Fire Dance… Saturday Night At The Shrine, By Sola Olorunyomi

…those being my thoughts, as I walked into the Afrikan Shrine this particular night in the late eighties. But fast forward decades now… I find it quite apt that the organisers of Felabration have consciously chosen the celebrative rather than the mournful for the October commemorations of the life and times of the inventor of the Afrobeat genre, Fela. Most enthusiasts of the form are likely to be forgiving of my choice of a less talked about aspect of the Afrobeat performance tradition, dance, and particularly–“The Fire Dance”, as Fela is wont to style an aspect of that experience.

Dance as Kinetic Statement

Lights on, the Afrobeat dance exhibits a variety of physical, expressive styles, ranging from gentle, graceful motion to vigorous athleticism. An attempt to classify the forms draws from Afrobeat’s own faltering process of canon formation and codification. In the track “Lady”, for instance, Fela makes a distinction between two dance styles. One he calls “Lady Dance” and the other, “Fire Dance”. Fela had used the former term rather prejudicially in relation to stylised Western dance steps of the caricatured ‘over-educated’ African female. Generally speaking, however, Fela’s Egypt ’80 solo dancers were always doing varieties of the generic “Fire Dance”—defined by Fela as a dance of total expression. This, indeed, is given credence, especially in circumstances when dancers define their movement in response to the instrumental call. Also worthy of note, is how the dance orientation is female specific for the simple fact that there were no professional male dancers, and Fela was always naming dance registers largely only in relation to the practices of these professionals. Invariably, therefore, forms that have been consciously projected bear a substantial female imprint, even though both male and female band members dance to rhythm on stage.

At the height of the music’s raciness, however, a highly experimental Dodo, not to be beaten by a tempo that could only have been matched by a mechanically simulated marionette, simply reconstructs the pace by redefining motion: she stands still, in trance-like concentration, and then bursts into unpredictable body jerks in contrastive movement to the beat, as if she were a contrapuntal rhythm.

There were occasional dance tutors who trained fresh dancers. The dancers recall that the last dance teacher was “Teacher Ajayi Ogunde”, in the eighties. This instructor takes them through general lessons on the technical foundation of choreography as a means of executing coordinated movement. Together, they then simulate general movement coordination, after which they now choreograph track movements. However, in relation to solo movements, dancers are encouraged to incorporate their respective local styles, and once recognisable as repeatable, becomes the subjective imprint of the dancer. This way, a short dance phrase may reveal the source of a particular influence. While being subsumed under the group’s general choreography in the background, local colours can still be noticed in the solo dancer’s style.

Since most of the songs are narratives, the ‘literate’ dancer finds herself extending the narrative frontier in dance steps that aspire toward a lyrical meaning in the mode of musical visualisation. The dancer of “Zombie”, for instance, almost invariably re-enacts a regimental calisthenics: marching, saluting, and ‘easying’, yet in rhythmic motion. With the groove in motion, Fela could occasionally punctuate the melody, retorting “ju-di, ju-di, ju-sileee”—an oblique suggestion to “shake your buttock,” meant to empower the audience to partake in the dance event.

Rhythm has been noted by the likes of Esi Kinni-Olusanyin, as “the most striking aspect of African music, with drumming displaying it in its most complex form.” In a study evaluating the art of dancing itself across Africa and the black Diaspora of the Caribbean and the United States, she identifies the dancer’s body as incorporating both the sensibilities and the more direct dynamics of expression, translating them into movements that correspond to the music. Such correspondence of body movement to musical rhythm is achieved in two ways by Egypt ’80 dancers: by metaphrasing—that is, dancing in direct correspondence to the music’s inflections; or paraphrasing, through a general approximation to the rhythm without necessarily ‘duplicating’ the music’s particular inflections. This way, and through a combination of other processes, dancers at the Afrikan Shrine are able to create a movement vocabulary that expresses satire, aesthetic pleasure or even an assertion of their collective and individual femininity.

