African drumming, dance have defining characteristics

Arts On Sunday

We have already made reference to the fading away or the dilution of African culture in Guyana and the Caribbean.  Generally it took root during slavery and more properly asserted itself in the region after Emancipation.  With the former enslaved building communities and more effectively interacting in the various societies as ‘free citizens’ their cultural traditions and social contribution actually became stronger and more influential before it began to wane.

Al Creighton
Al Creighton

As we have already suggested, there are many reasons for the gradual dissolution of these elements and it is useful to revise them here.  These include forced suppression and attempts by the plantocracy to discourage and eradicate several practices during slavery, as well as a culture of hostility including vicious attacks in the press after Emancipation, legislation against many traditions and clashes between the people and the police in the colonies over prohibited performances.  There was voluntary suppression of others submerged underground by the Africans themselves in order to keep them secret.  Some were later revived while others remained ‘protected’ and therefore hardly survived.  Others were psychologically suppressed by people pressured into a sense of their own inferiority in a class and colour conscious society.  These only helped to hasten a process of acculturation along with the normal rate of cultural change.

It needs also to be pointed out that the African culture in the Caribbean includes different kinds of phenomena.  There are those brought over from Africa which have survived in the Caribbean with a minimum of interference, and others which were submerged and then revived.  Some of the revivals were disguised, perhaps to protect some secret content or purpose or because their performance was prohibited.  Other revivals were mixed with or influenced by other factors in the society; for example, the mixture of African religions with Christianity as in the case of Shango, the Shango Baptist or Spiritual Baptist;  an integration of Roman Catholic rites to form the Orisha or of Voodoo (vodun) with the same religion.  Many traditions were also influenced by secular social factors in the local Caribbean environment while others evolved entirely in the Caribbean out of some African base or out of a superstructure which reflects the African ethos.

Among these various survivals, revivals, creolised or indigenous elements are several performance traditions which are African in the Caribbean because they continue a strong African characteristic.  That is the manner in which the Africans tend to turn to theatre and various performance and artistic media in both religious and secular life as ritualistic expression, as celebration, as mourning or for rites of passage.  People perform some of these in different Caribbean territories today, and some of them manifest themselves in normal social interaction in forms that are the same as or not far removed from their African origins.  Others are creolised, some diluted and some are mere imitations of a notion of African form.

Many in the last category are often performed and called ‘African,’ but only superficially appear to be so.  On several occasions a performance is announced as an ‘African dance’ or as ‘African drumming’ but it is formally undefined and only superficially resembles someone’s notion of something African.  But to perform any of these one has to know or one has to learn the form.  Artists, composers and performers are creative and do not have to reproduce a performance exactly as it would have or might have been done in Africa.  That is a false measure and false criterion.  Forms change and artists can draw from forms and use characteristics of a form to shape or influence the work they create.  Moreover, ‘African’ is no longer an imitation of something on the continent or something brought directly from there.  But to be African it has to have the identity and/or characteristics of performance traditions in the African culture that exists in the Guyana or the Caribbean.  Much of what we now know as belonging to those traditions evolved in Guyana or the Caribbean.

What then, is African dance?  Or what is African drumming?  The first thing to remember is that there is no such country as Africa.  It is a vast continent which is not culturally or ethnically homogeneous.  There is a multiplicity of nations and cultures.  There are marked differences on either side of the Sahara; North Africa is different from West Africa, from East, Central and Southern Africa.  Our focus here is on West Africa and even within that there is variety.  Nigeria alone has the distinct Islamist characteristics of North Africa in its Northern states (the Hausa), different features in the rivers area (Ibo/Ijo) and other things in the land of the Yoruba.

However, one can identify those cultural characteristics in the performance traditions on this side of the Atlantic.  In Guyana many performances are called African dance simply because the performer(s) may be dancing to the rhythms of African drums.  It could even be said that anything danced to drums generally is called African dance even if the drums or the rhythms they play are not really African.  But African dance has defining charactertistics which cause it to be African, not merely the drum as accompaniment.  Of course modern, interpretive, experimental and classical dances are known in Africa, but the variety of relevance here is folk dance, since this is the type that represents the survival or retention of African culture in Guyana.

The main feature of this dance is that it begins by being very ritualistic and most of the movements are linked to a larger cultural tradition, often religious ritual.  These give rise to certain stylistic factors.  Then there is the costuming which is often a part of the performance and one of its features is that dress is colour coded.  There are also the rhythms and the steps which are also within certain traditions.  The main thing is that one has to research, study and learn the characteristics of African dance just as one has to know that the drums and the rhythms they are playing are not just drums and drumming, but African drums and drumming.

As in the case of the many cultures of Africa, there are several different types of drums across the continent.  Many of these found their way over to the Caribbean.  Just like what happens in the case of dance, however, one frequently hears of a performance of ‘African drumming’ in Guyana, described as African simply because the instrument is a drum.  Sometimes it happens to be a folk drum, one of the many varieties of African drums.  That does not make the music African since it will depend on the rhythms or the style of performance.

African drums and drumming have identifiable characteristics and so do the folk drums of African derivation and the rhythms played on them.  Many of them are of specific shape and size and are associated with or used in a particular tradition, often a religious tradition.  Among the most identifiable are the Jamaican Kumina drums and those used in the maskarade or jonkunnu bands.  Less so are those used in Shango or Guyana’s Kumfa.  Some are played with curved sticks, others with a plain straight one or a stick which is wrapped and padded at one end.  In some cases it is one stick while other varieties will use two.  Yet others are played with the hands.

A particular African characteristic is the tonal quality.  The most famous is the talking drum, which is finely tuned to create such a range of different tones that it is said to be able to talk.  Many West African languages are tonal, in that meaning is communicated not only through words, but also through the intonation and pitch at which they are uttered, as if one is speaking according to a musical scale.  The talking drum can imitate that.  Other African drums are defined by the rhythms as in kumina or Shango which have distinct rhythms used only in those traditions.  So has Guyana’s kumfa, but it is a rhythm that has to be learned, and has particular meaning because it is used to invoke spirits, to provide for spiritual possession, for the kumfa dance and to bring a possessed dancer out of the state of trance.

Some rhythms are associated with a particular deity or god and can cause his spirit to ‘mount’ or ride a dancer causing possession during which the dancer ‘becomes’ the god.  Many of the African rhythms are actually combinations of two or three related rhythms.  Although it did not originate in Africa, the Rasta rhythm is a good example of African characteristics because it has three drums: the bass, the funde (rhythm) and the kette (the cutting drum).  The bass is played with a heavyish stick with a padded end, while the funde is played with the hands and keeps the main time or rhythm.  The kette is played mostly with the fingers.  It is highly tuned and is used for ‘cutting,’ that is the improvised  dexterity of the lead drummer.

In order to play African drums one has to learn these various techniques and rhythms.  One has to play in the mode or style of African drumming, and it is not the arbitrary beating of an arbitrary drum.  What goes for the drums is the same as applies to other performance traditions of African derivation in Guyana or the Caribbean.

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