The Beat of Cambridge: African Drumming and Dance

photo by welcome bienvenidos/flickr

As part of The Beat of Cambridge series, here’s the extended online version of our Scout Out on African Drumming, which appeared in the September / October print edition of Scout Cambridge.

Take a stroll down Mass Ave. on any given night and you will be able to feel the energy of African drumming streaming from the open windows of The Dance Complex in Central Square. It’s not uncommon for intrigued pedestrians to follow the rhythm into the building to take a peek at one of the African dance classes, often staying to watch mini music and dance performances with live African percussion.

While you can find it throughout the Boston area, African drumming seems to have found a permanent home in Cambridge. The Dance Complex hosts African drumming seven days a week, welcoming drummers from as close as Boston and as far as West Africa to participate. M.I.T.’s Endicott World Music Center (at the M.I.T. Museum) offers classes taught by Chikh Tidiane from Dakar, Senegal. Out of The Blue Art Gallery hosts classes taught by Moussa Traore from Bamako, Mali. Since 2008, Central Square had also hosted Uhuru Afrika – a unique dance night mixing house, world and other genres of music with live African percussion – but its new home is Arc Nightclub in Boston. At The Dance Complex, no other form of dance class is offered as frequently as African dance. The first African dancing class with drumming was offered at the space in 1984 by Ife Bolden, who teaches mostly in Senegalese styles. Today, the space offers traditional dance classes accompanied by live African percussion from all over West Africa (namely Mali, Guinea and Senegal) as well as a host of hybrid classes with live drumming including Afro-Cuban, Ethno-Haitian and Afro-Flow yoga (a class that combines African dancing and yoga). Drummers and dancers say that the space is “not just a dance studio” but a “major center of culture.”

African drumming and dance has flourished in Cambridge over the past thirty years, increasing in popularity each year. According to Stone Montgomery, “The community [in Cambridge] is engaged to this dance more than anywhere else.” Cambridge has a respect and emphasis for diversity that has allowed African drumming and dancing to thrive here.

“This city has a unique style that is a mixture and inclusiveness of all races – a lot of other places are not like that,” explains Montgomery who has been drumming at The Dance Complex since the mid 80s.“Cambridge is more exposed to multi-culturalism,” he adds. Each year festivals such as Riverfest and Dance for World Community welcome a variety of world music and dance to the city.

Drummers in Cambridge reflect the city’s diverse population with drummers hailing from various West African countries, the US, Russia, Haiti and more. Despite different racial and ethnic backgrounds, they cite common reasons for drumming– exercise (drumming is arguably one of the most aerobic musical forms), making a living and connecting with a part of themselves that feels “most human.” “When I’m drumming, I feel alive. I’m very happy,” notes Tidiane. Others explain that drumming allows them to make or maintain connections to their culture or heritage. “It’s in my blood,” says Sori Diabate – a drummer from Bamako, Mali who drums twice a week at The Dance Complex.

Drumming is also a form of release or escape from day-to-day life. “For the time [I’m drumming], I forget about everything – bills, car insurance, rent– I forget about all of that,” says Issa Coulibaly. There is also a social aspect to drumming – it gathers people together, creates community and allows people to meet others from different backgrounds. “The diversity and the spirit of the people [who dance and drum] is amazing,” adds student dancer and drummer Christelle Ahyee.

African Dance

The influences of African drumming are not limited to the individual lives of the drummers or the Cambridge pedestrians on the street who hear their call. These dancers explain that live drumming is their primary reason for engagement with this style of dance. “African drumming makes the dance very powerful. The energy from dancing and drums is very attractive,” Ahyee says. “The drumming is a huge, huge piece of it; to have the drummers there – there is nothing like that,” says Beth Clarke who has been dancing at The Dance Complex for almost five years now. Erich Ludwig, another Dance Complex regular says that the “conversation that happens between drummers and dancers is a pretty positive one… being part of that conversation and feeling that energy is awesome.”

In addition to the drumming, African dancers cite many reasons for engaging with this style. The dance has a unique, intense, liberating movement that draws the dancers to it.  It is described by one dancer, Shawn Palling, as “very free, expressive and energetic.” “Every single part of you doesn’t stand still. I really love the whole body movement,” says Clarke. While other dances can be very structured, “African dance is very free,” notes Ahyee.

Another common assertion is that African dance also has a spiritual component to it that draws dancers to it. “It’s like a sanctuary,” says Clarke. She says that the Ethno-Haitian dance class (previously named Afro-Haitian), taught by Jean Appollon, is “like going to church.” The class packs 70-80 people every week into one of the larger studios at The Dance Complex with anywhere from six or more drummers and sometimes even a few live saxophonists who give the drumming a jazzy edge.

Ludwig, who lived and studied for six months in Mali, notes that he appreciate how “the dance is just so directly tied to everyday life…There is a wedding in the street and there’s a dance that happens. It’s not like you have to go to a club – it just happens in and around everyday.” In Cambridge, classes take on different ritualized form. “It is just such a ritual for me,” notes Clarke. “I think about it every day, you know. All through my week – it carries me through; gets me through my daily activities.”

According to those dedicated to the art, African dance also has a cross-cultural component to it in Cambridge and Boston that allows the dance to be a vehicle for social change. Leslie Salmon Jones, who teaches Afro-Flow yoga at The Dance Complex, says, “Dance has always been a part of my life since I was a little girl. It is a deep connection to who I am. There’s a beautiful cultural connection. I love ballet, but I find African dance brings in more community and less judgment. It’s more about seeing people of all ages, sizes, color and shapes come into a space and celebrate. It really feels like it’s a celebration and a freeing – a letting go.” Along these same lines, Clarke adds, “We have our differences and yet look at us, we’re taking a class that basically pulls people together from all over. I’ve never seen anything like that, even amongst the history of tension.”

With classes every day, sometimes twice a day, African dance not only has “a really huge following” at The Dance Complex, but a community that has developed among regulars of the classes there. While communities often develop class by class in other dance genres, there is a unique interchangeability among African dance classes, where students easily flow in and out of different teachers’ classes. This is the case with drummers too. Ludwig explains, “There is a real community with drummers. Drummers often drum for multiple classes or a dance teacher may end up drumming for a class.”

It’s also worth noting that this dance style maintains a strong cultural component and that many of these drummers and dance instructors in Cambridge, especially at The Dance Complex hail from West Africa. “Africans representing African culture as it is, is [part of] why it has thrived,” adds Michelle Bach-Coulibaly, an instructor at Brown University and The Dance Complex.

Where to find African drumming in Cambridge:

Out Of The Blue Art Gallery has drumming classes on Wednesday nights from 6-7:30 p.m. Classes are taught by Moussa Traore of Bamako, Mali.

106 Prospect St., 617-970-5587

M.I.T.’s Endicott World Music Center

(at the M.I.T. Museum) offers Senegalese styles of drumming Mondays from 7-8:30 pm and Saturdays from 3-4 p.m. Classes are taught by Chikh Tidiane. 265 Massachusetts Ave., 617-858-7193

The Dance Complex offers African dancing seven days per week. Live African percussion accompanies almost all of the African dance classes.

536 Massachusetts Avenue, 617- 547-9363