African Dance Jazz Improvisation

Watching an Arlus Mabele video the other day I was reminded of the time in my life long ago when I danced with a Brazilian group out of Berkeley. The group coordinator urged us to practice a few days a week with a Nigerian group. One of the drummers, Ceke Ladzekpo? was a recognized master drummer in whose grace we felt privileged to bask. He was cool, though, and I remember he once told me that the reason westerners couldn’t dance (even the black ones) was that we’d lost the ability to really touch the earth. He told us to watch the way an African’s feet connect with the ground in dance and then compare that to the way western dancers do. He said westerners had to learn, or unlearn, what Africans do without considering at all.

I’d always thought that the fundamental difference lay in the different emphases of western and African dance, namely, that western forms appear to focus on marshalling expression of the extremities, (think Irish, Swiss, or pretty much any white European national dance). Those dance expressions are characterized first and foremost by established patterns that realize very little variety. There may be “solo” expressions, but they too are quite formalized, choreographed and expected. And white folks are always counting. From ballerinas to cheerleaders to waltz-ers, they’re always counting out loud or in their heads.

Africans-Nigerians, Koi San, Congolese, Malian, or any others-move first at the core, the center of the body. That core is elastic, capable of contracting, expanding, and appears to function as an axis that informs the expression of the extremities. And while there may be formalized movements springing from tradition, those movements are always informed by the second most important distinction-improvisation. For while dancers may all do the same thing in concert on a foreign tour, all the masters I’ve talked to say that the heart of their dance is improvisation or reinterpretation of familiar movements-all of which usually remain unnoticed by audiences blind to the nuances of the expression. An African dancer is held in check by one thing only-the drum.

The drum constitutes a back beat and a directing voice. While an appreciative, albeit, untrained audience hears intricate and complex rhythms, the dancer hears requests for certain movements, directions. The language of the drum is as complex as any spoken language, and because of that, there is never a need to count. The mind and body are free to improvise.

This core, improvisation, is the essential ingredient that distinguishes not only dance, but also the one and only truly “American” art form, born from the soul of black folks: jazz.

Jazz is the grandchild of African musical traditions that, like African dance, rely on complexity of rhythm, tonality and improvisation. The mother of jazz might never have been born had slave masters forbade their property the opportunity to “gather for Christ.” Slaves, singing together, sustained the heart of African improvisational musical expression. The child, jazz, is borne of the traditions brought, and the pain felt, by those torn from the motherland.