Aesthetics / Africa / Cognitive Science / Dance / History / Memories / Music

Memories from the 1980s – On African dance and African music

When I was 22 or 23 years old, I discovered African music and African dance. I might have been primed for it by being exposed to countless hours of Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five as a child (still one of my favorites and the music my father used to listen to).

I had always been bad in sports and now to my surprise I suddenly discovered I had an extraordinary ability for learning and understanding movement. I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours not only in concerts of African bands that existed in or visited my home city of Hamburg at the time (around 1982 – 1988), but also in some music clubs that existed at the time in Hamburg where African music could be heard and African dance could be seen (like the “Werkstatt 3”, the wonderful but short lived “Skookian”, the “Mambo Jambo” and finally, the “Bomala”. My favorite bands at the time in Hamburg where the Group “Soukous” (which, despite the name, mostly played Makossa – i learned to love both styles of music and learned how to dance them) and the marvelous “Dagomba” of Ghanaian trumpet player Vincent Arthur, a band that mostly played rather old fashioned Dance Band Highlife. I fell in love with that style of music, maybe because of my Louis Armstrong/Swing background. Outstanding in that band was a really fantastic young saxophone player whose mother had to come with him because he was only 17 years old. As far as I remember, his name was Harald (or Howard ?) Kisuade (I have never seen the name written, so the spelling might be incorrect). Another great musician in Hamburg in those days was Pascal Bah, a very good singer from Sierra Leone, who unfortunately later suffered from stroke. What a voice!

I took dancing lessons with the late Isaac Amissah, a Ghanian dancer who had before been a member of the Ghanaian National Ballet. He taught me, among other things, an Ewe war dance called Atsiaagbekor and also the wonderful Adowa dance. Adowa, originally a funeral dance of the Ashanti, is a very elegant way of moving, a dance I really love. I also love the music that goes with it, beautiful music with iron double bells and a women’s choir singing in a typical kind of melodies and harmonies that can also be heard in Guitar Highlife music.

I discovered that an important aspect of African dance is not only the way it looks but also how it feels to the dancer.

When I write here about “African” music I mostly mean the music traditions of the peoples belonging to the Niger-Congo language family. Typical for the dance cultures of these peoples is what has been called “polycentric” dance, where several parts of the body are moved independently according to different rhythmical components of the music. Unlike some European dance cultures, the body is not treated as a rigid entity but as a system of relatively, although synchronized, oscillators. Each of them represents a “degree of freedom”, i.e. a possibility to move it to another component of the rhythm, resulting in complex movements of arms, shoulders, backbone, legs, feet and pelvis. The pelvic movements, although appearing sometimes erotic to the uninitiated observer, are just additional components of the complex rhythmic movements. They might acquire an erotic meaning in some circumstances but in most cases, I think, don’t have an erotic meaning.

In 2006, I wrote on the talk page of the Wikipedia article about African music (to which I had made a few contributions):

“…because in my view, these are absolutely central and essential aspects of African music and dance: Basically, a rhythmic pattern might be auditive (in the music one can hear) or visual (in a dance one sees). From the point of view of the dancer, the same rhythmical pattern might also be a proprioceptive pattern, i.e. a pattern that the dancer observes with the muscle and touch receptors in his body. The abstract pattern is always the same. You can transfer a piece of music to another musical instrument or you can “play” it with your own body. So music in Africa is not necessarily an auditive art. In fact, African dance can be viewed as a proprioceptive art where the dancer is the only person who can perceive the piece of art completely. The rhythmical structure you feel in the body is then integrated with the auditive music into a “multimedia” experience of great aesthetic beauty. So Africans have created an art form for the body-internal proprioceptive senses which have been neglected in other parts of the world as a target for art. If you know the dance, you can perceive the structures in somebody else’s dance you see, but primarily, African dance is not a visual art but a proprioceptive art. The fact that many African languages don’t distinguish between concepts of music and dance in the same way as European languages do might therefore be based on the following phenomena: an auditive pattern might be transferred to a proprioceptive pattern and vice versa (the abstract pattern of “music/dance” being the same in both ways of performing it) and both parts of the experience might be integrated into one multimedia “gesamtkunstwerk” in the dancer’s/listener’s mind.”

I still think this captures the essence of it. (Gesamtkunstwerk is a German term for a piece of Art that integrates components for different senses).

5 thoughts on “Memories from the 1980s – On African dance and African music

  1. One of the tunes Dagomba used to play (in its original version by A.B. Crentsil and his Sweet Talks): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsjPHZ9QdRU
    I don’t know if any of you will be able to understand why I love this music. It gives me a big smile that somehow starts in the stomach, a warm unique feeling of enjoyment. No other music does that, only this type of Highlife.

    • I think the “Sweet talks” came later, these where the Osooko stars”. Maybe my memory is fooling me and Dagomba did not play this one, but it is the style 🙂

      • I think my memory was actually fooling me. This tune was not played by Dagomba, but they had that record in the Skookian Club. The famous tune Dagomba did play was a song called “Yere di awu”.

  2. Some of the music I discovered in those days might be strange to European ears but if you listen to it for some time, it is so beautiful. I discovered that good music becomes better if you hear it again and again while bad music becomes bland. Some stiles that you might not understand the first time reveal themselves as wonderful after some time. Try the magic, meditative music of Haruna Ishola, for example: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=haruna+Ishola&oq=haruna+Ishola&gs_l=youtube.3..0.2987.5910.0.6108.13.8.0.5.5.0.138.458.7j1.8.0…0.0…1ac.1.E7FViJJi4q0

  3. Some inkling of what I mean. A really advanced dancer. Most of the time he dances with his eyes closed, because he is observing the beautiful movements inside his own body. I don’t know if anybody who has no experience in this can see what I mean (maybe this blog article is just for myself but that’s O.K. 🙂

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