African drumming and African dance are my happy place. Everyone’s presumably got something: for some it’s gardening, for others it’s motor racing and for yet others it’s nature walks. Isn’t it neat, and also, somewhat strange, that we have these specialised passions? Weird animal.
West African rhythms feel good to me in a way that nothing else does. They’re the basis of much of the pop music we listen to today, having travelled to America with slaves, then evolved. They are complex polyrhythms – some beats are off the beat and placed in between others – and that gives them their groove.
Traditional West African rhythms are from one of humanity’s earliest inhabited regions. In my books, that makes them even more esteemed. They found their way to Dunedin, New Zealand – at the bottom of the world – only within the last few decades. These rhythms are set musical arrangements, well known and recognised in their home countries, much like, say, a Beatles hit here. Each rhythm has its own accompanying dance steps.
I started with the dancing. Actually, I started by seeing and hearing a local drum and dance performance and feeling a system throughout my body switch to “on”. Funny. It was a big “yes”, a bit like taking your first breath. Almost a relief.
After studying dance for a few years I realised my love for these rhythms wasn’t going away so I started studying the drums too. Some are played with sticks and another, the djembe, played with the palms. You might have seen the djembe – it’s strapped to the drummer’s front which means you can have a wee dance as you play too – good times.
It’s hard to describe what’s so good about these rhythms. They just make me happy. They somehow put me in “the zone”, just cruising along, having a good time. Sometimes when the music’s particularly good and I’m dancing, I laugh out loud. Sounds a bit trippy, but it’s true.
As I age, part of me wishes my enthusiasm lay with a more portable instrument or a hobby I can continue to do as my physicality declines. Who knows, maybe I can retreat to just playing the bell while surfing the wave of the groove being played around me. Whatever, I feel lucky that here at the bottom of the world I’ve had the opportunity to discover and exercise my enthusiasm for this ancient rhythm.
If I lived in another time or place I would have missed out. But then maybe I’d have discovered a currently unknown enthusiasm for the harpsicord. Or for mammoth hunting. Or for the oral recitation of genealogy. Each of us has our enthusiasms; I wonder how many we have that circumstance has left untapped?
Clare Fraser was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and has lived most of her life there. Her career involves nature interpretation, through words and images (not interpretive dance).