Monday, June 23, 2014

Down and Dirty

I see connections.

At the music festival, in the performances we have every night, the way school girls dance when they chance by our compound and hear us drumming, there is a particular Ghanaian style of thrusting the elbows back, then forward, while stepping on the beat in a crouch that is almost a squat, and somehow gyrating the core and glutes. Dancers want everyone to join in, and draw in spectators to their performances, pulling them out of their seats or away from the shade tree from which they’re watching. Kofi calls the move “breaking the back,” and likens it to pulling away from a knife attack from the front then the back, over and over again. In some ways, it resembles the chicken dance, though much more active and full-body. In terms of coordinating all the movements, it feels to me like trying to get the Charleston basic step right: my body just can’t pivot on that many axes at once.

Or, more likely, I’ve never learned to.

Most of Orff movement training takes a balletic approach. I’d never done this kind of dance before taking my Levels training, and I found it liberating and empowering, especially as I learned how to extend energy through my limbs, reaching out as far as I could, stretching, elongating myself. I was defying gravity, seeing how far I could break free of its involuntary embrace. I came to realize that western ballet, with its leaps, throws, extensions, and en pointe movement, was all about reaching toward heaven. I could see it growing out of the Greek influence on Christian theology, in particular the dualistic approach to heaven and earth. For many Christians, death is still seen as an escape from the near-hell of earthly existence.

Contrast that with the thoroughly grounded movement of Ewe dancing, and of the American dance styles that evolved from African patterns: cakewalk, Charleston, swing dancing, dirty dancing, salsa, break dancing. The exceptions in American pop culture are the dances most influenced by European fads: waltz, foxtrot, and more recently, disco. These dances retain the elegant line and extension of classical European dance, the stretch toward heaven.

We asked Kofi about the origins of the Ewe dance, and he said that, historically, it’s been around since ancient times: some of the earliest European descriptions of West African culture describe the same movements we’re seeing here today. He pointed out that the crouching posture is related to the kind of work Ewe do: farming, rowing boats, fishing, washing clothing at the river bank. As to the elbow/back movement, he had no idea. It’s just what they do.

Similarly, the Ghanaian xylophone, a set of tuned boards using gourds as resonators, has a buzz that, to western ears, sounds like it’s time to take it in for repairs. In fact, the buzz is intentional, built into the resonators by drilling holes and, traditionally, covering them with spider web, though modern xylophones are built with fragments of UPS envelopes as the buzzing medium. The buzz just sounds good to Ghanaian ears, more connected to the earth, than the pure, bell-like tone of a western xylophone.

The Ghanaian atenteben, a bamboo flute similar to a recorder, is intentionally built on natural overtones, rather than having the even temperament of a western instrument. Ghanaians like the sound of two notes clashing in a way that creates beats—a sound that will drive a western musician to the tuner. It never occurs to western ears that the pure, beatless sound of a well-tempered perfect fourth is, in fact, as artificial as the electronic devices we use to scour those intervals free of beats.

Spiritually, I see a grounding in gravity that is the polar opposite to the European ideal of breaking free. Living in a climate of heat and deprivation, people from throughout Africa have had to innovate, making something from not much. The Ewe, in particular, seem to do this with smiles on their faces. Accepting what life presents you, embracing it, celebrating it, and turning it into art, is a cultural strength lacking in many western societies. Presented with a deficit, Americans feel defeat, become depressed, give up altogether. Ewe, on the other hand, take what little resources they have and make something of beauty and power from it. Their dance and music is infused into children from infancy, draws in entire communities, fluidly adapts historical forms while simultaneously honoring their ancestors. It grows out of a connection to the earth borne on proximity: they live in earthen huts with dirt floors. Their marketplaces are unpaved. They break down old termite mounds and use the sturdy, water-resistant material as bricks. They sweep floors with palm branches. They extract decades of life from vehicles that Americans would have scrapped many times over, turning them into taxis, trotros, farm vehicles, trucks. Their development is incremental but certain; and like their dancing and their music, it has a power that comes from the earth itself.

I don’t know whether the Ewe believe in a heaven, though I have learned that their sense of the spiritual is of immanence: every tree, every creature, has a spirit, and the ancestors are always present. The dances and rhythms change only gradually, though a traumatic event may provide the occasion for more significant adjustments.  There have been two shooting deaths in Dzodze in the last four decades, and both were the occasion for making a changes to the town’s song and dance.


Music grounded in spirituality, taught from birth; dance so much a part of one’s being that too hear music is to be moved by, and have to move to, it; a fundamental attitude of cheerful acceptance and transcendence of whatever the world has to offer: I have much to learn from this culture. I daresay all Americans could stand to take some lessons at the feet of these masters of music, however young they may be.

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