and look for another home. The search was hard, as it was rather difficult to find a new place that could keep up with such high standards. During the period between 2007 and 2012, trying not to leave the B.leza community homeless, the co-owners organized parties that they called B.leza itinerante (itinerant B.leza) in diverse places such as Teatro de São Luis, Teatro da Luz, Maxime or Teatro do Bairro. After some years roaming around the city, B.leza found its new home: an industrial block beside the river Tejo. How to invoke the spirits of the ancient iconic B.leza in a cold and empty diaphanous industrial box with metal serpents running on the ceiling? The staff worked hard to feed the imagination of their loyal members and help them get over the trauma of palace exile.

“Our idea was bringing some elements that could bring people back to the former B.leza. (…) This space was too modern, too cold, and we tried to find elements that could bring in a bit of warmth and a bit of history to the place. So we went to look for velvet for the curtains in a warm colour (…) and old furniture (…) And it seems that we made it, because people say: “oh, those candelabras are from the former B.leza” and they are not! But we got to build that bridge.” (Interview with Sofia, co-owner of B.leza)

Smokers´ sofa area
Smokers´ sofa area
Bleza dance floor
Bleza dance floor
 Area of chairs
Area of chairs

Yes, if we go to nowadays´ B.leza, we don´t find ourselves in a palace. Anyway, we shouldn´t feel sad about it because the crystal wall that looks at the Tejo provides us with other kind of luxuries. For example, while dancing in a Sunday matinée we may be amazed by a sight like this one.

Sunset from Bleza
Sunset from Bleza

As the sun goes down, the lights that let see the silhouette of the bridge 25th April remind the dancers that critical episode in the history of Portugal that changed definitely the destiny of former Portuguese colonies. On the left of the bridge, the illuminated Christo Redentor (Redeeming Christ) seems to look at B.leza and protect the dancing community with his opened arms.

During the day, the walls recently re-painted in deep pink make the new B.leza impossible to remain unseen in a walk by the shore of Tejo in the area of Cais do Sodré. There´s no doubt you will find it if you´re looking for it!

Pink Bleza from the outside
Pink Bleza from the outside

But the most important ritual space is the stage: here the resident band plays every Friday and Saturday, and the living legends and new artists of the Portuguese-speaking countries (and beyond) jump on to display their art. The resident band of B.leza makes people dance every Friday and Saturday: Vaiss Dias (guitar), Cao Paris (drums), Paló Figuereido (bass), Kalú Ferreira (keyboards) and Calú Moreira (voice).

bleza resident band by samuel sequeira (from www.lisboafricana.com, by Samuel Sequeira)
bleza resident band by samuel sequeira
(from www.lisboafricana.com, by Samuel Sequeira)

On Sunday there is an extremely popular Matinée that starts with a dance workshop by some of the best-known teachers of Lisbon, followed by a session guided by DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura.

DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura Matinees Bleza
DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura Matinees Bleza

The organizer of these dancing Matinées is Magda, an incredibly nice and busy young woman (originally from Poland) and a source of never-ending original ideas for new events. She combines her role as producer of music and dance events with her role as doctoral researcher on African music at ISCTE (University of Lisbon).

She was responsible for some extremely interesting activities, including a series of colloquia with the main kizomba teachers of Lisbon. Another initiative that she developed and deserves special attention was the series of workshops named Kizomba com Elas (Kizomba with them, a feminine “them”) that intended to bring under the spotlight the work of these female teachers that are usually regarded as secondary actresses in a context where male dancers rule.


kizomba com elas Catarina Paniagua
kizomba com elas Catarina Paniagua

B.leza, the democratic dancefloor

One of the most striking aspects of this house is the extraordinary heterogeneity of its clientele. The dancefloor is inhabited by people of all ages, colours, looks, social classes, professions, origins and lifestyles. Indeed, this openness and diversity is one of the main characteristics of B.leza, and it is so because the politics for entering are not restrictive:

