African Music
And Dance
CK Ladzekpo, Director

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Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Dance Review

African rhythms at Jacob’s Pillow

By Alex Bloomstein

Becket, Mass, July 23

Ted Shawn, the founder of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, would have been very pleased with the program presented at the Pillow Tuesday night. Director Liz Thompson, acknowledging the very important Shawn tradition of presenting dance from around the world, has brought to the Pillow a diverse group of African-American dancers and musicians.

This extremely ambitious and interesting program has been curated by Spider Kedelsky, who assures us that with a few minor exceptions, the historically and contemporary work presented is traditional and uncompromised.

The danger a project of this kind presents is that by taking these often spontaneous, and always situation-specific, dance and music celebrations out of their context and putting them up on a proscenium stage with theatrical lighting, one changes the expectations and assumptions of the viewer, and thereby puts demands on the work that it was not intended, nor should be required, to fulfill. It is a tribute to the universal nature of the human experience that the audience has no problem overcoming these, and other language and cultural hurdles. And more important, it is a tribute to the power of the performers that the contrived environment of the Shawn Theatre, at 8 tuesday, didnŐt trivialize the ceremonial and religious nature of these rituals.

The program which will be at jacob’s Pillow through Saturday, opened with The Swazi Women Singers and Dancers. This group consists of weavers, not performers, by profession. Here for two years to create a number of large tapestries, some of which are hanging on the walls of the theatre, the group sang traditional and contemporary Swazi songs.

Dressed in colorful red and orange batik, carrying wooden knives and a whistle or two, these women didnŐt seem entirely at home on the Pillow stage. Nonetheless, the strong a capella voices, coupled with the subtle and restrained dancing, resulted in a purity and unadorned simplicity. According to Kedelsky, in order for the women to bow between each piece, as they do, there must be elders and statesmen in the audience. Fortunately, there were some at this performance.

When the energy level goes up a notch or two, as it did for The African Music and Dance Ensemble, it becomes clear just how universal the human music and dance experience is. “Atsiagbeko ” derived from a war dance among the Ewe people, who are clustered in a number of countries along the West Africa coast. Though we may never clearly get the warrior references, we have no trouble understanding the polyrhythmic music and intricate, fast dance movement.

From the moment the musicians begin playing their drums and gourds, the audience is involved. A foot tapping there, a head swaying there. It is as though these players have found the natural frequencies at which our vital internal organs resonate, and we simply must move to those sounds. This organic, visceral quality becomes ever clearer as we watch the dancers, always hunched over and alert for the fast direction and weight changes, whip and fly through the isolations of torso and extremities, always sustaining the complex rhythms. That deep chord in each of us, literally and figuratively, has been struck.

Foday Musa Suso, born and raised in Gambia, plays the kora, a twenty one stringed harp. All the males of his family have played this instrument for over four hundred years. It is quite remarkable instrument, quite phallic looking when played. The sound is harmonic modal and tonally varied, from harpsichord-like pitches to almost an organ. Suso’s virtuosity on the instrument is clear, even to the uninitiated.

In addition, Suso played the nyanyer, a violin-like instrument capable of producing unusual sounds and the dousangoni, an African bass that left no doubt about where the “blues ” came from. The blues may have been born in St. Louis or New Orleans, but it was conceived and had a long gestation period in Africa.

The program concluded with the explosive Fua Dia Congo company, which performs pieces mostly from central Africa. This large group of dancers and musicians brought to a crescendo the entire evening’s work. A new level was reached when the drummers actually danced around the stage while playing their large drums. It was the ultimate fusion of dance and music, of the body as an instrument.

Season At Jacob Pillow Dance Festival

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