Guided by Orisas
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
While in New York over Thanksgiving, I saw Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones — a new musical on Broadway that celebrates the life and legacy of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian-born musician who pioneered a new form of music called Afrobeat in the 1970s. Fela frequently used his music to condemn the corrupt military regime that held power in his country.
One of the musical’s most stirring scenes happens in the second act in “Dance of the Orisas” when Fela seeks guidance from his deceased mother (a political firebrand in her own right) who was murdered by the government when she was thrown from window at Fela’s home. Fela prepares himself for this journey by dressing all in white, and he’s guided to his mother by two orisas, or spirits, in the Yoruba-based spiritual tradition.
(photo: Monique Carboni)
Today, I listened to our program “Living Vodou” with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith to learn more about Yoruba-derived religious systems that migrated from West Africa to the Caribbean and South America with the slave trade including Vodou, Santeria, and Candomble. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains how some slaves continued their traditional spirituality in disguise by matching orisas to Christian saints so that slaves could “cover up what it is that you did, literally cover it up when a slave owner was approaching.”
What’s interesting to me about Fela’s example is that he did not disguise his reproach of corrupt, powerful institutions; rather, he sang out his protests with direct and galvanizing musicality. His actions didn’t go unpunished, though. According to my playbill, he was arrested over 200 times and suffered devastating beatings at the hands of the government.
Dancing with Sidi Goma: The Black Sufis of Gujarat
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
I recently attended a dance workshop in Saint Paul with Sidi Goma, a troupe of African-Indian Sufis from Gujarat, India who were visiting Minnesota to perform at a local festival. I’ve explored a variety of mostly West African dance styles, but this practice was entirely new to me.
The Sidi people migrated from East Africa to India 800 years ago and it isn’t clear which modern-day African countries they originally hailed from. The Sidis express their mystical Sufi Muslim faith through an exuberant dance and musical tradition. The idea, as I understand it, is for the performers to connect with the Divine and inspire the audience to experience a kind of divine transcendence through this joyful expression.
As you’ll see in the video we’ve posted of the workshop, the dancing and rhythm picks up speed and culminates in a crescendo. I wondered whether there’s a connection here with the whirling dervish who practice the sema — a form of ecstatic worship we explored in our program on Rumi. Some of the Sidi dancers’ movements are inspired by animals — notably birds. You’ll notice how they use their eyes as much as their limbs. It actually reminded me of the popping and locking break dancers are known for.
At the end of the evening, another workshop participant fetched a cowbell from his backpack. The bell is a kind of percussive instrument sometimes attached to an African drum called doun doun. It seemed like the Sidis were unfamiliar with the cowbell, but their faces beamed with delight when it was played along with their instruments. Only one member of the group spoke English but we all danced and relished in the music together — a refreshing minder that movement and rhythm can transcend verbal language.
Special thanks to The Ordway and Paul Escalante for giving us permission to post this video clip.