“We let everyone in, we don´t have any dress code to get in, people come as they want. If you come from the beach and you wear flip-flops, you get in wearing flip-flops. If you want to come with a shiny dress from head to toe… you just come as you want to come, as you like to come and as you have money to do it (…) There are car parkers, who got some coins today and come to drink their cup of red wine and dance all the night long and everything is ok, or even ministers, judges, the prince of Monaco came here one year ago to dance as any other client, Robert De Niro, Catherine de Neuve…everyone as long as they want to have fun are allowed in.” (Interview with Sofia, co-owner of B.leza)

Bleza matinee dancefloor
Bleza matinee dancefloor

In this way, the dancefloor becomes a democratic ritual space where social inequalities of everyday life are temporarily suspended. In the words of the classical author Victor Turner, the hierarchical social structure becomes a horizontal communitas during the ritual (Turner 1967). At B.leza nights, the time of the dance is the moment to dream of a better world where everyone is the same…



Cidra, Rui (2010a) “B.leza”. In Castelo-Branco, Salwa (dir.) Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no século XX A-C. Lisboa: Temas e Debates/Círculo de Leitores.

Cidra, Rui (2010b) “Bana”. In Castelo-Branco, Salwa (dir.) Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no século XX A-C. Lisboa: Temas e Debates/Círculo de Leitores.

Turner, Victor (1969) The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-structure. New York: Cornell University Press.

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 the Modern Moves Project and will become a full member in September 2015.

The Moving Blog


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.

PICTURE 2. General view 1


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.

THE DANCEFLOOR ON FRIDAY (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema Club)
THE DANCEFLOOR ON FRIDAY (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema Club)

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?

DJ KLAUS, THE RESIDENT DJ (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema).
DJ KLAUS, THE RESIDENT DJ (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema).

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).

PICTURE 9. Workshop on Friday

FLYERS OF FRIDAY PARTIES (from facebook: courtesy of Kalema Club)
FLYERS OF FRIDAY PARTIES (from facebook: courtesy of Kalema Club)

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 Moving Blog

To Ouidah: Memory, Movement, Pythons, Mermaids. By Ananya Kabir

Take the Africa Express. Ouidah.


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.

IMG_2350IMG_2494In the historical city of Ouidah, the power of nature mingles with the tragedies of modern history and the resilience of the sacred.

IMG_2491We 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: 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.



IMG_2447The lieux de memoire combine mercantile and sacred dimensions. Can the sacred ever come to us unmediated in modernity?

IMG_2440IMG_2439The 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.





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.


IMG_2475Melancholia 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 .


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.

IMG_2464I 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.


IMG_2480The 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.

IMG_2477We 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.’

IMG_2407My 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.’

IMG_2483 IMG_2451

I am no mermaid.  Perhaps I am more J. Alfred Prufrock:

‘I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.’

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.


The Moving Blog

Dispatches from the field Week 1: Dr Elina Djebbari, Havana

First week in Havana: Rumbero’s shoulders and hurricane season
23rd November 2014

On Monday 17th of November, I landed in Havana after a ten hours flight from Paris. I finally exited the airport after a 3 hours wait stuck at the border, which seemed completely normal to the customs officers: when I asked them what the problem was, I only got the answer ‘¡Estamos en Cuba!’.

This first week has been dedicated to one of the main focuses of this research trip, finding in the archives tracks of a group of musicians from Mali who came to Havana around 1964 to learn afro-Cuban music in the frame of the cultural relationships developed between Cuba and African socialist countries during the Cold War.

Las Maravillas de Mali[2]
Las Maravillas de Mali – Biblioteca Nacional

My strategy being to start with the biggest institutions to the smallest ones, I began my week by going to the national archives and the national library. Unfortunately, none of them seems to have documents useful to my quest and as nothing is digitized, it does not facilitate the work!

Photo 2 - Archives search at Biblioteca Nacional
archives search at Biblioteca Nacional

I continued with the institutions dedicated to music in Cuba, and believe me, they are a lot! When you are used to doing fieldwork, you are not surprised to be sent from place to place, but it remains unfortunate, even if all these places are in your fieldwork list! But you also know by experience that even if you do not get anything the first time, nothing prevents you to come back later and maybe be luckier next time!

