Every fall, for one weekend, some of the most renowned West African drummers and dancers come to Champaign-Urbana for a full weekend of workshops, demonstrations, community-building, and general merriment. The annual festival, called Midwest Mandeng, was first held in 2014 and is organized by a dedicated group of volunteers including me, Mara Thacker, the South Asian Studies Librarian at the International and Area Studies (IAS) Library. A promotional video produced for the first Midwest Mandeng in 2014 explains what it’s all about:
This year, the festival will be October 7th, 8th, and 9th on the University of Illinois campus and downtown Urbana. Be sure to check the full schedule to see all the details on locations and timings.
The IAS Library and the Center for Global Studies are getting in on the action this year by co-sponsoring a special performance with master djembefola, Bolokada Conde, one of the most celebrated master drummers in the world. Originally from Guinea, West Africa, Conde was the lead soloist of Les Percussions de Guinée, a group sponsored by the Guinean government that presents traditional music and dance, especially from the Guinean highlands. For over a decade, he has taught workshops worldwide to beginning and advanced students. While he currently lives in South Carolina, he taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a visiting professor from 2008-2011, leading Mande drumming, rhythms, and songs.
Bolokada plays djembe at a demonstration at the Urbana Free Library at Midwest Mandeng 2015.
On Friday, October 7, 2016, from 4:00-5:00 p.m., Bolokada will visit the IAS Library to share his stories and experiences touring and performing all over the world, and showcase some of the Malinke rhythms that he has mastered over the years. This event is free and open to the public.
If you feel inspired by the event, check out some of the drum and dance workshops held in the studio rehearsal space in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. All of the workshops are open to all experience levels and drums can be borrowed free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Check out the event website for more information, or contact Mara Thacker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For visuals to accompany the audio, YouTube has a number of recordings available of Guinea’s national dance company, Les Ballets Africains. Also, some of the company’s amazing past productions are on on YouTube. One particularly inspiring piece is a clip of the troupe performing the rhythm dundunba, which is the dance of the strong man and also one of the de facto party dances in celebrations in Guinea.
There will be a community dundunba party as part of Midwest Mandeng where you can try out some dance moves or hear the rhythm in person. Check out the Facebook event page and join in on the fun!
To dance is to move with awareness, with harmony in relationship to music, with other people’s movements or with emotions. It is moving by embodying and enacting traditions, rituals, and ways of thought, while allowing these traditions to evolve each time the dance is practiced and performed. But dancing is also making statements, sharing memories, challenging one’s own and others’ assumptions. Dancing enhances awareness, perception, and allows entering into contact with forms of movement, rhythms, and ways of thinking with which you are unfamiliar. I love dance and dancing and I practice some contemporary dance myself, so I’d like to share some information about how people dance around the world throughout time.
Not being an expert in international forms of traditional and modern dance in spite of my interest in it, let me take a moment to recognize those who helped orient me in my research. Among them were friends, colleagues, and librarians. Our South Asian Studies Librarian, Mara Thacker, who is both a lover and practitioner of dance, was especially helpful. In this post, I will address some dances from some parts of the world that may yet be unknown many people. While not comprehensive, this is an informational glimpse of how dancing happens in different cultures and in different contexts, both historical and situational.
Have you heard of the Mexican Son Jarocho? This beautiful dance style originates from the Mexican states of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Tabasco. As with most traditional Latin American dances, it blends traditions from multiple cultural backgrounds. The particular case of Son Jarocho contains influences from indigenous traditions, Afro-Caribbean influences, and Spanish traditions, mainly from Andalucía. It is danced in couples and one of the main characteristics is the stamping that both male and female dancers perform with special shoes. In fact, this stamping is not only a dance step, but it also becomes a main source of percussion that leads the rest of the instruments. You can find a similar style of stamping in Spanish Fanangos. See the video below for a folkloric, ballet-style performance of Son Jarocho.
But Mexican dancing has much more than folk dances like Son Jarocho and Jarabe Tapatío. Mexico also has one of the strongest traditions of contemporary dance in all of Latin America. Delfos Danza Contemporánea is a renowned dance company that offers education, residencies, and has a large performance background where their local experience dialogues with international tendencies in dance and world-class training.
