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!
‘Grandparents’. ‘Suriname’. ‘Malaya’. ‘Rubber Plantations’. ‘Migrated’. ‘India’. ‘Australia’. ‘Utrecht’. These were the words that announced the presence on stage of two young men half hidden in the shadows—words that were fragments of two fragmented histories now sedimented in their bodies- their dancing bodies. Wrapped in an orange-gold silk sari that was at once placenta, straitjacket, security blanket, and creative inspiration, these Siamese twins conjoined by history now leapt, struggled, and contorted their bodies in a confrontation with themselves, their ancestors, their pasts, presents and futures—indeed time itself. When they broke free of this material, it was to initiate a movement-dialogue using their respective dance styles—bharatanatyam for Sooraj Subramaniam, and hip-hop for Shailesh Bahoran.
This was Material Men, Sooraj and Shailesh’s inspired collaboration for the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, unfolding before my stunned (and tear-filled) eyes at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of London’s Southbank Centre.
Earlier this year, I had already enjoyed Lalla Rookh, Shailesh’s inspired intervention into the history of Indian migration using a moving combination of Afro-diasporic street dance styles and Indic ritual. That experience had convinced me that through dance there is indeed a way to link the African and Indian diasporas that empire and capitalism had triggered in waves— the diasporas from the African continent instigated by slavery, and the subsequent diasporas from the Indian subcontinent instigated by indentured labour. Shailesh revealed the universal address of the language of hip-hop and created new solidarities between diasporic cultures which, even though embedded in the same national and transnational spaces, don’t often collaborate or dialogue—except through dance. With Material Men, we went a step further in this use of dance to effect a meeting of histories, diasporas, and the oceans.
While Shailesh’s ancestors had migrated to Suriname from eastern India to work on the sugarcane plantations after the abolition of slavery, Sooraj’s grandparents had been part of the Indian diaspora that answered Malaya’s need for labour on the British Empire’s rubber plantations. They are the inheritors, therefore, of migrations across the Western and Eastern paths of the Indian Ocean and—in the case of the Indo-Caribbean diasporas, further across the Atlantic. Material Men’s use of Sooraj’s dance repertoire alongside Shailesh’s highlights two possible embodied responses to dance as liberation from this history.
While Sooraj chose to train in the ‘classical’ styles of India, Shailesh took to an African-diasporic style. In Material Men, their dance styles bend, flex, and gesticulate like their bodies to respond to each other’s life path in dance. Bharatanatyam and hip-hop bleed into each other to create a new thing without a name, yet another witness to the continuous production of newness that ‘creolization’ indicates.
Of course, each dancer had already ‘creolized’ his chosen dance style through personal twists and interpretations before meeting each other. Shailesh has been using hip-hop to reproduce the robotic machine-metronome of Plantation time, while Sooraj’s pairing of traditional gold necklace with grey trousers and orange belt attested to his own creative take on a classical dance. Now, each with his own vocabulary struggled to make sense of history on a shared stage but in the process freed each other from their individual oppression by that history.
As the agility of Shailesh’s hip-hop met the raised palms, mudras, and stately postures of Sooraj’s bharatanatyam, the difficulty and exhilaration of the experiment was apparent. Starting out as antagonistic, ending up supporting each other, their sweating, breathing, and panting bodies embraced and intertwined and strained to converse while retaining individuality.
Different ancestral histories and dance trajectories notwithstanding, Material Men is the process whereby two dancers recognise and celebrate (not just mourn) their similarities grounded in modernity’s collective traumas of displacement and deracination. The sari that opens the show is the ‘material’ of histories of the heart — difficult loves and private domains that lurk beneath official narratives and their deafening silences.
The sari is the mother– ‘mother India’ with its heavy demand of fidelity to an idea of ‘home’ left far behind. Where and how does the diasporic subject find a toehold in that material/maternal vastness, always just out of reach? How does one acknowledge the caste-based oppression, collusions between colonisers and elites, and poverty that one’s ancestors would have fled, or indeed the adventure of new lives across the oceans (as is the story of Sooraj’s grandparents, who left India of their own volition to seek work)? Is turning to ‘Indian’ dance the answer, or adopting the styles forged by another diaspora?
Dance allows all answers to be right answers. The point about dance is that it allows a non-narrative freeing of histories that imprison. We talk of provincializing Europe but the need of the hour, which Material Men recognises, is to universalize Asia. The intimate chamber music composed by Elena Kats-Chernin that formed its score enabled this universalizing process, especially when, at a climactic moment, it was punctuated by the vocables of Indic dance. The heaving ribcages exposed by the dancers’ bare torsos, which radiated masculinity, fragility, labour, and beauty in equal measure, paid homage to another universal truth of modernity: the human body and its capacity to extract enjoyment and transcendence through labour and exhaustion. In Sooraj’s words, ‘there are moments in the striving for perfection that we forget to enjoy. In enjoying we get to just be, to embody, which is the true meaning of bhava. Shailesh and I were discussing recently that it is in enjoyment that the spirit of the dance is finally revealed. It is in that enjoyment that perfection, ananda, is attained.’
Material Men premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Southbank Centre, London), on the 17th of September 2015, as part of a double bill by the Shobhana Jeyasingh Company. It continues on a UK-wide tour. Many thanks as always to Shailesh Bahoran whose work always inspires me to write, think, and feel better, and to Sooraj Subramaniam for making me appreciate the true beauty of bharatanatyam after a lifetime of being exposed to the dance.
All photos by Ananya Kabir (except feature image, taken from the event programme)
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.
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)
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.
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!
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).
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.
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 comElas (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.
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)
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.
Deep red earth and lush green vegetation: the road to Ouidah, an hour or so out of Cotonou, Benin, takes you past the most incredible colours.
In the historical city of Ouidah, the power of nature mingles with the tragedies of modern history and the resilience of the sacred.
We at Modern Moves know about the sacredness of pythons. I have devoured, from cover to cover, many times over, Katherine Dunham’s account of her complex relationship with Damballa, serpent god, which first started during her fieldwork in Haiti. In Ouidah, I saw the same coiled and terrifying beauty, the same egg yolk stains proclaiming sacrifice and offerings.
Our tour companions from Nigeria and Ghana were both drawn to and terrified by the pythons. I have not heard a grown man scream so loudly as when the python was draped around one of their necks, and yet– he did not reject it! The python, coiled around his reluctant yet eager neck, radiated the uncanny presence of mystery in the midst of deep historical rupture.
The journey through the Route of Slaves, through the heart of contemporary Africa, had begun for our group of dancers, visiting Cotonou as part of the Benin International Salsa Festival.
TREES: OF MEMORY, FORGETTING, AND RETURN
Trees: the tree under which future slaves were paraded to be sold; the Tree of Forgetting, and the Tree of Return. These are now part of the structured journey of memorialisation that has been created by the postcolonial State of Benin in reparation for the complicity of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the transformation of human beings into commodities.
The lieux de memoire combine mercantile and sacred dimensions. Can the sacred ever come to us unmediated in modernity?
The sacred can confront and defeat banalisation. Of this I am convinced, as we drive past statues whose obviously recent vintage does nothing to diminish their strange and disquieting power.
Perhaps this strangeness is merely a product of the distance between the belief systems they belong to, and what I know. But having grown up India, I am comfortable with the idea of syncretism, of the mingling of one God and many gods, of many possible manifestations of the sacred. I am a believer and an atheist, a lover and a sceptic. What I respond to in Ouidah is an accretion of strange sacrality, the confusions of modernity, and the power of the human imagination to contort, distort, resist, and reclaim.