After having visited these different places: Instituto Cubano de la Musica, Centro de investigaciones y desarollo de la musica cubana, old and new EGREM studios (EGREM: Empresa de Grabaciones y Ediciones Musicales), Centro de investigaciones de politica international, Embassies of Guinea and Mali, I have to admit that, regarding my primary quest, my first week is not very encouraging. Indeed, I am mostly received by this kind of answer: “Musicos de Mali, aqui en Habana?! No hay nada!”… Well, I am pretty sure there is something somewhere and I am determined to find it out! I am sorry people, you will see my face again I’m afraid!

The positive thing is that the evocation of ‘Las Maravillas de Mali’ sounds however not so unfamiliar to some other people I met. An old man at studio Egrem recalled the group, even the colors of the cover of their disc recorded in 1967, and although he told me that there was nothing in the EGREM archives, I got from him the promise to look for some tracks again next week. Thanks to him, I got an interview with a lady who also has known of them as she was married with an Ivorian music producer involved in the musical relation Cuba-West Africa in the 1970s. I will also have to return to the Malian and Guinean embassies to follow up the seeds I sowed there.

Apart the visits to these institutions, I am also trying to encounter the Cuban salsa scene. If someone was looking at me from the outside, he could see a white European woman wandering around Havana’s streets at night, following the sounds coming from places hidden from sight, accepting to follow some complete strangers who suddenly decide to become her guide. In so doing, I got my first salsa dances in the street the day after my arrival and I went to a very nice salsa place in Vedado called La Gruta, which does not appear in the travel guides. There I danced Cuban salsa of course and also a bit of bachata, and I watched the quite long show animated by different groups of dancers. I experienced another salsa night at La Casa de la Musica and today I am about to attend Los Van Van’s concert in a place called La Tropical and I am very excited to see them ‘en vivo’!

Among the numerous activities I did this week, I think that what struck me the most is certainly the rumba performance I experienced for the first time at El Jelengue with a group called ‘Rumberos de Cuba’. With such a name, no doubt about what it was! Even though I had previously watched rumba videos on Youtube, it was completely different to be in it, to feel the involvement of singers, drummers, dancers and spectators. It was undoubtedly ‘fuerte’ as the lady sitting next to me was exclaiming regularly! I had never seen so many shoulder undulations and shakings, in every kind of position, so fast and during such long sequences!

Photo 3 - Rumba performance
Rumba performance

During this first week, I tried to understand how things work here, how a foreigner in general and a lone white woman in particular could deal with the basic aspects of life. I feel now able to pursue my research and hopefully be more successful next week. Nothing new about this since ethnographic fieldwork is indeed also like that: being alone in an unfamiliar country without any of your usual means of communication, looking for something nobody (or almost) cares about, getting lost by trying to find a place for which the address you have is something like ‘calle 3ra e/ 10 y 12’ or ‘calle 13 e/ M y N’ or again – this one was hell: ‘calle 36-A, e. 7ma y 5ta’; drinking cocktails with potential informants in which, unfortunately, the proportions are more rum than anything else! Indeed, forget about your previous European experiences of Cuba Libre or Mojito– how they do it here is like this: ¾ of the glass is filled with rum and the remaining quarter with ice and the rest of the ingredients, and this is when you have said: please not too much! ☺
Photo 4 - Conga chairs
Sitting on conga chairs: only in Cuba?!

Despite some postcards clichés that you cannot avoid, the old American cars and the women with a huge cigar at their mouth, violent rains due to the hurricane season unexpectedly mark this first week in Havana… As an interesting resonance, the undulations of the Rumbero’s shoulders and the thunder rolls of Cuban tropical storms welcome my first week in Havana! (Chango ‘ta veni– adds Ananya!!)
Photo 5 - Old American car
Photo 5: Car in Havana