A promotional image from the Delfos dance company in Mexico. Image credit: Frontera Arts
Spotlight: South America
To stay, for a moment, in Latin America, what do you think of when thinking of Latin American dances? Salsa, bachata, merengue. Correct. But what about the southern parts of Latin America? Tango! Correct! Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay also have rich varieties of traditional dances but sadly we will not be able visiting them here. However, in other countries from the South, there is a strongly rooted tradition of gauchos, male “cowboys,” found in contiguous regions of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. The dances they perform have slight variations in these three countries, but in general, the gauchos’ practice with moving cattle around by foot or riding horses evolved into a very vibrant dance involving vigorous foot stamping. In Argentina, one of the traditional gaucho dances from the south of the country is called malambo. Some versions feature the skillful handling of boleadoras or bolas, stones tied with robes initially used by indigenous peoples for hunting, and then adapted for cattle as well. More modern and acrobatic versions demonstrate an evolved use of the boleadoras for special spectacles.
Male dancers swing their boleadoras, stones attached to ropes, in a display of South American dance. Photo Credit: IMG Artists, Che Malambo
Argentina is one of the leading countries for contemporary dance in Latin America. According to La danza moderna argentina cuenta su historia : historias de vida(roughly, Modern Argentine Dance Tell Its Story: Stories of Life), its practice in that country started in the early 1940s. Currently Argentina is one of the few countries in Latin America that has a state-funded, national contemporary dance company “Compañía Nacional de Danza Contemporánea” (National Company of Contemporary Dance.) Check out a great piece by the company below.
Dancers perform “Río conmigo.” Photo credit: Compañía Nacional de Danza Contemporánea, Argentina
To wrap up with Latin America, here is a list of interesting resources including books, films and audio recordings that are relevant for those interested in how people move across this region.
Now let’s travel to East Asia, a region that is entirely new to me in terms of dance. I’ve learned more about its dance traditions though my very dear Korean friends at UIUC and some independent readings. For starters, Korean folk Dancereveals the many, varied influences that come together in Korean traditional dance, including elements from other countries and varied religions. Different moments in Korean history also display an impact on expression, not to mention varied contexts like communal agrarian contexts, religious celebrations and entertainment.
This book addresses Korean dances from as early as 200 BC until present day, when folk dance intentionally and actively preserves cultural heritage. In fact, certain dances from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) are currently protected by a cultural law issued in 1962. After Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the strong influence of Western civilization after 1945, traditional Korean dance was in danger of disappearing. In this context, these dances officially became known as Important Intangible Cultural Heritage, a category that brought about legislation to preserve and train people in each dance form. This is the case for Seungmu, the monks’ dance, a type of folk dance performed by professional entertainers.
Seungmu, the Monks’ Dance. Photo credit: Lee Byoung-ok ; [translator Cho Yoon-jung]. “Korean folk dance”, Seoul, Korea : Korea Foundation, c2008
Now, going beyond folk dance, Korea currently has a rich development of modern and contemporary styles. Through Contemporary Dance Scenes of Korea, I discovered another angle of movement in that country. Modern and contemporary dance in Korea have experienced rich growth in recent years, which has included the reflection about a search for Korean identity, dialogues between traditional movements and contemporary experimentation, inner exploration, dialogues between eastern and western aesthetics, and an intense search for Korean symbols of femininity. Modern dance has been particularly important for current artists who faced violence and repression after the Korean War. As recently as 1978, only 22 performances took place in Korea, and from those, only three were contemporary dance and the other three were ballet. Currently, there is a National Contemporary Dance Company, which has an interesting global reach. Dance, therefore, has served for sharing memory, making statements and coming up with creative proposals about contemporary Korean culture, in dialogue with its recent and ancient past. Of course we cannot ignore perhaps the most popular dance form among contemporary Korean youth: K-Pop!! Check out some moves from this dance style.
Photo credit: Cho, Tong-hwa, and Kim, Kyŏng-ae, “Contemporary dance scenes of Korea”, Seoul, Korea : Korean Information Service, 2001.
Spotlight: West Africa
Let’s jump to another continent now. Let’s talk about West African dance. Similar to what occurs with other cultural traditions, dance in West Africa developed and evolved as a very important component of communal life. As a main feature, West African dance is highly energetic, involving vigorous and simultaneous movements of the head, arms, legs and feet. Even with this feature, there is still a great variety in terms of genre including village and ballet.
In the case of dance from Guinea, village dancing is practiced in a circle where the community gathers around live drumming as a core component of the dance and community members enter and exit the circle at their will to improvise a dance. Other community members participating in the dance accompany the performance by clapping and cheering. The percussive instruments used for this dance style are the djembe and then a family of drums called the dununs.
West African dancers energetically perform on stage. Photo Credit: The University City District on the Philly Loves Drums website
Instead of the dancer responding to the drums, in this dance style, the main drummer or djembe soloist tries to follow the dancers’ feet to accent their movements and simultaneously maintain the tempo.