This is the same aesthetic that is so powerfully present in Haiti. In the car the radio bombards us with a combination of African salsa and zouk, including retro zouk numbers that clearly sound out the debt to Haitian kompa. In the haze of monumentalisation, a fresco-ed wall flashes past us. I read the magic words ‘Bois Cayman’. Stop! I implore. This petite escale is not part of the tour we have paid for. But the guide recognises the urgency in my voice. ‘Why did you want to stop here? What is Bois Cayman to you’? I look at him in amazement. ‘are you joking? This monument recognises the most important moment in the history of slave rebellion in the Americas and we are not stopping here?’ We are now complicit spirits.
We walk around the Memorial Zomachi. Panels on the walls depict in painful detail the departure of the slaves, their captivity, their degradation, and their rebellion in Haiti, the world’s first Black Republic. We enter through the gate, but the panelled walls enclose only nothingness.
INTERMISSION: ‘BLACK C’EST LE SWAG’
The void asks us to meditate, to commemorate, to reflect. This is also what the State asks us to do. But the void’s request is easier to heed.
…. for some of us.
My companions are busy posing. Their postures are those of hip hop, of swag, of attitude- new incarnations of Black Power. They have come on this tour to discover a shared history, they tell me. What kind of discovery involves noisy, even celebratory posturing? Then it strikes me: theirs is an act of collective reparation in and through the body.
Melancholia comes in many colours. What we feel in response to a history that we did not shape but yet feel as ours can require words that are beyond European lexicons. As postcolonial subjects we feel the European words in our mouths and reshape them with our tongues . Our bodies play out different affective trails. Memory is physical, its burden lightened through laughter, through movement. Through posture. Through swag.
Beyond the sepulchral, monumental, cavernous lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) of French metropolitan historians, can we not posit the possibility of ‘mouvements de mémoire’ (movements of memory)?
(Salsa: when this dance of the African diaspora returns to Africa, it is precisely the movements (in multiple senses) of memory that take place).
The void elicits from us our own methods of commemoration .
THE MERMAID CALLS
Portals: The Door of No Return. A vast number of Africans left the shores of Dahomey for the plantations of the Americas. The final monument in Ouidah that we are led to is, fittingly, the Door of No Return.
I note the now-familiar routine. The guide intones the horrors of the slave trade. The visitors strike their poses. Elina and I wander around, taking pictures. The sand is hot beneath our feet. The sea is out there- it seems close, but the sand is far too hot to walk to the water.
The guide is talking about Mami Wata. She is the water goddess. I say, in the Brazilian way, ‘Iemanja’. He spins around. Once again, he is surprised by me. ‘How do you know of her? Where are you from?’ I’m just an Indian woman who lives in the world and loves to know about everything. Oh and I dance. And like to think through dance.
We stand by the shore. I hear the guide describe the mode of worship appropriate to Mami Wata. ‘Are there temples to Mami Wata here?’ I ask. He peers into my face and his voice drops. ‘She doesn’t need temples. She is here, she is everywhere.’
My own voice drops in synchronicity. I feel we must speak low. ‘Do you see her then?’ The guide looks at me. ‘I sense her presence everywhere. At night, I see her here, on the beach. She is a mermaid…. she has no legs, just the body of a fish….’ Then…. ‘she is like you.’
Prufrock has ‘seen them riding seaward on the waves/ Combing the white hair of the waves blown back/ When the wind blows the water white and black.’ Trapped in the modern dichotomy between reason and enchantment, he (or possibly the poet himself here) declares, sadly, ‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown/ Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’
In Ouidah, however, we linger (unable to stop taking photographs), touched by some secret knowledge of the sacred that still persists on that sea shore– on the other side of which so many thousands woke up to be drowned- but also survived through the persistence of cultural resources.
Africa shows the way. Ex Africa aliquid semper novi.
All photographs by Ananya Kabir.
Thank you Elina Djebbari for being such a perfect travel companion, Thank you, Ines Ahouansou and Steve Deogratias Lokonon, organisers of the Benin International Salsa Festival, for arranging this memorable visit to Ouidah.
Korzo Theater, The Hague: sunny afternoon outside, total darkness inside. Out of the dark emerge footsteps and the faint outline of bodies. Slowly six bodies, sitting cross-legged in a circle, are revealed. An Indian soundscape– tablas, Sanskrit chants— makes itself audible. A South Asian sacred ambience is unfolded through hand gestures that combine mudras, Islamic ablutions, and Hindu rites. We are in a meditative memorial space. Gestures that have become hegemonic in a majoritarian context are here, in double diaspora, as fragile and precious as a rose.
The bodies rise, their writhing movements around a single central box-like frame. The minimalist prop (which will stay on stage throughout the performance) is complemented by the outfits of the six dancers—short kurtas and dhotis of white homespun cotton—the signature garb of South Asian migrant labour down the ages. Beneath them we can glimpse the black stretch tops and leggings—the uniform of contemporary dancers. We are in a layered world. Here, bodies, space, sound, and movement bear witness to migration and mixing, to the subaltern’s labour that laid the bricks of modernity. This is the history commemorated in Shailesh Bahoran’s magnificent piece, Lalla Rookh.
Lalla Rookh was the ship that transported the first Hindustani emigrants from colonial India to the Dutch colony of Suriname. As the flyer accompanying the show reminds us, ‘the first group, consisted on 399 emigrants, came to shore at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam on 5 June 1873.’ As elsewhere throughout the imperial world, they came to fill the labour gap left after the abolition of slavery in 1863. ‘Between 1873 and 1916, over 34,000 Hindustanis chose to leave their homeland to go to Suriname to work as a field labourer or to work in the factories’. Bahoran and at least some of his multi-ethnic cast claim this history as their own. At the end of 50 minutes, Lalla Rookh leaves the audience with the realisation that all of us, subjects of late modernity, are also part of that history.
Lalla Rookh’s six dancers move from the particular to the universal through a versatile dance style with global reach: hiphop and associated kineasthetics (b-boying, breakdancing, funk, popping, locking). Afro-diasporic dance heritage here tells the story of the pagal samundar: Hindustani for ‘the mad sea’ that the ships encountered as they turned the Cape of Good Hope. Popping and locking suggest the ship tossed on high waves, and the dislocation of a body and mind in extreme agony. Whirling movements executed on the knees suggest incapacitation, even dementia. Two dancers lock their bodies; their crouching, swaying, and headstands remind me of capoeira. Battle steps forged through resistance on the slave plantation now enact the birth of the jahaji-bhai—the new camaraderie of the ship-brotherhood.
In this twilight of passage from the old to the as-yet-unknown, a young woman is wrapped in a sari and disrobed by her ship-companions. This extremely powerful sequence draws on the myth of Draupadi from the Indic ‘epic’, the Mahabharata. Draupadi’s kinsmen had tried to rape her in public by disrobing her, even as the god Krishna came to her rescue by merging his infinitude with her sari that consequently never left her body. But this is a new world; there is no Krishna here; the woman writhes as her sari is ripped off. A male dancer whirls it around his body in a mad frenzy; the sari becomes the ship’s sail. New myths for old: Rape, brutality, and the violence born of violence constitute the jahaji-bhai’s baggage.
The remainder of the production uses hiphop and urban dance to evoke the complete transformation of the new arrival to what, in the Fijian context, was called the ‘girmitiya’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girmityas: the subject of Empire whose body is worth the labour it is contracted to deliver, measurable in years, months, days, and hours. The soundtrack highlights this extreme measurement of human worth by capitalist time through the predominance of a metronomic ticking clock and the dancers’ breathtakingly accomplished body isolations. These movements peak into a long sequence of body shudders to a percussive line that becomes increasingly industrial and machine-like. These are the Robots of the Plantation and the Factory, the zombies of the Caribbean imaginary, the cogs in Capitalism’s monstrous wheels.