Besides the more obvious fact of dance as aesthetic pleasure, one could notice the dexterity of the solo dancers of a filmed 1991 satirical performance of Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, with a theatrical element that shows each dancer holding a book upside down while attempting to browse through it in complementary movement to the rhythm! The choreographic message is as palpable as the lyrics lend it: “Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense.” This feature is also exhibited in the performance of a yet-to-be-waxed number, Clear Road for Jaga Jaga. The number details the declining value of the Nigerian national currency—Naira. The song highlights the different phases of decline with a croon in mid-tempo:

Vocal: When Naira fall
Chorus: Many people fall with am
Vocal: When Naira sick
Chorus: Many people sick with am
Vocal: When Naira crash
Chorus: Many people crash with am
Vocal: When Naira jam
Chorus: Many people jam with am
Vocal: When Naira quench
Chorus: Many people quench with am

Also as in Zombie, the “devalued currency dance” is executed by visualising in dance and body movement the song text—the progressive illness, fall, crash and ultimate death of a sickly national currency.

In certain moments of his improvisatory play, Fela starts off as if in dissonance with the basic rhythm beat—giving the feeling of being momentarily lost in a labyrinth of the multiple potential notes he could use. But once he keys in and begins ‘reefing’, as in his extended improvisations, and starts attempting to pierce through the background wall of responsive horns, he effects an acoustic mood of turbulence.

Smoke Before the Fire

Live performance at the Shrine also serves as rehearsal time for new compositions, as a result of which a particular number can be prolonged to twice its studio time. Once the rhythmic structure of the number has been set, a variety of improvisations could then proceed, usually starting with the horns. As in the large, traditional plays, like the bàtá ensemble of the Yorùbá, or even the more recent jazz music, whose internal dynamics are aptly described by Ralph Ellison as “an art of individual assertion within and against the group,” each solo flight here is an attempt at self-definition. The instrumentalist often starts with familiar folk tunes. Tonight, I’m glued to the tenor saxophonist who appears to be more preoccupied with a game of aural teasing as he explores the instrument’s potentials: the flute-like softness, its string-like modulation, and its capacity for a strident shriek. The audience is thrilled, but the performer is just not done yet. He is aware that the penultimate soloist is the baritone saxophonist, equally an accomplished player, with an enthralling instrument that has caught the fancy of the audience; so, he must define himself against his colleague while at the same time asserting his skill, for instant judgment, before this musical parliament at the Shrine. Bent on stretching the audience tonight, he goes on, blaring a phrase now and again, transposing it, revising it, but generally refusing to make an instrumental sentence. Ultimately, though, he is aware that his virtuosity is acknowledged only at that moment when he fully demonstrates the ability to de-familiarise the tune, while at the same time making it recognisable. He does this, and departs with a final, extended falsetto. “Y.S.”—sobriquet for Yinusa Akinbosun—the audience roars, even as Fela clasps the performer’s hands in appreciation.

Fire Dance

After Akinbosun’s solo performance, there is a brief interval and then Fela comes in for the second tenor sax. You can hear some breakaway fans in the audience heralding him in a Yoruba phrase implying, “the biggest masquerade is usually the last to emerge from the grove.” In certain moments of his improvisatory play, Fela starts off as if in dissonance with the basic rhythm beat—giving the feeling of being momentarily lost in a labyrinth of the multiple potential notes he could use. But once he keys in and begins ‘reefing’, as in his extended improvisations, and starts attempting to pierce through the background wall of responsive horns, he effects an acoustic mood of turbulence. It is about time now for the restless dancers to be brought up stage, a job which falls to the same players of ritual rhythm: the stick-hands, and the sekere player. As in the Egúngún masquerade solo performance, they move toward a particular podium clanging and shaking their instruments as a sign of ‘calling’ the solo dancer. This motion is repeated for a while and, tonight, the audience is anxiously awaiting the last dancer, Dodo.