A West African dancer is featured, jumping in mid-air. Photo credit: Renee Rushing Photography
Mara Thacker provided a good deal of information about these styles: “Ballet style is choreographed…(it) has a different set up to the drums and the drummers will give a musical cue called “breaks” to signal to the dancers during a choreography….The dununs have three drums, the largest bass drum is the dundunba, the middle is the sangban, and the smallest is the kenkeni. In ballet style, the three are usually played as a set, which, in village style, each is played alone along with a cowbell that is attached to the top of the drum. There are other types of drums and instruments that are played, including the balafon which is much like a xylophone and the cora which is a stringed instrument.” Mara also highlighted that one of the most commonly taught African styles in the U.S. is “lamban“. Here is another lamban performance you can see.
And here is a piece of great news: You can practice West-African dance here at C-U! Mara and other local West African Dance enthusiasts have put together a practice space called the C-U West African Drum and Dance Collective, where Djibril Camara is the local teacher. The group organizes a yearly festival called “The Midwest Mandeng.” Thanks to them, every September master drum and dance instructors from Guinea, Mali, and Senegal come to Urbana-Champaign to teach workshops and give demonstrations. Mark your calendar for next year!
As I have mentioned with the other dances above, there is a very interesting evolution of contemporary dance in West Africa that dialogues between traditional dance and international modern styles. Unlike most contemporary and modern dancers from the U.S. and other western countries, it is common that modern dancers from different African countries are trained first in traditional dance and then they train in other dance forms and techniques. Afrique Danse Contemporaine (Contemporary African Dance) beautifully presents the trajectory of Salia Sanou, renowned dancer and choreographer form Burkina Faso, where he makes a clear statement on the relevance of African voices in the global contemporary dance scene. Here is Poussières de sang, a stunning performance by him in collaboration with Seydou Boro, another choreographer from the same country.
A dancer performs Salia Sanou’s Doubaley (Le miroir). Photo credit: From Mouvements Perpétuels
You can also contact our Dance at Illinois department on campus where Faculty have extensive experience about varied international styles, including several professors interested in African influences on contemporary dance. Also, the dance department annually invites guest artists from diverse origins. This year, guest artists bring works influenced by traditions from China, Taiwan, and Israel. You can also follow the schedule of events at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts which is always showcasing events of interest. You can also ask Mara, our South Asian Studies Librarian about Indian dance! She has a lot to share. For more information and posts like these, follow the International and Area Studies Facebook page.
It all started in 2006 when Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. made a documentary series about tracing one’s roots to Africa. I thought, “Oh, that’d be nice to know.” Like the overwhelming majority of African Americans, I don’t know where exactly my ancestors come from on the African continent of 54 countries just across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite my interest in pursuing my query, I wasn’t prepared to put any money behind my curiosity.
Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent researcher in African American genealogy. Photo Credit: PBS Press Room
Then last year, CNN anchor Michaela Pereira joined the quest, traveling to Jamaica and publishing the story of discovering her roots. This was another, welcome reminder of something I intended to get back to. I was only convinced, however, when other African American, U of I graduate students like myself, LaKisha David and Jarai Carter, told me that they, too, had participated. They’d sent their DNA samples into laboratories and gotten better, more reliable clues about their places of origin. So, when I had enough money, I decided to join them on the journey, too.
CNN newscaster Michaela Pereira who traced her genealogy to Jamaica. Photo Credit: Varon Panganiban
African American history is complicated. Not only does an expansive ocean stand between me and Africa, but also a few centuries of slavery. As you might imagine, because many records have been lost or were never kept, beyond my grandparents’ generation, genealogical lineages are rather blurry. It’s near impossible to not feel a sense of loss because of this. Yet, history, as it is wont to do, and biology, too, offer suggestive remnants that lend some clues about the past.
For example, I know my mother’s mother is from Louisiana, so I assume my matrilineal lineage traces back to that Southern state. Moreover, my mother’s fair skin and hazel eyes seem to suggest a European ancestor. My father’s skin is a deep brown and he comes from the English-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Atlantic Coast. While I’m pretty certain his great-grandparents were Jamaican, I don’t know where they came from before that.
So this is how Project Genesis was born. It entails my effort to employ the DNA-tracking services offered by ancestry.com to determine greater specificities about who I am and to document the process so others who choose to pursue a similar route can form realistic expectations of the experience. On March 14, 2015, I paid $99.57 for an ancestryDNA kit. It arrived on my doorstep on March 21. It came in a little white and green box, not much larger than the palm of my hand, and inside there were two tubes—one was for collecting my saliva, and another containing a blue stabilizing solution for the DNA sample. It will take a minimum of six weeks before I get my results.