Periodically, melodies and chanting voices revive a sense of the sacred. Fragments of a thumri in a minor key are interspersed with atmospheric crackles. An existential problem emerges: how to heal through these fragments? Can the trauma of Lalla Rookh and kala pani (black waters)— the dark passage that robbed one of identity and moorings—ever recede? The box-frame that signified the ship is viciously and urgently rejected. But it never leaves the stage. The suggestion is of identities lost, but new ones born— without amnesia. This is why a New World dance vocabulary, forged through the embodied experiences of those who had been displaced earlier by slavery, makes such poetic sense here.
Yet Indian-ness persists in the little traditions that Lalla Rookh lovingly celebrates. The ritual gestures of meditation and prayer return. The labourer who dies after an all-consuming burst of physical rebellion and exhaustion is anointed on top of that same white box-frame. His companions consecrate his body with drops of water shaken from fresh leaves dipped into small ritual vessels, in the same way as his ancestors would have done in the plains of India’s great rivers. As the five remaining dancers circle the prone body in course of the ritual, their sobs mingle with the already layered soundtrack. I wonder—is this the end? Let there be something else. Please.
Suddenly, thankfully, we get the release we crave. A series of shudders unite the group and transform into a burst of triumphant movement. There are many deaths in the piece, but there are rebirths, too. And what is reborn is a new creolized body— with Indian hand mudras and b-boying lower bodies, with relentless metronome of Capitalist time overlain by the lovely notes of the wooden flute—Krishna’s flute— carrying the essence of Indic sweetness across the mad seas. As I resurfaced in the minimalist foyer of the very Dutch Korzo Theater, blinking away my tears, my understanding of the Netherlands’ inner history and its hidden connection with my own postcolonial Indian-ness was once again expanded— in a process that started when I visited Suriname a few years ago.
From the CaDance Festival brochures, banners, and website, an arresting figure has been watching us. It is Shailesh Bahoran himself, a contemporary Amazonian river-deity rising from the edge of where Plantation meets Rainforest (or so I imagine); painted blue like Krishna, wreathed with feathers and grass like a mythic figure from a Wilson Harris novel; sunglasses jauntily proclaiming his swag, and body arrested in a ribcage move that is typically Afro-diasporic. This palimpsest of a body is what Suriname, one of the most culturally and demographically mixed up places in the world, brings to our consciousness. We are all more or less like that body. It is the labours of that body to which we owe the modern world. The search for culture is now conducted through a creole language. And we all must learn to speak it, recognise its fragments within us, treat it with love and respect. That’s what Lalla Rookh‘s visionary director and its superbly talented dancers teach us.
Thanks to the dancers and director for a wonderful and moving theatre experience!
All photos of the Lalla Rookh performance courtesy of Shailesh Bahoran
All photos of Paramaribo, Suriname, and final photo of the CaDance brochure courtesy of Ananya Kabir
A guest post for the Moving Blog by DJ John Armstrong, who selected the tunes for our Moving Conversation 2 after-party on January 12th. John has recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here, amongst other internet places: Simply Zouk. If you’re still one of the intrepid few who prefer to buy their music in a physical shop, you’ll also find it at HMV and similar retailers. Thank you, John, for the music, your knowledge, and the post!’
A while back, I was invited to start work on a music compilation of traditional French Antillean music: gwoka, bele, chouval bwa, biguine, jing-ping, and so forth. I needed some quotable contemporary material from current traditional musicians, and found to my surprise that those approached would only participate if the interviews were conducted in kreyol.
For commercial reasons the compilation wasn’t completed. But the illuminating conversation between Prof Carolyn Cooper and Jocelyne Beroard at January’s Moving Conversation, as well as the wonderful performance by Zil’oKa, a dance group whose average age can’t be more than the early 20s, reminded me that it was in the fields of language and dance just as much as of music that Jocelyne’s band, Kassav’, helped effect a revolution.
Francophone songwriters have been composing in kreyol for more than half a century, true, but it wasn’t until the late 70s and early 80s that there was general commercial recognition of the fact. Suddenly, LPs from the French Antilles and Haiti started appearing in record-shop racks with pull-out lyric sheets in (to many eyes) an almost-indecipherable script. Kassav’s members, and the composers with whom they collaborated, regarded it as a mark not of nationalistic honour, but of cultural necessity that written lyrics accurately reproduced sung lyrics.
In this, Kassav’ were very much of their time as regards contemporaneous writers in fields other than music. The Negritude writers of the 30s- Aime Cesaire and others- had already extended the scope of the linguistic studies of the Haitian anthropologist Antenor Firmin beyond specialist circles and into wider cultural usage. But it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s, and the appearance of Martinican authors, poets and movie scriptwriters such as Raphael Confiant, Daniel Maximin, Jean Bernabe and Patrick Chamoiseau that kreyol — as a signifier — became almost an everyday necessity rather than an academic nicety, even though such writers were not confining themselves purely to kreyol in all their work.
The same thing’s happening today in Jamaica, although admittedly, reggae has had a much wider world stage for a much longer time than Franco-Caribbean music. Prof Cooper played a track from the recent album by perhaps the most exciting ‘new’ reggae voice in a decade — Chronnix. Just 22 years old, Chronnix is part of a new generation of Jamaican artists that don’t recognise the constraints and conventions of commercial reggae and dancehall. Accordingly, you’ll find lovers’ rock, dub, ragga, dancehall, roots, Rastafari, nyabinghi and everything in between in a Chronnix set, all of it composed in a contemplative and poetic patois, with thematic preoccupations that owe more to Bobs Dylan and Marley than to current dancehall.
What’s more, written Jamaican patois is appearing more often now than a decade ago: for example, in the extraordinary novels of Marlon James, such as A Short History Of Seven Killings, a 700-page, patois-Pynchon-esque mix of fact and fiction about the events and characters surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1977. And here’s the thing: after fifty or so pages, even a white, middle-class English guy like me finds himself internally vocalising and appreciating the flow, beauty and humour of Jamaican patois, and understanding every word.
Here’s a good podcast of current “Reggae Revival” as the ‘new’ Chronnix sound is being tagged.
What’s just as exciting is the way in which Kassav’s ‘kreyol-and-proud’ legacy, as well as the tempos of modern r & b and dancehall, has influenced nouvel’ scene Franco-Caribbean music, as Guadeloupe’s foremost practitioner of back-to-roots modernity, Admiral T, demonstrates below:
Admiral T says to the kids at the beginning: “Mis ti krik!’. They reply ‘Mis ti krak!’ .‘I’m going to tell you a story!’ ‘ Yes, we’re listening!’
Or the beautiful Lycinais Jean, in this adaptation of a Jocelyne Berouard classic:
Q: WHEN IS ZOUK NOT ZOUK?
A: WHEN IT’S BAD ZOUK.
There’s been much discussion among ‘old-school’ Antillean zouk fans about ‘modern’ international zouk (ie post- 1995 or thereabouts). Many believe the current style for the relentless 88-ish b.p.m. tempo is a travesty of original zouk –- party and carnival music which often hit 140-150 b.p.m. in its late-80s heyday. It doesn’t really trouble me either way: after all, much of zouk’s early impetus came from Dominican cadence-lypso and Haitian konpa direct, neither of which styles were unusually frantic.
Nevertheless, I can sort of see why first-generation zoukeurs feel that ‘their’ music has been hijacked by the requirements of the dance teacher! But ultimately, all popular music tends to change in line with the recording techniques and technical advances of the day, and with the blueprint of commercial ‘chart’ music generally. For example, what the music industry calls ‘r & b’ today would be unrecognisable to the r & b artists of the late 40s, like Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris -– but it’s still r & b, for all that.
To reiterate a cliché: there are just two kinds of music, good music and bad music. I think the same applies to zouk, whenever it was recorded.
