Dance and Song

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Dance and song are related to African people's most significant cultural expressions, and they reflect through physical and symbolic means the archetypal struggle of the mortal being against exterior forces. Thus, there is a deeply dramatic and narrative quality to the creation of this physical and symbolic means of expression.
Dance and song are based on the fundamental aspects of African life; they are a common response to the need for social readjustment or restructuring and the reestablishment of balance and harmony. They are also linked to people's relationship with supernatural powers; they are aesthetic expressions of Africa's ontological and cosmological orientation.
Dance, décor, drumming, music, song, and costumes are essential and inseparable aspects of every African dramatic or narrative, religious or secular performance. In fact, African culture and history have relied on oral forms of transmission and expressions that are extremely rich in signs, gestures, colors, sounds, movement, forms, symbols, and nuances. These may evoke the spirituality of the sacred or laughter, the awe of veneration, or the ecstasy of possession.
Song and dance are always punctuated by the rhythmic pace of drumming. Together, these provide a means to communicate with the ancestors and evoke spiritual forces. Through the kinesthetic freedom that dance and drumming afford, the energies of the human being and the world are harnessed. Music and movement, rhythm, and words or sounds invoke a larger primordial force capable of transforming the human community and restoring balance and harmony. Through dance and song, African communities have kept their traditions and passed along the narratives and metaphors that stitch together the fabric of society.
Dance and song performances—for example, the eboka that are part of ceremonies among the BaAka—often incorporate the use of masks to recreate and symbolize the character of the spirit dancers impersonate. Masks and the performance attached to them therefore reflect the community's history, as well as the political, social, and economic forces that influence its life. Almost all ancestral dances are masked dances because they articulate the roles of ancestors that are not seen by humans. These invisible energies are unleashed in singing and dancing in the African community, which express the community's legacy. Using masks to demonstrate the invisible power of the ancestors is universally appreciated in Africa.
The colors and the styles of the masks as well as the songs, the music, and the dancing are a form of storytelling, indeed an aesthetic narrative about the identity of the community, of its place of origin and creation, of its practices, of the teachings of the ancestors, of the myths and legends, and of the character, virtues, and morals of the spirit that the masks symbolize. They reflect the cosmological orientation of the community.
Dance and song call on the benevolent spirits to bring blessings into the community or to restore peace and harmony where chaos was disrupting the rhythms of nature or the balance between the people and the universe of their lives. They also are part of the community's rites of passage: births, marriages, and funerals. Music and dance are also there to help the community deal with the great threats that have to be met in everyday life.
Such ceremonies usually take place in the common grounds of the compound or the forest nearby. The women, men, and children of the community, along with their guests, form a circle, and inside it, the drummers and the dancers take the floor. In some cases, the community also joins in singing and clapping; in other cases, the active participation of the community is not welcome, as is the case with the Mossi religious ceremonies.

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Further Reading

  • Asante, M., and Abarrry, A. (1996). African Intellectual Heritage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Ibitokun, B. M. (1993). Dance as Ritual Drama and Entertainment in the "Gelede" of the Ketu-Yoruba Subgroup in West Africa. Ilé-Ifè, Obafemi: Awolowo University Press.
  • Kisliuk, M. (1998). Seize the Dance. BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Soyinka, W. (1973). Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.