The Imani Dance and Drum Company of Louisville, Ky., perform the Manjani, a West African dance that celebrates an important event such as the harvest (as in this performance), a wedding, or a naming ceremony. This performance segment focuses on the musicians as much as the dancers, showing the important relationship between the two groups. The dancers are drummers also; their movements are the visual notes of the music.
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Like music, dance is a part of life in West Africa. Yaya Diallo, a musician from Mali, is a member of the Minianka (Bamana) tribe. Here, he tells us what dance means in his culture.
“We dance under many circumstances,” he says. “First, there are secular dances for everyone—dances for special occasions, dances at marriages, at births, or at the naming of a child. In celebrating together, we find no place for questions such as ‘What am I doing in this world?’ or ‘Does life have a meaning?’ It is like community preventative therapy. Life feels good. It is no small thing to dance in community. It is a great harmonizing measure.”
Next come the initiation dances performed expressly as rites of passage at various stages of a person’s life.
Diallo goes on to say that “when the Minianka work, they move rhythmically. When they dance, their movements express the activities of daily life. Most popular traditional dances in Africa are directly related to work, whether they repeat the movements of physical labor or honor different occupations. When people dance in the evening, their movements follow the gestures of the work they have been doing during the day. A fisherman does not dance in the same way as a hunter.”
“Often the work itself can be seen as a dance. When women wash clothes on the riverbank, they make music by slapping the clothes against the calabashes. To pound grain into daily cereal, four women stand around a large mortar carved out of a portion of tree trunk. Their pestles rise and fall like pistons. If one woman loses the beat, it will break the rhythm of others. In the blacksmith’s workshop, the boy with the bellows sets the first rhythm with a steady in-and-out motion on his accordion-like instrument. The smith hits the metal on the anvil in a second rhythm that makes a musical harmony with the sound of the bellows.”
“There are other reasons for dancing and playing music. For example, dances for the dead are performed during funerals and burials. The Bambara people of Mali perform a dance called gomba which takes seven years to learn and is taught in secret in the forest. Another dance called dounouba is for people who are threatening each other or are in an intense rivalry.”
Originally the music and dance of the Manjani was performed by young girls to celebrate the motherhood of all the women in the village. Today Manjani is so popular that both males and females perform this dance. It’s an international West African dance performed mainly in Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and the Ivory Coast. Now this dance is performed to celebrate the harvest, a wedding, or a naming ceremony. The attire for women is usually a doloke (shirt), tafe (skirt), mouchoro (head wrap), and baya (cowrie shell belt). Men wear a doloke, zarabou (pants), and bamada (hat).
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