Point of View // 08.29.2013

What is African Rhythm, Really?

Article by Abena

Note: After my post from Tuesday about dancing at Africa Week, I thought of this and how the term “African” to classify the multitude of dance and drumming styles that come from the continent is insufficient. I wrote an article on this topic last year.

The following article is a repost from the original version which appeared in Toronto Star online publication of Sway Magazine in June 2012.


What is African Rhythm, Really?

 Abena A. Green

I suppose that with people still needing to be reminded that Africa is not one country but a continent home to 54 countries; it might be too much to expect them to know that that “African” is not a genre of music or dance.
I teach a fitness class that’s inspired by different Latin dances. Next to each song on the instructional CD is the genre to which it belongs- salsa, meringue, la quebradita. There’s even some reggaeton and calypso in there for a little Caribbean influence. There are some African songs in there too. Guess what genre is written next to these? ‘African’.
If only people knew how restricting this was! Not just for the makers of this music but for themselves, the listeners. Africa has a peacock’s tail of musical richness and variation. It would take a full week camped out in the in the library’s music room just to sample each style. But it would be worth it! A whole new world would open up after being introduced to the different instruments, patterns, tones and tempos that produce each song and responding choreography. A person attempting to familiarize herself with different genres of African music might first dip- a personal favorite of mine- hiplife from the West African country of Ghana.

Hiplife of one of Ghana’s newer genres that’s a cross between hi-life, a genre more popular for my parents’ generation which used more horns, and hip-hop which has a faster tempo and mixes singing with rapping. The general stance is bent knees and a slightly bent forward torso. It’s energetic and brings out the attitude. Azonto is one of the lastest hiplife dance crazes. It’s been in rotation for at least a year and is still a favorite at house parties, clubs, the beach and on public transit.
Azonto- Fuse ODG ft. Tiffany

Her next selection might take them on a trip south to South Africa to hear a genre called Marabi. One group that plays this jazzy, swing style of music combined with afro-pop, and Kwela is Mafikezolo.

Then, if she travels back up and slightly east, she might discover the Intore dances of Rwanda. I’m yet to learn more about these myself but I did get a chance to see Intore Dancers when I visited the country two years ago. The most characterizing move that I noticed was the extension of arms to resemble the horns of cattle. Intore moves are so graceful, light and beautiful. I must confess that I had to put myself in check when I first looked up traditional Rwandan dance online. It wasn’t like any other African music I had heard before and I found myself asking ‘ when does it get fast? Where’s the fancy footwork?’ and realized that I had preconceived expectations of how Rwandan music should sound even though I had never heard it before.

The differences in these styles of music and dance across Africa are delightful and very real. There are songs for the young and the old; for weddings, funerals, coming of age, and for trying to stay young. You might find that you’re not so good at Intore but a near-pro at Soukouss. When I teach dance workshops, I make sure to tell the participants that we are doing Kpanlogo or Gota or that we’re dancing to hiplife. After all, I don’t think it would be very fair if I went to a dance class and all the instructor told me is that we’d be doing North American Dance.

The more people understand the beautiful an oh so varied genres of music that fall into the generic pot labeled “African”, the more they can appreciate what they’re taking in when they hear or see it.

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