Force of nature

drummer

Pape Mbaye of Chosani Afrique (also main picture) at their recent CD launch in Sydney.

The heartbeat is a force of nature.

The heartbeat drives all mammalian life, all movement, all rhythm.

It’s a source of the rhythms of drums and dance. When I hear drums, I have to dance. I feel the rhythm throughout my whole body, I can’t remain still.

Hearing African drumming for the first time, when I was around 14, was a revelation. It felt like a home-coming, like I’d found the beat I’d forever been looking for.

I’d already spent much of my short life absorbing and expressing the rhythms of my own culture, from Irish jigs to Suzi Quatro, but African drumming opened up a whole new world of sound and movement. For one brief, wonderful term, my (white) sports teacher had our class doing African dance. I remember stamping my feet in a conga line around our school’s grassy oval to (I think) the drums of Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji and his ensemble.

I wanted more, but I had to wait at least another ten years before Africans began migrating to Australia in significant numbers, and bringing their music with them.

In the 1980s I went dancing most weekends to local and sometimes, to my delight, international African bands like Kalabash, Doudoumba, Okapi Guitar band, Kanda Bongo Man, Angelique Kidjo, the Bhundu Boys, and M’bilia Bel.

At the same time, I was learning African dance from various teachers, including African American Aku Kadogo and a French woman, Jeanine Claes. Jeanine’s long gone from the local scene but her drummer, Philippe Lincy, is still in Sydney playing awesome djembe at various gigs and dance classes — including, a pleasant surprise, the dance class I went to this week with Ghanaian Lucky Lartey.

I took a long break from learning dance after having a baby in the 90s, but I never lost my love of the beat, and have many times embarrassed my son by bursting into dance at music festivals and even school fetes.

Now in my 50s, the rhythms still call out to me. I’m reclaiming dance in my life before my joints stiffen up completely or osteoporosis eats my bones. I’m hungry for rhythm. Not just African rhythm, but also Latin, Arabic, Celtic, hell, I’d even put Suzi Quatro on the turntable again.

Much as I adore most of the African music I hear (and remember, it’s a massive and diverse continent so that’s a huge generalisation), I get mildly irritated when white people carry on about the ‘natural rhythm’ of Africans and the companion myth that ‘white people can’t dance’.

I’m not saying, oh, poor white people, hard done by cos people think we haven’t got rhythm. I just want to make the case that people who say these things really haven’t thought it through.

For a start, their words deny the truth that all of us humans have rhythm.

Exhibit A, some white people who got rhythm, in their natural habitat.

Exhibit B, cute white children who got rhythm.

me-pounding fufu-crop

Here’s me, around 25 years ago, endangering my sister-in-law’s fingers by trying to pound fufu (boiled cassava and plantain pounded till starchy and elastic, eaten with soup). In this case, the white girl had no rhythm at all.

Another problem I have with the notion that Africans alone have ‘natural’ rhythm, is that it seems to reduce thousands of years of complex African musical traditions to a kind of pop-genetics. It exoticises without understanding. It downgrades cultural and artistic expression to an involuntary racial characteristic.

I started thinking about this when I first went to Africa, and saw how much rhythm was a part of daily life, from pounding fufu to slashing weeds on the farm, with the babies tied securely to their mother’s backs, absorbing all the sounds and sensations, as well as Maame’s heartbeat. Of course those children grow up with rhythm.

Only a few days ago, at my dance class, our teacher was saying much the same thing, telling us how rhythm and music and dance are all around you, all the time, in Ghana. I didn’t want to spoil the mood by saying. nah, not so much in my Ghanaian family’s rather puritanical Pentecostal household. Anyway, it wouldn’t have affected his point that in Africa, rhythm permeates life.

The next video explains this far better than I can.