Shouts of “Dodo” momentarily drown the speakers as she is ‘called’ forth to mount the stage for her solo performance. There is deep anxiety both on the part of fan and band, over the anticipated contest. She takes her time, acting oblivious of the revelry around her as she knots the Nigerian Midwestern, neo-traditional popular dance histrionic of white kerchief around her waist. The suspense is in good effect as the audience is closing in around the stage. Not even Fela, known for strictness of performance time, seems bothered. Everybody knows; it is Dodo’s day. She descends the rungs in brisk rhythmic movement, then stops to enact a brief fore-dance and, again, shouts of accolade rend the air. Aware that they cannot hurry her up, the ritual ‘summoners’ begin to clang more vigorously in circles around her. Done, she proceeds to the central stage and takes fast rhythmic strides across its breadth, as if defining the space as hers; challenging the instrumental soloist and the entire ensemble to a contest, it seems.

After a while, the tempo relapses to the basic rhythm beat in anticipation of cresting again with a fusion of different layers of call and response. These layers involve the cantor and the chorus, the solo instrumentalist and the solo dancer, the solo instrumentalist and the horn ensemble, and then the entire ensemble as leader-call and the audience as chorus.

She is ‘greeted’ gently by the tenor sax from the yet-to-be-waxed Condom…, a role which in other performances could be played by the trumpet. Fela triggers the contest by first releasing short, sharp and angular chirping notes, which Dodo duplicates with an ease of corresponding dance steps. However, the tenor blare becomes more obtrusive in an attempt to heighten the tempo, a feat achieved as the percussive section and a reiterative and responsorial horn section gets dragged to shorten its rhythmic time line. This raciness is heightened when the ‘Big Conga Drum,’ beaten with faster drum strokes, is unleashed on the newly defined rhythm. The leader-call also begins to change tempi, with a freer use of changing time signatures, thereby making the rhythmic structure more complex. Within the short spate of time allotted to her, Dodo executes diverse varieties of Fire Dance: at once doing the swivel dance, and at other times, pelvis gyration—a motion based on the contraction and release of the groin, or alternating with a hop-step and shoulder blade movement. Even when her arms complement the dance, they are also constantly deployed to keep balance of a highly stylised athleticism. At the height of the music’s raciness, however, a highly experimental Dodo, not to be beaten by a tempo that could only have been matched by a mechanically simulated marionette, simply reconstructs the pace by redefining motion: she stands still, in trance-like concentration, and then bursts into unpredictable body jerks in contrastive movement to the beat, as if she were a contrapuntal rhythm. Gift of fast-pacing foot work and practice, such a dance style suffused with mediumistic throbbing drums can be quite effortlessly executed. Were this a Dionysiac rite, Dodo would indeed be a maenad, like the Sango votaries of the New World described by Umberto Eco.

After a while, the tempo relapses to the basic rhythm beat in anticipation of cresting again with a fusion of different layers of call and response. These layers involve the cantor and the chorus, the solo instrumentalist and the solo dancer, the solo instrumentalist and the horn ensemble, and then the entire ensemble as leader-call and the audience as chorus. But to heighten the pace, it is the solo tenor sax that is now challenging the dancer by playing the agent provocateur. Dodo responds in an erotic and sensuous movement at the height of which she jumps and clasps to a column at the edge of the stage and, along with the sax, motions alternately in crest and trough, in trough and crest—to which the audience responds in a prolonged applause to her semantics of dance which, no doubt, is an anarchic display of femininity; some sort of an open challenge to contemporary definition of ‘proper’ female gender posture in puritanico-patriarchal Nigeria!

Good morning; it’s 6.00am Sunday morning outside the mythic time of the Afrikan Shrine’s Saturday Night “Comprehensive Show”, as I waltz home through the jarring overload of traffic honks of this bizarre city by the lagoon. Las Gidi!

Sola Olorunyomi teaches in the Cultural and Media Studies Programme of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.

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