Sunday, 9 August 2020

Rhythm of the Tam Tam

Let’s dance!

African dance, also known as the Sub-Saharan African dance has various cultural differences in musical and movement styles. These dances are closely connected with Sub-Saharan African music traditions and Bantu cultivation of rhythm. The concept of poly-rhythm as well as total body articulation are used in this dance, yet many African languages have no word to define music. 

Historically, many societies in the sub-Saharan interacted with one another and consequently a mix of musical resources was formed. The mixture of these cultures formed a distinctive musical area along the Guinea Coast that includes the savanna belt of West Africa. There are distinctions between other areas of the continent as well. East Africa differs from Central Africa because of their use of specific forms of musical instruments. Southern Africa’s traditions include choral groups and musical bow instruments.

Dances serve as a teaching tool in social patterns and values, therefore helping people work, mature, praise or criticize members of the community while celebrating festivals and funerals, competing, reciting history, proverbs and poetry, healing the sick and to” encounter gods”. African dance is a way of life for the inhabitants of the culture, It is mostly participatory, with spectators being part of the performance. With the exception of some spiritual, religious or initiation dances, there are traditionally no barriers between dancers and onlookers. Even ritual dances often have a time when spectators participate!


There are unique definitions for African dances: Africa, a continent three times the size of the United States, is ethnically and culturally the most diverse on the planet. Though similar themes may be found throughout dances across  many countries, each has its own history, language, song, background, story and purpose.


Traditional dance in Africa always occurs collectively, expressing the life of the community more than that of individuals or couples. 

Yoruba dancers and drummers, for example, express communal desires, values, and collective creativity. Dances are often segregated by gender, reinforcing gender roles in children and other community structures such as kinship, age and status are also often reinforced. Many dances are performed by one gender only, indicating strong beliefs about what being male or female means and some strict taboos about interaction. Dances also celebrate the passage from childhood to adulthood or spiritual worship. For example, young girls of the Lunda of Zambia spend months practicing in seclusion for their coming of age ritual. Boys show off their stamina in highly energetic dances, providing a means of judging physical health.

Master dancers and drummers are particular about the learning of the dance exactly as taught. Children must learn the dance exactly as taught without variation. Improvisation or a new variation comes only after mastering the dance, performing, and receiving the appreciation of spectators and the sanction of village elders. ”Musical training” in African societies begins at birth with cradle songs, and continues on the backs of relatives both at work and at festivals and other social events. Throughout western and central Africa child’s play includes games that develop a feeling for multiple rhythms.


The most widely used musical instrument in Africa is the human voice. Nomadic groups such as the Maasai do not traditionally use drums yet in villages throughout the continent the sound and rhythm of the drum expresses the mood of the people. In an African community, coming together in response to the beating of the drum signifies a sense of belonging and of solidarity, a time to connect with each other and be part of a collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society.

Dancers in Nigeria commonly combine at least two rhythms in their movement, and the blending of three rhythms can be seen among highly skilled dancers. Articulation of as many as four distinct rhythms is rare.They may also add rhythmic components independent of those in the music. Very complex movements are possible even though the body does not move through space.Dancers are able to switch back and forth between rhythms without missing movements.

The drumming represents an underlying linguistic text that guides the dancing performance but most meaning comes from nonverbal cues and metalanguage of the performers.


The traditional keeper of culture and history for the people of West Africa is known as a “griot” or “dijialy.” The culture of these people is passed on from generation to generation in the storytelling form of music and dance. The traditional music and dance is facing decline; however, the rich history and traditions of this culture is respected by newer generations who are preserving the legacy.


In African dance, the drum is one way to set the mood and brings everyone together as a community. However, many other instruments are used as well, such as gourds strung with beads. Clapping, stamping feet, and most of all singing also create rhythmic music for African dance. As dancers move in an expression of their inner feelings, their movements are generally in rhythm to the music. It is the sound of the music and the rhythms that are played that provide the heartbeat of the dance. The music and dance are considered inseparable, two parts of the same activity. Groups such as the Alokli West African Dance Ensemble, who perform historical, social, and ritualistic dance forms from all along the Ivory Coast, illustrate the wide variety of dance forms .


As observed by travelers to West Africa in the 19th century, dances depended on context, the people, and the gender of the dancers. In general men used large body movements, including jumping and leaping. Women danced smaller movements with much use of “shuffle steps”, the body in a bent position with “crooked knees”. The circle dance predominated everywhere, sometimes solo dancers or musicians in the middle, sometimes couples. The ecstatic seizure was an essential element of ceremonial dancing, both religious and secular. It is extremely important that the dancers maintain clarity.

Different types of African dances include:

Warrior Dances: One example of a warrior dance is Agbekor. Franci Elkins, a world renowned African dancer, has been quoted as saying that this is her favorite dance. Agbekor comes from the Foh and Ewe people. It is an ancient dance once known as Atamga. Agbekor is often performed at cultural events and at funerals. Dance movements mimic battlefield tactics such stabbing with the end of the horsetail. This dance consists of phrases of movements. A phrase consists of a “turn” which occurs in every phrase and then a different ending movement. These phrases are added back to back with slight variations within them, and make up the dance.

Dances of Love: They are performed on special accessions, such as weddings and anniversaries. One example is the Nmane dance performed in Ghana. It is done solely by women during weddings in honor of the bride.