SEMBA AND KIZOMBA- PAULO FLORES- A TRUE ORIGINAL
Speaking of ‘international’ zouk, I believe that there’s a misconception among some that today’s zouk sound developed solely from Antilllean zouk, and that everything else is mere emulation. The fact is, though, that the Luso-African community had a much larger input into zouk’s beginnings in Paris than they’re often given credit for. There’s something about Luso African melody that makes it perfect for zouk, especially its fado-inflected melancholy.
I recently put together a 4-CD box set of essential zouk both traditional and contemporary, spanning the years from the late 70s to today. You can find it here.
I recall seeing many posters for Cape Verdean parties and club-nights in 80s Paris record shops. More importantly, arrangers and composers such as Emmanuel ‘Manou’ Lima and Tito Paris were providing the blueprints for the then-new sound of zouk-love. Many of the great Afro-zouk classics recordings by Oliver N’Goma, Monique Seka, and others bore the unmistakeable print of Manou Lima’s keyboard arrangements, while the Paris and Abidjan dance club soundtracks of the time included many tunes by Luso-African stars — Bonga, Paulo Flores, Tropical Band, Carlos Burity, Eduardo Paim, Juju Delgado, Cabo Verde Show — in the mix among the more instantly recogniseable Kassav’, Kanda Bongo Man, etc.
Which brings us neatly to the much-anticipated Modern Moves conversation between Paulo Flores, the undisputed king and foremost international populariser of Angolan semba and kizomba and Professor Marissa Moorman, whose book Intonations is the essential primer for any Angolan music lover or musicologist. With that in mind, I thought I’d leave you with a couple of YouTube videos that demonstrate beyond doubt the mutual indebtedness of the Antillean and Luso African musical diasporas.
The first is a duet between Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux and the great Eduardo ‘General Kambuengo’ Paim.
The second between Jacob, once again, and one of the lesser-known stars of kizomba, Nilo Carvalho.
The third link, of course,, shows Paulo Flores singing one of the keynote songs of semba, with a superb band.
So, till then: We ou nan pati la! E ve-lo na festa!
Feature image: Zil’oKA dancers performing to ‘Zouk la si sel medikaman nou ni’ in the presence of Jocelyne Beroard and Carolyn Cooper, King’s College London, 12th January 2015. Photo courtesy of Fareda Khan.
At the European University Institute in Florence in 2012, I had asked the Vasco da Gama Professor of History Jorge Flores about research on the movements of people from India through the Portuguese-speaking world. After all, the Portuguese Empire had stretched from the East Indies to Brazil and Vasco da Gama himself had been the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope to touch the shores of Western India. And when people move, their music and rhythms move with them: was there any evidence of rhythmic travels between India and Africa through the Portuguese imperial web? Well, the short answer from the expert was— of course people had moved. The archives had enough evidence for these movements especially of civil servants, school teachers, and other such bureaucratic personnel. But in 2012 it seemed that no one had done much research on this topic yet. And as for their music— well, that concern was not even on the general research radar.
That was over two years ago and all sorts of work on this transoceanic world is now in progress. The work of Pamila Gupta and the Facebook group Indo-Portuguese History are only two such examples. But we’re waiting for work on the musical and kinetic connections between the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean routes shaped by different European empires– especially the Portuguese imperial world, whose fast caravel ships that had first opened up those routes as early as the sixteenth century. In Anglophone scholarship, in the meanwhile, there seemed nowhere to start, no prior historiographic or ethnomusicological exploration to base my own investigations on.
What has been studied is the music that evolved as the Portuguese moved across the Atlantic Ocean, transporting African slaves from one side of the ocean to another, with transit points in Lisbon, Cape Verde, and even islands in the Caribbean belonging to other powers, such as the Dutch-controlled Curacao. As elsewhere in the Black Atlantic world, the horrific act of human trafficking has left, paradoxically, a rich legacy of music and dance forged through the forced displacement and interaction of peoples to feed the machines of capitalism and empire. From trauma and physical suffering emerged a paradoxical exhilaration of the body that moves to enjoy itself in a social space.
For some reason, the Portuguese empire’s musical legacy is particularly sweet, haunting and rich. We just have to listen to music from Cape Verde, often considered the first creole society in the world, to get this fact. But not just Cape Verde: Brazil and Angola, too, have given us the finest music of the Black Atlantic world. Depending on the trends in ‘world music’ marketing, some of these musical traditions and their representatives are better known globally than others: Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde and Brazilian Bossa Nova come to mind. The rest is the work of aficionados to discover or indigenes to appreciate.
As for the dances associated with these traditions, they call for another level of discovery, enjoyment and analysis altogether. ‘World dance’ cannot be marketed in the same way as ‘world music’. One cannot be an armchair enthusiast of dance, cultivating a rarefied appreciation of unusual music in the solitary comfort zone of one’s armchair with the help of a music system or fancy headphones. Understanding dance requires contact with other bodies, dance floors, and the willingness to share your sweat with random strangers—both exhilarating and not to everyone’s taste (sadly).
Nevertheless, there is a lot of scholarship on salsa (both the music and dance), which is now an unambiguously globalised leisure form. Salsa developed through the intermingling of rhythms, body movements and musical instruments from Africa and Europe within the Spanish-speaking Americas, and it is now danced socially almost everywhere in the world. During the last six or seven years, couple dances from Angola, namely kizomba and semba, have infiltrated the transnational spaces where salsa reigns, particularly in France, Eastern and Central Europe and the UK. This transformation of a salsa-ruled dance floor by social dance from Portuguese-speaking Africa became part of my research agenda.
However, to focus on the Atlantic side of music and dance from the Portuguese-speaking world is only half the story. Geography and history both create these webs of cultural contact and transmission, particularly for those processes that were set in place when human beings still moved around in ships rather than aeroplanes. The southern half of Africa narrows to where two oceans meet, and the Portuguese (ex)colonies of Angola and Mozambique, one facing the Atlantic Ocean and the other, the Indian, are not so far flung as eastern and western African coasts further up on the continent. Not only that— Mozambique has been part of an Indian Ocean world of trade and cultural contact long before the Europeans came to Africa. Indians, Arabs, Africans and Malays moved around this world, sharing commodities, languages, religions, and knowledge of seasonal winds (the ‘monsoons’). Do the histories of these oceans meet as do their waters?
Cosmopolitan maritime communities were formed in the pre-colonial Indian Ocean that seem mythical to our narrow present-day vision, which is shaped by assumptions of cultural clash, monolingualism, and a tendency to put ‘third-world peoples’ in compartments dictated by the selective ghosts of empires past. By this logic, Indians are to be found mostly either in India or in the ex-mothership, the United Kingdom, and Africans, either in their respective African countries or whichever ex-mothership their country was colonised by. As an aside, I don’t think academics yet have a way to understand a cultural phenomenon like Dubai, though everyone understands its economic basis. There were other (nicer) versions of Dubai in the past, whose remnants still survive in the present—for instance, the Ilha de Moçambique, where Vasco da Gama stopped to take a breath before moving on to India.
On the Ilha Vasco da Gama found Gujarati-speaking peoples from the Western coast of India, as well as Arab and African peoples speaking a multitude of languages and practising a multitude of religions. This is the polyglot world which is depicted with nostalgia by novelists such as Amitav Ghosh and M. G. Vassanji, a world which was overtaken by the capitalist forces driving European expansionism. But these empires presented new and different opportunities for the movement of peoples and cultures which sometimes layered themselves on older histories and processes. It is easy to forget this fact, because the temporalities of Empire are so powerful in our imaginations. In chasing the movement of people between Goa and Mozambique during the Portuguese Empire, I gradually realised that before and after the fact of Portuguese Goa, there were Gujaratis moving between Western India and Eastern Africa. Many of these were from Gujarat’s multiple Muslim traditions—Khojas or Ismailis, Bohras, Twelver Shias, and Sunnis.