So what it comes down to is this: the ecstatic African rhythms I dance to are the result of generations of African people’s intelligent, keenly observant integration of the daily rhythms of life into their music and culture. This is probably how most of the world’s music traditions originated, it’s just that many of us live in societies where connections to the source have been eroded. Although … there’s plenty of contemporary western music that incorporates the unnatural sounds we live with, like machinery. And trains.

I’m sorry, I know it’s going viral at the moment but I couldn’t resist sharing that. And I hate to burst your bubble, but they weren’t actually dancing to Thomas, (although the real soundtrack fits my argument equally well).

People who talk about ‘natural rhythm’ are usually full of admiration, not ill-intent. Maybe they’re just jealous, because they feel too inhibited to move their own bodies in the way African dancers do: with abandon, sensuality and joy; with mind and body totally in sync.

I’m thinking it’s no coincidence it was a white person who had to think up that phrase ‘dance like no-one’s watching’. I don’t think that idea would ever occur to people with a strong dance culture.

The ‘Black people got rhythm’ stuff makes me uneasy because it feeds into the stereotype that Black people are better at music, and dance, and sport, and maybe sex — and nothing else they do is really significant. With Obama at the helm in the US, and more public debate about racism, these attitudes are changing, but historically, Black people haven’t been given a whole lot of credit for achievement in other, less physical arenas — like medicine, or teaching, or, say, computer science.

My son does computer science. He’s almost stereotypically geeky, apart from being brown-skinned with an afro. There have been times when people’s (sometimes low) expectations of him were definitely coloured by the stereotypes they held about Africans. He likes watching videos by African American comedians who satirise these expectations. He’s resilient, so no serious harm done. My point is, stereotypes about Black people are still alive and well, and even those that seem positive, like ‘natural rhythm’, aren’t really doing anyone any favours.

We all have natural rhythm, if we can allow ourselves to feel it. Throughout history, all over the world, people have been inspired by, transformed and given meaning to the rhythms and melodies of their environment and the activities they perform every day in order to survive, be that pounding millet, hammering iron or even tapping the keyboard. So, it’s time to give credit where it is due, please: to everyone who truly listens to the heartbeats of our world.

This post is dedicated to the wonderful musicians of Chosani Afrique, who have recently lost a treasured family member in Senegal. I didn’t know her, but I hear she was a vibrant dancer. Chosani Afrique are a vital part of Sydney’s African music and dance scene. Some band members are featured in the photos above.

The post was inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Force of Nature.

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8 thoughts on “Force of nature

  1. We start hearing four or five months before we’re born – it’s the first sense that kicks in. Mum’s heartbeat and all her body rhythms are our first experience of “the beat”. I think we’re all born little rhythmic animals and depending on what is going on around you, you either embrace the beat or become selfconscious and stop taking pleasure in the rhythm. But even if you’ve suppressed connection to the beat it’s still there inside of you – just listen to your heart and body!

  2. “when white people carry on about the ‘natural rhythm’ of Africans” Like you, I’m very uneasy about this stereotype many of us have towards people from Africa. I don’t like the stereotype too that Africans have more soul in their music and are often seen as the musicians that make the kind of music that matters. Music is certainly a big part of many of their lives, but let’s also not forget the stories and struggles behind their art. Why not join them too in dancing or playing an instrument alongside them – good on you for joining in and moving your body to music that you like to hear.

    “We all have natural rhythm, if we can allow ourselves to feel it.” That requires us to trust the beat, surrender ourselves to the music…and I think it’s a shame some of us think we’ll look silly doing it. Even sadder when some of us think certain moves and sounds belong to a certain culture – which is true to an extent but this is certainly one way for us engage with another culture.

    • Thanks Mabel. I think when you learn the music of another culture you have to be sure you are respecting it, not appropriating it. My experience with African dance has always been positive, with the African teachers keen to share their culture & enjoying the students’ appreciation of it, I am so lucky to have the opportunities that I do.

    • Yes, true. I have always found it hard to understand why people don’t move to music because my own relationship to it is so physical – perhaps I’m a little judgemental as a result. Thanks for nudging me into noticing that.

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