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Are You Dancing Yet? Part 2

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012: Dance, Musings.

The 80s was when, in the industry, dance music came to mean club music, and electronic instruments and samples began to dominate it. But because the post-punk scene also embraced world music, my friends and I began dancing to African music at the same time. And at home, in my San Francisco loft, my artist roommates and I danced to everything, at any time – The Smiths, The Replacements, U2, REM, UB40, Black Uhuru. Again, not partner dancing, but African-style dancing, creative, free-form movements that were rhythmic but integrated with domestic chores like cooking and cleaning house. We had massive parties where musicians from North and West Africa jammed with players from South America. And we repeatedly went together as a group to touring shows by Nigerian juju superstar King Sunny Ade, who provided the best dance music any of us had experienced, music you could literally dance to all night and still feel energized.

In Oakland one year, I took a new girlfriend to a Nigerian Afro-Beat New Year’s party headlined by my friend Orlando Julius Ekemode. I always loved to watch the Nigerians dance, especially the backup singers in the band, who alternated comic pranks with restrained, elegant traditional movements. My girlfriend interrupted me with an “Oh my god, look at her!” pointing to a Nigerian woman in the crowd dancing with her black leather purse on her head, in perfect balance. It was the first thing that night that really impressed my girl.

The same girlfriend later took me to a hip-hop show where I had fun dancing until she told me I was embarrassing her because I was dancing like an African, and I was facing her instead of facing the stage in the accepted way like everyone else.

We were lucky in the Bay Area to have a wonderful all-ages dance club called Ashkenaz, a wood-frame building with high arched ceiling, a beautiful wood dance floor, and a clear, balanced sound system. My band played there once, but I also got to dance there to the father of modern juju music, accordionist I. K. Dairo, during his final tour. The crowd was a great mix of hippies, yuppies, Berkeley High students, black professionals, European, Middle Eastern and African expatriates, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, professional artists and musicians, university professors – typical Bay Area!

In its most successful incarnation, my 80s band Terra Incognita incorporated rhythms inspired by Nigerian music. But we were an electric string trio, what would later be called chamber folk – the absolute last thing my marketing expert would ever accept as dance music. But our most devoted fans first showed up dancing happily in front of the stage.

I later attended the wedding of one of those fans, and attempted a polka with his mother. She laughed harshly in contempt, shoving me off the floor, when I could neither lead nor follow. I admit that I’ve never mastered European-style partner dancing. I took a couple of salsa lessons after I moved to Silver City, and encountered the same snobbery. My partner barked at me and tried impatiently to jerk me into shape. Partner dancing is like horseback riding for me – something I like to watch but have never enjoyed doing. It’s a European tradition – I’m more comfortable with African and Native American dance traditions.

In North American and European urban society, insecure young men who want to be considered “hipsters” are notoriously reluctant to be seen dancing in public. Hence they typically wait to be drawn into the dance by young women. While living in Seattle a few years ago, I went to see a North-African-influenced San Francisco band at the world-music club Nectar. The crowd consisted mostly of young single men, and after the first few tunes, no one was dancing – so I went out there and got things started myself!

In the late 80s, my old friend and collaborator Cheb i Sabbah started doing DJ nights in popular SF clubs. He became one of the world’s premier “world music” DJs, and in between his national and European tours, he turned me on to Mali’s Salif Keita and Kasse Mady, Cuba’s Los Van Van, and the Gnawa music of Morocco. But whenever he played North African music, the local Moroccans converged in their robes, arms waving ecstatically above their heads, fingers snapping in unison to the beat.

  1. Rachel H. says:

    wow! what a cool video. Makes me wish I could have been there. Is this in North Africa?

  2. admin says:

    No, that’s at Burning Man. I wish I could’ve been there too! Cheb is in Europe now undergoing treatment for cancer; the initial prognosis was terminal, but he keeps hanging on.

  3. mr mike says:

    go Cheb shovage -he was a great innoative Dj

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