When you start looking for something, suddenly evidence for it pops up everywhere. But research also depends on serendipitous connections, things that you find when you are looking least hard. My friend Samira Sheikh has been researching medieval Gujarat for many years now and thanks to her I know something about these sea-faring, African Gujarati communities. But I already ‘knew’ about these communities anyway. Other Indian friends of many years, themselves of Gujarati Muslim families, have family members living in different Indian Ocean facing African countries. So why did it seem so exotic and exciting to me to discover that a very Ismaili-sounding ‘Zahir Assanali’, originally from Mozambique and now living in Cascais, Portugal, is the director of one of the biggest musical operations in the Portuguese-speaking world?
Maybe because we don’t always bring together the things we know from life to the things we know from research. Maybe because academic research is often conducted in narrow segments and, in our quest to know more and more, we go deeper and deeper rather than cast our nets wide. We need to long for a bigger picture to start joining the dots. I have been a maverick researcher, moving from one area to another. Nothing should surprise me. But even so, I started when my eyes fell upon that name,’Zahir Assanali’, and the explanation, ‘a Mozambican of Indian heritage’, who organises massive concerts of Angolan music stars in Portugal, Brazil and Mozambique. I was reading an article about the current mania for Angolan music in Portugal. It was published in Portugal’s popular newspaper supplement, ‘Revista Semanal’ and had been sourced by my Portuguese teacher Sofia Martinho. I wasn’t expecting to come across a South Asian Muslim name there.
Because Zahir Assanali is the director of Grupo Chiado, one of the biggest music promotion enterprises in the Portuguese-speaking world, tracking him down was relatively easy. In a pincer-grip motion I mobilised Facebook, email and telephone to explain to him why I was interested in his work and his background. Here was my missing link between Indian and Atlantic Ocean histories, a person whose biography and interests represents the point of convergence between peoples, oceans, musical traditions, imperial and postcolonial times. Bringing Angolan music stars to Portugal and Brazil, taking Julio Iglesias to Luanda and now UB40 to Maputo, he seemed to be the kind of human ‘Cape of Good Hope’ that I was searching for in Afro-diasporic rhythm cultures. (Of course I didn’t say all that to Zahir in seeking an appointment; he might have considered me slightly crazy).
I finally met Zahir in the summer of 2013 on the eve of the ten-day Festas do Mar at Cascais, an hour’s journey from Lisbon, which Grupo Chiado was organising on behalf of the municipality of Cascais. The stage was being set up and he was in the midst of last-minute organisation. I brought along a fellow enthusiast for Afro-diasporic dance, Francesca Negro, one of those multilingual people that are quite normal in the dance world. Zahir had with him his friend and business associate, Miguel Angelo, another really important Portuguese music promoter, CEO of Soundsgood, which works with big Brazilian names like Ivete Sangalo. I was in some sort of music impresario hall of fame. In a mixture of Portuguese and English we spoke for over an hour as if we were all old friends. Zahir’s teenaged daughter dropped by. With her nut-brown limbs and wavy black locks she looked like an Indian Ocean mermaid. Behind us, the Atlantic waters brushed up against the Cascais sand.
I learnt that Zahir’s languages were Portuguese and Gujarati. I tried out my few words of Gujarati on him to our collective amusement. He told me that his wife spoke the African languages of the area of the Ilha and took seriously my rejoinder that perhaps Gujarati should also be considered an African language. When we spoke of Ismaili Islam, Miguel Angelo’s knowledge about his old friend’s religious affiliations was extended further though an impromptu discussion about different varieties of Islam—not ‘castas’ we said, using that old, old word that the Portuguese introduced to South Asia— rather, these were different ‘doctrinas’. We spoke about how it was, growing up on the Ilha de Moçambique, listening to Indian music, African music and simply, ‘music’—the kind of music that anyone growing up anywhere urban in the 1980s would have heard—Wham, Sabrina, Michael Jackson.
This international ‘music’ was what Zahir got hooked on to while working for his uncle’s record shop as a teenager and what determined his future career. Now that ‘black music’, as Miguel called it, was so popular in Portugal, it made business sense to promote it. We are in the music business for the business, he insisted. What kind of music do they listen to? Miguel said that he didn’t personally dance to ‘black music’—he liked rock, jazz, blues, bossa nova, house…. ‘but all that is also African music deep down!’ I insisted. ‘Yes, I guess so, but still’— we then went on to talk of Buraka Som Sistema, one of the best-known products of the Angolan diaspora in Portugal. ‘That is music with a European groove and an African beat’, he said. We spoke of Carnival in Brazil, the trios, the blocos, the madness. We spoke of white people in Portugal of ‘our generation’ evolving in the past twenty years towards a more inclusive musical taste, more representative of Portugal’s long connections with Africa. ‘This is a good thing’, we all agreed.
But in one of Lisbon’s long-established clubs for African music, B.Leza, I have seen older white couples dance smoothly to the sweetest Capoverdian live music. Was not in that generation’s desire to dance to those rhythms some other motivation— a nostalgia that was surely different from whatever was motivating younger consumers of Angolan music and dance today? And how could one explain the massive popularity of kizomba, semba and kuduro as social dances across Europe? This development was news to the music men, who were amazed to hear of French youth of African heritage dancing kizomba and semba every weeknight in football clubs of Parisian suburbs, kizomba festivals in Eastern Europe, and the like. Did they dance? No, Zahir said, he felt ‘embarrassed’ dancing, even though everyone else in his family danced without any self-consciousness. What did people dance to in Mozambique? I asked. ‘Everything, kizomba, marrabenta (a Mozambican music), zouk.’ ‘Salsa?’ ‘No, not really.’ As he joked, ‘Salsa doesn’t work here. We leave that to the Spanish(-speaking) people’.
The transoceanic Afro-diasporic world is shaped by unexpected alliances amongst language groups. Thus zouk from the French-speaking Antilles is everywhere in the Portuguese-speaking world, but not salsa in its transnationalised form. There are also unpredictable relationships between music forms and dance forms, such as between zouk the music and kizomba the dance style. The infinite possibilities of permutation and combination within the wider Afro-diasporic world and the return of these rhythms to Africa is what enables people like Zahir and Miguel to flourish in the work they do. Yet they insist they are motivated by business, not music. They refuse to call themselves pioneers, insisting that they follow and capitalise on rather than initiate trends. Yet it was Zahir’s Grupo Chiado that first got the Angolan semba genius Paulo Flores to perform in Portugal in 2005. If that is not trend-setting I don’t know what is.
When I asked Zahir about whether his Indian heritage has influenced his career, he emphatically insisted on a ‘separation’ between his Indian-ness and his life in musical promotion. This word, ‘separação’, recurred in our conversation, leaving a faintly melancholic trace. Yes he had been to Gujarat in India, but he found it not to his taste—‘too conservative’. He began humming the tune of a song by a contemporary Indian pop star that he really liked, but he could remember the name of neither the singer nor the song (neither could I recognise the fragment of the tune). Where did he hear it, I asked? He looked at me as if that was the silliest question ever. ‘Just all around us, in Mozambique.’ Music and movement lives in the world. How it moves around the world depends on the conjunction of people and processes, geographical histories of cultural encounter, and, those unpredictable ingredients: personal genius and interpersonal relationships.
From people like Zahir Assanali I take away an incredible amount of inspiration and food for thought. Zahir chose to present himself in the context of friendship with Miguel, a white Portuguese man who has worked with the hottest acts in Afro-Brazilian music, knows the Carnival in Brazil, and speaks of the new taste for ‘black music’ amongst (white) Portuguese youth. Zahir is an Indian Ocean man with Africa and India both part of his identity. What sense does race make in these interpersonal connections? What precisely is ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Indian’, ‘African’?—do these words mean something different when we apply them to skin colour, to physical features, to culture, to the beat, to the groove? And in analysing Zahir and Miguel and their work, I realised that I, too, had presented myself with a friend—an Italian woman who lives and dances in Lisbon and whom I have met through this increasingly tangled web of dancers interested in cultural analysis and cultural analysers interested in dance.