Rites of Passage and Coming of Age Dances: They are performed to mark the coming of age of young men and women. They give confidence to the dancers who have to perform in front of everyone. It is then formally acknowledged they are adults. This builds pride, as well as a stronger sense of community.

Dances of Welcome: They show respect and pleasure to visitors, as well as  how talented and attractive the host villagers are. Yabara is a West African Dance of Welcome marked by ”The Beaded Net Covered Gourd Rattle” (Sekere-pronounced Shake-er-ay). It is thrown into the air to different heights by the female dancers to mark tempo and rhythm changes. This is an impressive spectacle, as all the dancers will throw and catch them at the same time.

Dances of Possession and Summoning: These are common themes, and very important in many Traditional African Religions. They all share one common link: a call to a Spirit. These spirits can be the spirits of Plants or Forests, Ancestors, or Deities. The Orishas are the Deities found in many forms of African religion, such as Candomblé, Santería, Yoruba mythology, Voodoo, and others. Each Orisha has their favourite colours, days, times, foods, drinks, music, and dances. The dances will be used on special occasions to honor the Orisha, or to seek help and guidance. The Orisha may be angry and need appeasing. Kakilambe is a great spirit of the forest who is summoned using dance. He comes in the form of a giant statue carried from the forest out to the waiting village. There is much dancing and singing. 



Also known as Macouka, it is a dance from the area of Dabou in southeast Côte d’Ivoire, sometimes carried out during special ceremonies. It is also known as, “La danse du fessier” or “the danse of the behind”.

This dance has a choreography that can be very sexually suggestive. The dance mostly involves women shaking their buttocks sideways vigorously, facing away from their audience. In the 1980’s, artists of the Ivory Coast tried without much success to popularize it. One of the most well known groups is Tueuses de Mapouka.

There are two forms of the dance, the original and the modern. The modern is danced mostly by young people and is considered more obscene and improper by some due to its suggestive nature.

In 1998, the government of Côte d’Ivoire decided to prohibit its performance in public. It is, paradoxically, following this prohibition that the dance now enjoys a very fast-growing global popularity, especially in the sub-Saharan countries and western nations with large Francophone communities.


Ambasse bey or Ambas-i-bay is a style of folk music and dance from Cameroon. The music is based on commonly available instruments, especially guitar, with percussion provided by sticks and bottles. The music is faster-paced than Assiko, an older form of Cameroonian popular folk music.

Ambasse bey originated among the Yabassi ethnic group and grew popular in Douala after World War II. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the style evolved in the Cameroonian Littoral. In the mid-1960s, Eboa Lotin performed a style of Ambasse bey on harmonica and guitar that was the earliest form of Makossa, a style that quickly came to overshadow its predecessor and become Cameroon’s most popular form of indigenous music. Ambasse bey was revived to an extent by Cameroonian singer Sallé John.


Zouglou is a dance oriented style of music from the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) that first evolved in the 1990s out of the university crisis at the time. It started with students (les parents du Campus) from the University of Abidjan. It has since spread in the continent, including  Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Gabon.

Popular with the youth, the lyrics are written in local languages and French street slang,and has parallels with the evolution of rap in the West. It uses humor to depict the situations in the society.

Groups associated with the Zouglou style include Magic System (who have become a major act locally and in France, Belgium and Switzerland), Sur-Choc (who appeared on the soundtrack of the 2005 FIFA Street game), Petit Denis, Vieux gazeur, Les potes de la rue, Les Garagistes, Mercenaires, Yode et Siro and Espoir 2000.


Soukous is a genre of dance music that originated in the African rumba of the Belgian Congo and French Congo during the 1940’s and gained popularity throughout Africa.

 In Zambia and Zimbabwe, where Congolese music is also influential, it is still usually referred to as Rumba.


Coupé-Décalé is a type of popular dance music originating from Côte d’Ivoire and the Ivorian diaspora in Paris, France. Heavy influences from Zouglou, Zouk, and Congolese rhythms, Coupé-Décalé is a very percussive style featuring African samples, deep bass, and repetitive, minimalist arrangements


Makossa is a noted Cameroonian popular urban musical style. In the late 20th century music of Sub-Saharan Africa, it was influenced by Congolese Soukous, as well as by Jazz, Ambasse bey, Latin music and Highlife. It uses strong electric bass rhythms and prominent brass. In the 1980s Makossa had a wave of mainstream success across Africa and to a lesser extent abroad.

Makossa, which means “(I) dance” in the Duala language, is originated from a Duala dance called the Kossa. Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum started using the refrain Kossa Kossa in his songs with his group Los Calvinos. The style began to take shape in the 1950s though the first recordings were not seen until a decade later. Artists such as Eboa Lotin, Misse Ngoh and especially Manu Dibango, who popularised Makossa throughout the world with his song “Soul Makossa” in the early 1970s. The chant from the song, Mamako, Mamasa, Maka Makossa, was later used by Michael Jackson in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. Many other performers followed suit. The 2010 World cup also brought Makossa to the international stage as Shakira sampled the Golden Sounds popular song “Zamina mina (Zangalewa)”.

Makassi is a lighter style of makossa.

I hear the Tam tam music of Sally Nyolo… you? 

•Culled from

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