May 14, 2013
Let it be known that dancing contains a profundity unmatched by any other human activity. This is reinforced to me every time I visit West Africa. The relevance of coordinated bodily movement in relation to music in these parts is essential for the cohesion of society, of this I am convinced. And societal cohesion is paramount in every action people engage in. Dancing is an extreme form of social bonding which communicates at a level language and other human efforts cannot. No matter if dancing with friends, strangers, same-sex, opposite sex, young or old, dancing seems to connect people at a deep, deep level and allows one to enter the public sphere as “another” as opposed to a stranger. Further, dancing in a certain context, culture and/or state-of-mind, allows for drastic changes in one’s mood, physical well-being and general existence.
This was made obvious to me at a recent funeral on the outskirts of Cotonou in Benin where my friends from Agbomey were invited to provide the proper ritual funeral music and entertainment. Being a student of this music (called Zinli), I was eager to tag along. At a funeral or large gathering, people stare, wonder who you can be, what your purpose is, should they be wary of you etc. However, the second one actively dances, it is as if all arms have opened and smiles are everywhere (especially if you dance well). This is what happened to me anyhow. On top of this, I also played drums at this funeral (which is an even rarer occurrence in this parts) so I was immediately the object of attention and people started to rush at me and dash my forehead with coins and bills to show appreciation of my dancing and drumming skills. It has a backlash though…if you dance well, you’ll be expected to dance often!!! One may wonder why I’m not often inclined to visit dance clubs back in Canada. Quite honestly, it is a completely different context, purpose and feeling (to me anyhow) and most of all, the music is not there. It is the music here…drums and voices, from a deep tradition at that, that I am drawn to that makes the dancing with friends so enjoyable to me. That said, I encourage you all to dance when you can, not worry about who is watching or what you look or feel like. When you start, it all changes and takes care of itself…especially with friends!
So that was the climax of my time in Benin where I just spent a brief but full 6 days, indeed deepening my social bonds there and going a bit deeper into the music which pleasantly baffles me at various points. Benin is a tad rougher than Ghana, major roads are still in a deplorable state, overloading of vehicles with goods (and people) is still common and general travel can be a bit of a mission….especially if your car gets a flat tire in the pouring rain (see pic). Speaking of being musically challenged, I had a similar experience in Northern Ghana in the city of Bolgatanga, ground central for the popular “Bolga baskets” (the industry of which is a story in itself). I’ve visited there several times before but have never had the chance to learn any music so this time I made it a priority to meet a musician and learn something-anything!-from the Guruni/Fra-Fra ethnic group. I was staying with a local “landlord”, more like a spiritual landlord who makes traditional prayers, sacrifices and decisions for his local community, as opposed to collecting rent and fixing your leaky faucet (if you are that lucky). Being an important man, a drummer was summoned to him on my behalf. As dusk was setting in we met and my intention was explained to him via a translator. Knowing nothing about their music, I just told the drummer I wanted to hear some of what he does and I’d try and mimic while he played other contrasting/complimentary parts. Again, the feeling of being lost came over me which I quite enjoy these days. Having no reference for how these rhythms work together, and most importantly where the dancing happens as it were, I was holding on for dear life to the parts being handed to me. Great work for the brain and body. On my own the groove was there enough for the man to play other rhythms to fit with my own, but I found it hard to listen to what he did. This is the quintessential experience of learning and playing African music, and something I had not felt for sometime. Satisfied with what he had shown me, I was still not sure where the music “sat” as it were. Asking questions related to "beat", "beginning", "ending", "accent" and other such terms will get you nowhere in these situations. Essentially I needed to know how people danced to it. This indeed was the key and is often the key to really understanding music from around these parts. No matter how well you grasp the music itself, unless you can connect with with dance, it is incomplete. Luckily a small girl in the house agreed to dance for us and at that moment all became clear. Unfortunately I only had a couple of sessions with the guy!! Next time.
I’ll leave it at that. I’m actually in the airport now in Ghana and will be home in less than 24 hours. Attached are a few pics from the last while which include (in no apparent order)