What we all had in common was an interest and passion in the Luso-Afro beat. We are, I guess, my definition of ‘AfroPolitans’: people who embrace African-heritage music, movement and style irrespective of racial heritage. Music follows many things, said Miguel Angelo in our conversation. ‘It follows politics, economics….’ Yes, but he left the most obvious element out. Music, and dance, also follows friendship, and the way human beings feel about, relate to, and connect with each other.
All photos of the Ilha de Mocambique and Cascais by Ananya Kabir.
Muito obrigada Francesca Negro, Zahir Assanali, e Sofia Martinho.
Featured image: Traditional dance in the shadow of Vasco Da Gama at the Ilha de Moçambique.
‘Africa habla en mi’ (Africa speaks in me): 8th-13th November 2014
My last week in Havana reflected the usual double-life ‘routine’ of my fieldwork– with research in the archives during the day and research in music and dance places at night.
I spent most of my days during the week in Archivo nacional and Biblioteca nacional and by increasing the work around what I was supposed to be limited to, I managed to access some nonpublic documents issued by different Ministries — and of course, these were the most interesting ones, like the cultural agreements established by Cuba with African countries between 1964 and 1975.
Cultural agreements between Cuba and African nations
I continued to look for what could be of interest for Modern Moves as well and collected more documents about couple dance genres, some of which should provide enriching information about the Cuban political involvement in supporting these popular music dance forms.
Centenario del danzon
As for the nighttime, I organised private dance classes in various Cuban dance genres, from danzon and danzonete to son and salsa via chachacha, mambo, rumba and ‘yoruba’ (orisha-related dances). In so doing, I was able to feel in my body a kind of continuity from danzon to son to salsa, even if I was trying carefully to not recreate a pre-established genealogy outlined in the official history of Cuban music and dance. Despite these precautions, the observations I made in the field helped me to understand how what is now globally known as ‘salsa’ could emerge from all the various Cuban dance genres, and as I discussed with Ananya during her visit this weekend to Paris, even a link between reggaeton dance and guaguanco can be felt from this perspective.
Guaguanco at Callejon de Hamel
These specific Cuban dance forms help us to rethink the notion of couple dance itself, as they are undoubtedly couple dance with the exception that other parts of the body play the role of linking the two dance partners together. And the Afro-Cuban dance genres I experienced in both their social and staged settings helped me to understand how the Afro kinetic heritage has been uniquely reshaped in Cuba. Despite the knowledge and practice of West African dance I already have, I was really challenged when it comes to learn rumba and orisha- related dances, as the apprehension of the rhythm and how you coordinate your feet and your arms and how you basically move on sometimes a quite slow tempo were completely new for me.
En route to a rumba event
Besides these dance classes, I continued to enjoy music and dance events Cuba has to offer on a daily basis. Among others, I was invited to a private event called ‘toque de santo’ celebrating a Santeria birthday of a young woman recently initiated under the patronage of Yemaya. Ironically, even if I in a way dedicated my life to understand the social power of music and dance, I am always amazed to witness and be part of this kind of phenomenon.
Altar for Yemaya
As for a global overview of this month of fieldwork in Cuba, it was both hard and enjoyable, and I feel happy to be able to say: ‘I did it!’. For a first-time Cuban experience, I think I did my utmost, dealing with the no-other option than speaking Spanish (which as a result quickly improved!) among other fieldwork difficulties. Despite the fact that I did not find some specific documents I was looking for, I followed every trail and the clues I dug out, and I collected findings that were very interesting in any case. I will now be now able to return more equipped to face a potential other fieldwork trip, my notebook and pockets full of numbers of new friends!
fruits of fieldwork labours!
Stretching my limits through this enriching experience and learning every day a bit more about the complexity of multi-faceted Cuban society, I am now about to leave for the other side of the ‘Black Atlantic’ to go to Burkina Faso after a quick stopover in Paris. Keeping in mind all the different kinds of references to Africa I encountered in Cuba, from the most discreet to the most tangible, like the message written on the t-shirt worn by the drummer of Conjunto Chappottin ‘Africa habla en mi’, I am sure that the Cuban experience will allow me to perceive differently this forthcoming African trip.
The time has come to close here this last dispatch from the field, on the eve of this new adventure, let’s go!
In August 2014, the Modern Moves team collaborated with London’s Batuke! Festival of Afro-Luso dance culture. This month’s Moving Story presents a kaleidoscope of our individual responses to the weekend, which included classes, parties, and participation in the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday.
Four very different perspectives here, which are not shy to reveal the intensely personal impact the festival had on each of us—and each one emphasizing the ‘exhilaration’ alongside the ‘learning’. 1. THE (JOYFUL) WOUND OF HISTORY- Ananya
Batuke 2014: In a basement room in central London, a group of dancers are going through the steps of the Angolan dance ‘Rebita’. The Rebita involves men and women promenading in a circle. When the ‘Commandante’ (here, the teacher Mestre Petchu) calls us to attention—‘atenção!’— we shift our steps from tempo to contratempo. Stepping into the circle with a crossed step, we shift back, face our partners, and flex our torsos towards each other. After this movement, we resume our Rebita promenade.
What we were performing in that group was the infamous gesture of ‘semba’— which Portuguese and other colonial authorities found the most scandalous element in the dances they observed amongst the Africans they encountered in the region that is now Angola, as well as amongst those transported to Brazil to work as slaves. It is a gesture that – despite this heavy weight of disapproval—has survived and lives on in various social dances across the Afro-diasporic world; it has even given its name to the modern dances ‘samba’ and ‘semba’.
A very specific experience that recurs in my dance research is the feeling, while I’m dancing, of being transported to another time and place. This uncanny encounter between my dancing body and a history that is not mine per se repeats itself often enough for me to not want to dismiss it as the product of an overheated romantic imagination. In the course of my research I constantly ask myself about ‘methodology’. What do we scholars actually do with social dance? How do we use living practice to reveal the past, and why should that past be of any importance and interest to the present?
The Batuke festival presented me with two moments of cutting through space and time. The first was the class in Rebita and Angolan carnival rhythms (such as kazukuta) that Mestre Petchu and Vanessa offered. An exhilarating session of men and women facing each other, led by Petchu and Vanessa; we moved by mimicking their gestures. The heat, the beat, the advance and retreat- the collective energy that warped the present- Petchu and Vanessa coming together briefly in couple hold to dance a few semba steps. I was somewhere in Angola, sometime when the rebita and kazukuta were transforming into semba.
The second class released a different energy. Kwenda Lima led a large group through Caboverdian rhythms: mazurka, coladeira, and batuke. As with the other class, we sometimes formed couples, sometimes divided into male and female groups. The atmosphere was defined by Kwenda’s mix of childlike joy and complete control over the archive he was opening. It was delightful to move from the mazurka, with its clear links to Central European partner dance, through the lively coladeiras and finally our fantastic finale of the batuke (more meaningful for us by being one of the songs in the Muloma soundtrack). Facing each other, keeping the rhythm by continuously slapping our thighs, we performed for each other, gave each other strength.
Once again I was translated to an ‘elsewhere’– an island in Cabo Verde, where women sang work songs and produced percussion out of their bodies—because they either did not possess percussion instruments, or because percussion was forbidden (as with the ‘patting juba’ traditions of the American South). That evening I discovered massive bruises on my thighs produced by the energetic batukeira that I had momentarily become. I remembered the wound that never heals on the ankle of Achille the Caribbean fisherman, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros? Yes, the wound of history– but also the mark of intense pleasure and a physical understanding of what it means to feel the batuque.
