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From Candombe to Tango and beyond

(Essay on the fusion of disparate rhythms)

(Part I)

By Jean-Pierre Sighé


The human ability to invent or reorganize is as instinctive as breathing. It corresponds to the constant flow of the creative Cosmic energies that infuse the entire “unfinished work” (wisely called the Universe by the ancients). From the smallest entities to the biggest ones - humanly inconceivable - the constant expansive flow of Cosmic energy preserves itself through change and fusion. New forms constantly emerge to sustain such preservation. Throughout the millenniums much has been written and taught about this - from the Schools of The Mysteries of Atlantis to the Ones in The Land of Afra (Ancient Egypt). This same Cosmic necessity has allowed human beings in their social and playful activities to generate exquisite rhythmic structures, often fusing a variety of basics to produce brand new complex formations.
Some people in the Tango world ask: “How could the descendents of African slaves in Buenos Aires possibly go from Candombe to Tango? ” Some with disdain refer to the Candombe experience as “playing tambores”. In fact, Tango has been taught as a spontaneous generation with its only proclaimed root being the brothels of Buenos Aires… Bravo!
In 1998, I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area to Tango. The word Candombe did not exist in everyday vocabulary in venues or with instructors. It took deliberate research and curiosity to unearth its reference. In time, language in this community evolved; due in part to the creation of A.R.T.S. (Afro Roots in Tango Society) and the subsequent public events in San Francisco, most notably, the lecture by Yale Professor Dr. Robert Farris Thompson. In addition, several articles have been published about A.R.T.S. : “Birthing the Afro Tango Dancers group”  and “A.R.T.S.(published on Tango Magdalena web site in Newsletters, vol26 and 27, 2010). Tango Magdalena has maintained its students awareness on the Candombe root in Argentine Tango. It simply makes sense as it changes the approach people observe in their learning. People easily understand the limitation to learning Tango through a series of single steps. The process that generated Tango runs so deep that the futility of a few quick steps put together to impress the gallery inevitably reveals itself as phony. Simple intellectual curiosity forces the question: How do the drummers, in the Candombe experience understand each other and never seem to clash in their frenetic conversation? How do they actually incorporate disparate rhythms to generate new ones?
Truthfully, no mystery exists around incorporating simple basic rhythmic structures into more complex ones. This is inherent to all musicians - from those of pure African descent to all diasporas. They use both the mathematical means of adding or subtracting structures and the astute tool of speed modulation to generate new ones. The same structure, when sped up, creates a totally different mode, ambiance, feeling, dancing expression, etc.
Since the time of slavery, African drumming has generated Candombe, Jazz, Habanera, Salsa, and Samba, with all the multiple sub-divisions or colorations derived from them. Sometimes, the same structure might be given a different name depending on the area of the world. The African slaves in the Americas called Candombe the drumming exercise they and their ancestors had always indulged in from their motherland. As they came in contact with the Contradanza in the Caribbean, they incorporated that basic form into their drumming to generate a new structure. This arrangement later evolved by the Habanera (from Habana) as it reached the sugar cane plantations of Cuba where other Afro descendants explored drumming techniques. Clearly, a rhythmic structure as basic as the Foxtrot or Waltz could easily be incorporated. Indeed, the successive rhythms of Milonga, Canyengue, and Tango are simple logical progressions. In France, Georges Bizet, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel brought attention on the Habanera in their musical work. However, the compliment came without merit as no reference was made regarding the influence of African slaves’ descendants generating that rhythm. It is sometimes suggested that the Habanera was created with Bizet’s Carmen! Such pretense and erroneous assertion repeats itself the world over. And Africa itself can claim no innocence of such indulgence.
In Cameroon, for instance, more than 200 tribes live together sharing their very different cultures. The rhythmic experiences are just phenomenal!  One of the most popular rhythms (adopted by all Cameroonians) is the Makossa. In the 1970s, Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango first brought its flavor to the world with his hit “Soul Makossa”. It was later re-introduced to the public by the late Michael Jackson in 1983 with the riff “mamassa, mamamakossa, mamassa, mamamakossa” in  “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ ”.
Makossa is a fusion from three very distinct tribal rhythms: the Essewe, Ambassibey (am-by-see-bay), and Assiko. See illustrations (I wrote at least 2 bars to help the reader play each of them several times, to get the spirit of each rhythm):

Each rhythm is complete by itself. When they are fused together, they generate the Makossa. Needless to say, the Makossa itself continues to evolve as people keep adding other structures to it. The same way there is no mystery in the logical generation of Makossa from Essewe, Ambassibey and Assiko, the same way there is none in the generation of Tango from Candombe or Habanera.

Rhythmic changes can generate confusion for a dancer. How shall the dancer evolve with these variations? This is where the dancer must embrace the music within his soul. Rhythm is a living thing and dancing is a vivid expression of the soul. A simple accent added to a rhythm can inspire the creation of a specific body movement. Dancing channels our expression of life. Thus, dancers explore divinity as they play out their role in this process of fusing and creating new art forms. Dancers are musicians, too, employing their feet, arms, and entire bodies as instruments.
Through these progressions of rhythmic fusions, dancers came up with steps to express the nuances, tempos, beats and more over the obvious subjective impressions. It must be noted that a rhythmic experience is a real spiritual one, equal to meditation. Things do happen! Experiences emerges from the deeper part of the being. The soul expresses various impressions. The trance often occurs for a good reason. Those who cultivate the disdain for African drumming do so of ignorance and indeed miss out on a divine set of tools at their disposal to satisfy the complexities of their soul’s expressions.
            Dancers spontaneously express a state of mind. Improvisation is the normalcy of that expression. They let their inner vision direct their moves. To use the beat counting to


teach dance diminishes the completeness of this divine process. Whoever wants to learn to dance the steps of the dancer, must be willing to open up to his inner impulses. Learning the steps is just an introduction to this marvelous journey. The African dancers would never insist that the learner do exactly the steps that they are executing, but rather would encourage new variations and mostly make connection to the source that helps project those variations. It is not an intellectual process, but a spiritual one. Students must be constantly reminded to let the soul define the process. Ancient Egyptians summarized this profound principle in their hieroglyphic representation: “KÂ, messenger of B” (where K is the mind and its attributes and B the Soul). It reminds the learner of the priority.
In my own learning of tribal initiation dance as a teenager, I received that injunction from my teacher. After we were taught the basic steps (that are always very simple), we were encouraged to “hear the drum”. It meant letting the rhythm take over, thus opening the door to our inner selves to receive the instant directives on how to dance… here and now! The condition of BÂ was to supersede that of KÂ.
Setting foot in a ballroom in the Western world was a difficult experience as I quickly realized that the process of learning how to dance was an intellectual exercise. This is why, at Tango Magdalena, we encourage improvisation and steer away from teaching patterns to people. We want to awaken the inner dancer!
Dancers project the psychological environment surrounding the rhythmic structure they interpret. In the Cameroonian example, when people dance the Makossa music or rhythm, they often mimic the gestures of the fishermen using their paddles in their canoe. This is because the Essewe and the Ambassibey came from the coastal tribes where people are fishermen. Therefore, anyone not from that tribe who wants to learn Makossa must be open to the psychology of the fishermen, to incorporate correctly that paddle use gesture. That gesture is totally incorporated in the dancing of the Makossa.  The creation and incorporation of specific steps to express the mood does not, however, change an iota to the rhythmic generation itself. It completes the process.


To be continued...



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