Chromosomes. Photo Credit: Ruth Lawson
Before we label these services, however, as an “answer-call, cure-all” when it comes to questions of African American identity, origin and belonging, let me share some of the research I did before embarking on this adventure which truly taught me to temper my expectations. After speaking with LaKisha and Jarai about their experiences, I learned that this test, like any other, has its limitations and therefore must be contextualized, specifying what it can and cannot do.
LaKisha is a Ph.D. student in Urban and Regional Planning who is in her thirties. She has spent some $800 with three different services in order to have her and her family members’ DNA tested. Collectively, the services were carried out by ancestryDNA, 23andme and African Ancestry. LaKisha freely admits that each service has its plusses and minuses. As she describes it, what the test attempts to do is to match one’s DNA to a database of DNA that is already held. That is, it tries to match one’s DNA to a group of people that is currently alive today. The crux is that in order to be effectively matched, the database needs to be rather comprehensive. For example, if no tests were conducted for the people living, say, along the coast of the Gambia, it’s impossible to have a result yield a reliable match to that particular population.
The Gambia is the dark blue country on the west coast of the continent.
“Do not do this test if you are looking for a place of origin,” she cautions. The results provide a map that highlights the countries where one’s DNA has resonance. In Lakisha’s case, (and Raven Symone’s), multiple countries are highlighted: Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, et al. So, in this case, when five to ten places show up as matches, the results aren’t as conclusive as one could hope. As a matter of fact, the test seems perhaps most helpful in telling one where he or she is not from: the Maghreb*, East and Southern Africa, for example. However, that information based on history alone may already be evident to us. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade we know was primarily carried out along the coast of West Africa. Is it worth it to pay $100 to have a test confirm that, yes, African Americans are indeed of mixed West African descent?
The colored areas identify major African regions where slave trading occurred between the 15th and 19th centuries. Photo Credit: Grin 20.
It would appear that the novel information provided pertains to one’s ancestry that is not African. LaKisha’s background, for example, included results that were 87% African, 5% Native American and 4% European, and this is where LaKisha offers some advice: “It might be more effective to have your oldest living relative tested.” This way, the expectation would be for fewer countries to be named in the results as the oldest relative is closer to the source of origin. Also, she says, the more African people who take the test, the more accurate results will be. However, what motivation does a Senegalese woman living in Senegal within her Senegalese community have to take a test that costs $100 and ultimately tells her that she is Senegalese? “But do you see the potential?” LaKisha asked. There’s potential, I told her, but the process may not be practical. Asking African people to submit their DNA to a database so African Americans can know more about themselves may simply be asking a lot.
After carrying out African Ancestry’s Patriclan test on an older, male relative, LaKisha learned that her lineage was traced to the Akele people of Gabon. This information appeared on one document and specified which of her relative’s chromosomes indicated the connection. What this sheet of paper did not do was provide the names of definite familial relatives alive in Africa. It did not state how to find other Akele people in the Midwestern, North American region where we currently reside. It also did not provide a profile on the Akele that showed them to be nomadic people or urban dwellers, tall and sinewy or short and slight or patriarchal or matriarchal. It would seem, then, that there is a real risk, then, in these tests becoming predatory. While the companies profit, do African Americans get the answers and information they seek? While we observe a viable business model, in the end only the faintest inklings of information are provided.
I also spoke to Jarai who is a Ph.D. student in informatics and in her twenties. Her results from ancestry.com indicate that 55% of her background is European and 43% is African, which, was not entirely a surprise to her given her mother is a white American and her father is a black American. Her advice? “Don’t do it if you expect to be 100% black,” she said. “There were actually people angry that they have white heritage.” Given the legacy of the slave trade, many African Americans have a mixed heritage that may or may not be perceptible based on their phenotype. The genotype, however, which is what we are testing, may reveal some unexpected information.
An interracial couple. Photo Credit: Sharon Samples
Jarai says she was “hoping to find out more about relatives, but only got pointed in a general direction. She admits, too, that the database is limited. However, seeking out this process brought her family together. Lakisha also said that generally hers was a positive experience and is happy to have a starting point for further research. What we all agree on is that this type of adventure can take a lifetime of mapping, digging and testing, and apparently, I’ve signed up for step one. Stay tuned for the second feature, “The Reveal,” in the The Project Genesis series.
*The Maghreb refers to Arabic-speaking countries in the northwestern region of the African continent. It includes Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, among other countries and is often distinguished from sub-Saharan Africa. Photo Credit: Connormah