There were other moments, too, when the unexpected conjunctions of Afro-diasporic history passed through my body as participant and spectator. Jessica from New York paying homage to her Haitian heritage by dancing the yonvalou (voudou movement in honour of the snake god Damballa) at the start of her kizomba show with her dance partner Phil (also of Haitian heritage via Montreal); Nuno Campos and Iris de Brito teaching us to sing in Criolu (‘Sodade’) and Kimbundu (‘Muxima’), the sounds and words forming in our mouths and throats; all of us at the final class chanting in call and response format, participating in impromptu animations, and cheering on those who entered the drum circle to delight us with their quicksilver movements.
It’s unusual to find a festival that finds space for discussion, history, and reflection, as well as for dance pedagogy. When these elements are integrated into a festival it facilitates a different kind of learning experience. Dance and music illuminate each other in a mutually enhancing manner. The learning breakthroughs for me came in Phil and Jessica’s ‘kompa to kizomba’ presentation, and towards the end of Petchu and Vanessa’s seminar on Carnival. In the kompa presentation we were asked to dance in two-step to different genres- kompa, semba, zouk and merengue, while in the Carnival seminar, different couples danced social semba, funana, samba and carnival semba to the same song.
As each presenter asked members of the audience to dance to demonstrate the co-existence of similarity, difference and continuity, many things that I had only read about in texts suddenly came alive and made real sense.
2. ‘TIME GOES BY SO SLOWLY’- Elina
After a long weekend of dance classes and parties at Batuke! Festival in London from 22nd to 24th August 2014, anyone who has experienced so many different kinds of body activation would be both exhilarated and exhausted.
It was also an intensive brain ‘boot camp’ — as this word is now used in the dance context — that allowed me to experience and to think more deeply about how Afro-Luso dance culture, particularly kizomba, is now so popular among a very diverse range of people.
Besides the dance classes I attended, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen class to Coupé décalé (offered by an Angolan dancer by the way), from Rebita and Semba to Cape Verdian Mazurka and Coladeira, the parties taking place in the evenings were also a space where you could experience another relationship to dance. People are no more in training clothes and running shoes, but dress up according to the different themes (‘Union Jack swag’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Miami Beach’), ready to apply on the dance floor what they learned in the day. The multiplication of possibilities to connect with dance in different ways during the festival allowed me to think about the complexity of spatiotemporal dimension in this frame.
As multi-layers of time are already entangled in the context of dance floors, the kizomba scene adds another dimension that could be related to the world of electronic music: the music is deliberately mixed in such a way that you can barely feel when a ‘song’ ends and another starts, especially during tarraxinha sets.
This also implies that the change of dance partner is not obvious at all and reshapes the relationships between the dance couple and the energy produced on the dance floor. You do not see a moving tide with hands and arms flying around like in a salsa party, but in the contrary, you can see a slow undulation of bodies, head against head with closed eyes, that seems able to never end. Indeed, if the dancers are both enjoying the dance, they can keep dancing without feeling any need to look for another partner for a while.
Thus I discovered during the Batuke! parties that some of the codes valid in the salsa world – for instance- are not accurate here. I am afraid that my ‘salsa’ tendency to move away from my dance partner at the end of the song was surely felt quite rude sometimes. You have to penetrate a world that is not only a space for a completely different kind of couple dance and music but has also its own rules. If you try to apply the ones you know previously without keeping this in mind and accepting your ignorance, you may be ‘chopped’ ¬or seem to ‘chop’ someone by mistake — to use a word from the Vogueing scene that I’ve learnt thanks to Madison!
Thinking about this phenomenon when we are used to dance according to a very specific setting which involves the change of partner after each song, then suddenly, discovering the possibility of being ‘locked’ with a complete stranger for about half an hour or more raises many questions: how the partners feel that it is the time to release each other? Who is responsible for ending the dance? Are both men and women feeling bad for being released only after one song? Besides, how important is the influence of the music production in this setting? Are the possibilities offered by electronic sounds ‘responsible’ for expanding the dance?
This slow dance, which is experienced by an international audience and could be considered, for many reasons, as a product of the globalization process in itself, thus confronts the realities of the globalized capitalist world where – in short – accumulation and speed are emphasized.
The notion of ‘song’ duration is transcended by the need of people to connect themselves with another body through the length of the dance. The longer the better to be completely immersed in a kind of transcendental space, where the two bodies are building a little story, song after song, without any words or even any eye contact sometimes, but with the sharing of a close body contact and the feeling of moving in a compatible manner.
My global assessment of the kizomba parties I first experienced so completely at Batuke is that they completely invert the balance between the couple dance part and the solo dance parts (on Afro House music) as I have experienced as a teenager during the first parties I ever had that we called ‘booms’ at that time. You were mainly dancing in solo but were secretly waiting for the ‘slow’ couple dance moment. At Batuke! parties, it seems that I had to forget all my expectations to be able to go beyond the dance culture in which I grew up!
3. ‘LAS PENAS SE VAN CANTANDO’- Francesca
Batuke! definitely represents an exception among the many festivals of kizomba, in terms of the effort to represent Afro-Luso culture in the most complete way and in terms of the quality of the professionals chosen for the event.
My impression of the teachers was really positive. I realised that they were chosen not just for the quality of the shows that they could produce –which is one common criterion of choice in this kind of event – but especially for their pedagogic qualities and their ability to move in a comparative way between different dances from the most traditional to the most modern ones throughout the Afro-diasporic world.
Some classes — the Kompa, Zouk, Coupé-decalé, traditional dances of Cape Verde, Rebita, Sabar — were really important opportunities to understand how the most contemporary dance evolved, and other activities like the seminars and the singing class very interestingly complemented this approach t o African culture and rhythm. I must say that very few organizers invest in the introduction of these elements in the dance festivals. Among the different classes that I participated in, I found the following ones particularly interesting:
New York Ginga by Jessica of Kizomba NYC: A comprehensive and interesting class by someone who was for me a lovely discovery through Batuke!. She explained basic movement technique for ladies’ ‘ginga’, starting form the opposition between chest and hips and the position of the knees, which is something fundamental to obtain the correct movement but that most teachers forget to explain. She then proceeded to the description of very simple movements as the frontal wave and hip rotation during the second basic, but she was able to deconstruct the movement to demonstrate very clearly the coordination between the changing of weight and the lateral step in order to make the process clear to even absolute beginners.
In the second half of the class, she applied some tango steps –following her own description of the work – to the ladies’ and men’s saidas. Despite my doubts about the fact that this kind of improvisation very hardly can work in couple dance and that very often women in kizomba have neither the time nor the occasion to plan correctly their own embellishments, the exercises were very useful to train quicker change of weight, balance recuperation, and a little improvisation using the contratempo.
What was evident to me – and it was also confirmed by the couple demo provided at the end of the class – was that the sequence could be applied only partially, and not easily, in a couple’s spontaneous interaction; yet it represented a very good training exercise. (video available)
Dancehall: This class brought together some nice movements that I recognized as belonging to very different African traditions. The typical traditional African movement of the hip circle was combined with the opening and closing of the knees– elements characteristic of some dances from the southern Congo areas that have evidently been developed in different ways in Jamaica adding to them the special cadence of ragga music and a deep bounce at the moment the movement is linked to another one. The basic ginga of capoeira was also used in the mini-choreography that we danced during the class, the basic step reproduced once with the original cadence and then twice at double the speed.
This dance beautifully demonstrated how Jamaican dances unify the idea of a fight with the idea of smooth and provocative movements that can use similar gestures with a completely different attitude. The teacher himself, Safwaan Ess Daboogie, said that he is constantly surprised by the presence of many heterogenic elements that he discovers in dancehall. Traditional kinetic codes are being constantly renewed in these street dances.
