African Music
And Dance
CK Ladzekpo, Director

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Dance Review

African rhythms display culture

- At Jacob’s Pillow, Tuesday
Night. Program Repeats with
repertory changes, through Saturday.

By Debra Cash
Special to the Globe

Becket — In this week’s extraordinary sampler of dance and music from Africa at Jacob’s Pillow, ordinary artistic categories are seen as idiosyncratically constructed Western distinctions. Here, bodies drum, drums dance and an entire continent sings. The framework that is retained is the specificity of the cultures themselves as each has developed over different physical terrains and geographies, with different notions of hierarchy and gender and perhaps even of attitude toward the generations that have passed during which these dances were introduced and then refined.

Twelve Swazi women wearing draped cloth and ankle shells and carrying talismanic knives and paddles, are in temporary diaspora, having come to the United States for two years to ply their trades as master weavers. Their dances are solid processionals that establish the rhythms for steady antiphonal chorales of courtship and social commentary. A slap to the haunch instructs a lover on the niceties of sexual technique; the song leader drops her voice dismissively telling a man without enough cattle for a dowry that he’s wasting his time. At times these women, who are not professional dancers but simply representatives of their native traditions, lapse into campfire-girl-awkwardness when they put their arms around each others’ shoulders and a few start to move in the wrong direction before they fall into sync.

Not so the African Music and Dance Ensemble based in Oakland, California and led by the Ghanaian Ladzekpo brothers. “Atsiagbekor: The Great Oath” once prepared initiate for surprise attach on the battlefield. Here it tore the rafters off the Ted Shawn Theater. The drummers did everything but turn their barrel-shaped drums inside out and the dancers turned themselves into human rattles. Tossing sprays of horse-hair switches across their torsos and towards the sky, the dancers pulsed sharp elbows and shoulder sockets in a widening vibration that began in a crouch and then, thrillingly, brought the back up to stand stock still.

The traditions and challenges that feed Foday Musa Suso’s caprise that the open-minded musical experimenters have discovered him. At its extreme reaches, the one-stringed violin, the nyanyer, sounds as avant-garde as any 2oth century “prepared instrument.” The beautifully painted dousangoni, a kind of African bass, delved into what echoed as a blues sound. Suso’s kora is captivating. Played resting against the musician’s thighs as he stood, the ringing chords of this harp-like instrument acoompanied a song, “Don’t joint the battle if you have a chicken heart. You should stay home.”

Fua Dia Congo, the Congolese ensemble repsenting the traditions of Central Africa, were straight out of National Geographic as they strode onto the stage from the trees behind the theater in traditional grass and quill skirts, bright-fringed leggings, shells and feathers. Their bodies shimmered, although if you looked closely you could catch gestures that looked like washing, like quick ear cupping-listening, and like baby rocking as they hot footed it through the drummers’ insistent and intertwined rhythms. These Congolese live today. It was fascinating to see the same dancers change to less dramatic contemporary clothing, because the flouncy dresses and batiked shifts augmented the same pushing pelvises and twisting buttocks all seeming to embody a sense of sexual play.

Every performance this week will be prefaced at 6:30 p.m. by a scholarly lecture-demonstration on aspects of African art and on Friday, the Pillow hosts two special workshops for musicians and dancers. Can't get to Jacob’s Pillow this week? Get to the Esplanade in Boston Sunday night for a brief program that will give you at least a taste of the spicy mix on hand in Becket.

Season At Jacob Pillow Dance Festival

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Note: these pages are constantly under construction. We are always adding material about the music and culture of the Ewe and other African ethnic groups, along with related graphics, sound, and videos that you can download.

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