Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Play, Sing and Dance

I found out the other day that my book Play, Sing & Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk is the second-most used book in the American level trainings after Gunild Keetman’s Elementaria. Well, hooray for me. But this book would not be a best-seller in Ghana. Whereas the idea of restoring the rent fabric of playing, singing and dancing and restoring it to its original wholeness seems a radical idea in the West, any Ghanaian would say, “Helloooo. Well, duh!” (insert Valley Girl sarcastic tone here).

There was another short concert (read three hours) last night by two choirs and the Nunya Academy kids brass band and the choirs were there to demonstrate Western influence in contemporary Ghanaian choral music. Kind of like Fisk University in the U.S., a SATB arrangement facing a conductor and getting up into the head tone. But even the most Western adaptation cannot go long before the drums, bells and rattles chime in and it’s simply impossible for people to stand still as we do in the West without moving. (Indeed, the SF Girls Chorus is an exacting discipline in not moving a muscle beyond the diaphragm and open mouth.) The usual routine of coming into the audience to grab people to dance continued with both the choirs and the brass bands and once you’re dancing, the idea of repeating a song some 25 times is no problem.

This, of course, is not confined to Ghana. All throughout Black Africa, the unbroken connection between sound and motion is the norm. I have my own theories about that related to literate and oral cultures and relating also to child development. Any toddler or preschooler also has tone, speech and motion as one piece, what Walter Ong (author of Orality and Literacy) calls the verbo-motor stage. When kids learn to read at 6- or 7 years old, the body shuts down to send energy to the left-hemisphere of the brain and if this is not balanced with ongoing music, dance and drama, can break that connection. Thus, all cultures with a heavy oral component tend to be much more in their bodies and will respond to music with movement, while those heavy to the literacy side, as in Northern Europe, can sit stone-still to even the most rocking music.

I think it would be rare to find music in Africa without dance or at least, significant motion while singing or playing. It would also be rare to find dance without music (as in some Western modern dance traditions). This is also true (no surprise) throughout the African diaspora and a huge component of the development of jazz and blues and Gospel and the whole rich tapestry of African-American music. Check out some Youtube footage of big bands in the 30’s playing for the Lindy Hop dancers at the Savoy to find that perfect interplay between music and dance.

But in the 1940’s, musicians with one foot deeply planted in African soil were also investigating Western music and thought and while your insides would still dance to be-bop, it was frowned upon for you to actually get up and shake your booty. The idea was to listen to the complex imaginative twists and turns of melodic variations during the solos and appreciate music as a journey, as a story the soloist was telling.  The rhythms still made your toe tap and your fingers snap, but the melodies and harmonies moved up to your heart and head and asked you to be still and listen!. And this was the moment when jazz lost it’s connection with masses who were more interested in the social fun of dancing then doing the work to appreciate sophisticated musical expression that moved beyond the hip-twitching beat. And it’s also why post 40’s jazz is not of interest to most West Africans.

No punch line here except that whether the sound-motion connection comes out as music with vigorous dancing or a more internalized form, it is a necessary and deep connection and one that any good Orff teacher develops. Not as in “Okay, we played a piece on the xylophone. Now make up a cute little dance,” but as in feeling and demonstrating that connection with gesture and movement every note of the way.

And speech also. Could you tell I was dancing while I wrote this?

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