Singing: this class to me really represented the spirit of the festival: led by the teachers Iris de Brito and Nuno Campos we spent one hour trying to memorize and sing Creole and Kimbundu lyrics of the two songs Sodade and Muxima, and we received an explanation of the importance and meaning of the two songs that are really emblematic for the two cultures of Cape Verde and Angola. The experience was fascinating: when we try to reproduce the melody of a song in the singing we immediately feel our body interiorizing the rhythm and the cadence; consequently this starts coming out naturally even in the dancing gestures and in the posture of our own body.
Nuno’s explanation of ‘Saudade’ in Cape Verdean culture as a suspended moment, a calm but uncertain wait really clarified the Cape Verdean spirit and was maybe the most profound cultural topic that we touched: he described Sodade as an accepted sorrow, not dramatized, not desperately assumed, but the brief and intense sound of a drop, constantly falling over the echo of a wide but peaceful loneliness.
Final class: The best idea of the festival, and a moment in which we shared our own work and presence there, giving something back to ourselves and to all the group, to fellow participants and to the teachers, celebrating our own presence and energy. This final class has already become a classic and permanent element in the structure of the festival and is definitely a liberating moment in which people can experience the purest essence of dance and music. The dance can be improvisation on the drums, collective moment following a leader, or even just following with our own body the percussion without almost moving.
Dancing to the sound of live drums and without specific structure to follow is an experience that takes people to another level of interpretation of music and of their own movements. In the same way the experience of playing for somebody else for the first time is something really powerful that puts the dancer in a new position and stimulates new cognitive capacities of interpretation of the music and very physical conception of the rhythm.
Notting Hill Carnival: an amazing experience– one of those moments in which the body is part of the dance and part of the music and we can no longer separate them. People from all cultures participated and mixed in the event. We could recognize people that were not born into the cultural groups that paraded, wearing the same costumes with a sense of pride and love. I felt positively surprised by people’s capacity to embrace a new culture to the point of rebuilding the image of their own body and trying to live it in a new way. This was absolutely evident in the Brazilian parades, where people of all provenances were sharing the exhilaration of feeing the freedom and joy of their own body beautifully dressed and decorated, without any taboo due to aesthetical or social rules. It was truly a suspension of the common regular order and the opening of a new dimension in which the body seemed to surpass its limits and capacities and transform itself into a collective entity that was dancing shaking singing and screaming together.
This moment can be a very rich learning process for newer generations within a particular culture, since we actually experienced movements that were suggested by other people in the crowd without even seeing them, but just by means of the vibration of the bodies, without even knowing what our body was doing. Simply being part of a Carnival group is already a way to learn, and we learn by responding directly to the bodies of the other members of the group that impose on us their movement. The Batuke group was really full of energy and well organized and we danced in the rain for almost six hours without stopping. Nobody left till the moment when we decided to leave.
A very good experience was also the one of seeing represented the symbols that I discussed during my seminar on Maracatu on Sunday: seeing kings and queens opening the parade, Brazilian groups playing stick fights (Maculele), and having our own parade opened by an African folkloric group that had at their head a sort of joker figure with a very long stick pointing at the sky, decorated with colourful strips. Maybe he knew, maybe not, that he was recalling some unknown ancestors from another world, geography, dimension… anyway, we knew he was in the right place.
4. DANCE, RECOVERY, REDISCOVERY- Madison
As someone who can spend hours in nightclubs – so long as I’ve had an adequate ‘disco nap’! – during the Batuke! Festival I found myself experiencing a completely other sort of exhaustion. I participated in a number of classes, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance and Cape Verdian Dances to Sabar from Senegal and AfroMix, but after each course, and sometimes during the middle of the class, I had to stop to catch my breath or sit out entirely. This was my first Batuke! Festival as well as my first hands-on exposure to many of these Afro-diasporic dance forms, and part of the incredible learning experience was staying in tune with my body, how it was moving and what it was telling me.
What’s the difference between dancing by yourself to music in a nightclub and being taught choreography as part of a group? How does the body labour differently in each situation?
The best class for me was the Sabar class, mostly because I loved the presence of the drums (and I would) as much as I loved the movements. The whole time there I kept thinking about Barbara Browning’s concept of ‘infectious rhythms’, where cultural transmissions occur through various types of ‘infections,’ with the powerful rhythm of the drum playing a key role. I loved the interplay between the dancer and the drums, with the dancer in many ways ‘conducting’ the drums. I noticed, too, that at the penultimate Batuke! Finale workshop, as each participant danced by the drums, there was definitely a sort of call-and-response, a direct communicative link between the body and the instrument, or the body as instrument.
If the dancer made smaller movements, the drummer made smaller sounds. If she or he made big movements, the drummer made bigger sounds. Certain sounds even lent themselves to all types of booty pops and pops, and this interplay between the body and the drum really made me think about the work a DJ does on any dance floor in inciting you to move, and to move in particular ways.
What I loved most about the festival was the sense of it being a shared space of learning and cultural transmission. People were there to learn. I bought homemade black hair care products and asked the person who sold it to me the best way to take care of my hair. But in terms of the dance itself I’ve already said that this was my first exposure to many of these forms, and even then I could already see how many of the moves percolate throughout contemporary popular music – and I’m thinking specifically of the global popularity of popping and locking, twerking, booty popping, grinding and all the rest.
But it was also a shared space for expressing one’s own connection to the diaspora. French, Spanish, Portuguese and German was spoken, in addition to English, of course. I was asked by several different participants ‘where I am from’, a question that most brown bodies are used to being asked. When I told folks that I was from New York, which is what I always say, the answer was never sufficient enough and people always dig deeper.
‘No, but what are your origins? What is your cultural background?’
And in that instance I say what I always say: my father, who I have never had any contact with, is Jamaican, and the rest is unclear. My mom made various kinds of curries and oxtail, culinary delights that in America are as much a part of Southern Style Soul Food as anything. I feel more African-American than anything as I have never really had any direct ties to Jamaican culture, not least because of rampant homophobia.
When I said this to one person in particular who asked me about my ethnic origins, she rightly told me that it doesn’t matter whether I feel any connection to the culture. It’s in my blood. The way I move and the way I dance is already impacted by my Jamaican roots because ‘it’ is in my blood.
The festival was also a shared space for experiencing connectivity and the universality of the human experience. More than one person I talked to emphasized the power of kizomba to highlight the feelings of being human. Though Kizomba does privilege heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, which admittedly I do have serious issues with, I did notice at least one lesbian couple, and another gay male I talked to told me that when he dances with a girl in kizomba, clearly for him he is not interested in a sexual experience but more in the spiritual feeling of connecting with another body. There’s something about being so in tune with another person that gives you an out-of-body experience.
Kwenda Lima’s exhilarating and fun Kaizen Dance class ended with an unexpected therapy session where his philosophy to life, as mirrored by the dance, was expounded on. Participants eagerly talked about their feelings, love, feeling free through dance, with some people in tears. Immediately I began wondering about the interplay between physical exhaustion, sweat, tears and confession all within the same dance class. How do all of those emotions relate together?
Some questions are best answered by us performing the answers.
We hope this report has made you both think about dance and want to experience, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the exertions, exhilarations and epiphanies of the Afro-dance floor!
All photos courtesy of Kizomba United Kingdom.
The Modern Moves team thanks Iris de Brito for the opportunity to work with Batuke 2014.
This Moving Story was put together by Ananya Kabir on the basis of individual reports from Modern Moves team members Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Ananya Kabir, and Madison Moore.
Modern Moves team member Dr. Elina Djebbari attended the 3rd Meeting of African Studies in France at Sciences-Po Bordeaux from June 30-July 2. In a panel organised by Denis-Constant Martin, she gave a paper exploring lines of enquiry of her new research agenda within Modern Moves: “Cuban music in Africa: the creation of a ‘modern african music’ at Independence” (“La musique cubaine en Afrique : la création d’une “musique africaine moderne” aux Indépendances”)