Music and dance in the African diaspora

By Kelley Christensen, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation


Hands playing Puerto Rican folk music on a typical Latin drums. Photo Credit: Mike Hernandez/Adobe Stock. This image is not AI-generated.

Perhaps the greatest difference between African styles of music and dance and those that began elsewhere is the view of who gets to participate in performance. Two ethnomusicologists at the University of Oregon are studying music and dance as it moves from one context to the next.

Stereotypes and stereotypical music

Juan Eduardo Wolf, an associate professor in the School of Music and Dance and Director of Latin American Studies, researches how colonialism has affected music and dance performances in Chile, where he was born, and in Puerto Rico. His first book, Styling Blackness in Chile, focused on the culture of people of African descent in who weren’t even acknowledged by the national government when his research began. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Chilean government officially recognized the historical and continuing presence of citizens who trace their ancestry to people who were enslaved and brought to South America. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the musical participation and contributions of Afro-Chileans have also gone unrecognized. Wolf has documented how Afro-Chileans helped create and continue to shape Chilean national musics like the cueca, in religious dancing for patron saint festivals, and in carnival traditions. It was the revival of the dance tumbe carnaval that helped bring their situation to national attention.

“There are many stereotypes about what Black and African diaspora music is supposed to sound like,” Wolf said. “But there is a whole series of musical expressions outside of those assumptions. It’s important to share how the history of these places has influenced how we think about different peoples, how these conceptions contribute to inequities, and in turn how people are resilient—how they express themselves, often through music.”

Wolf’s recent work in Puerto Rico explores how socioeconomic class contributes to the ways people deal with race. Like in much of the Americas, the island’s elite historically favored music they saw as more European. Free people of color, who tended to be skilled workers, engaged in these musics as well, to illustrate their civility and gain access to education. These musical styles became insidious markers of class difference between Afro-Puerto Ricans. In an ironic, perhaps cathartic twist of fate, Wolf reports on having interviewed the grandchildren of elites who once scorned Puerto Rico’s famous bomba music, which is infused with rhythms of African heritage—grandchildren who are now sponsoring bomba music festivals.

"El Cuarteto de Bomba" from Mayagüez, Mexico, performs at the Northwest Percussion Festival at the University of Oregon in 2023. The band plays three subgenres of bomba (title/genre): Golpe Calindá (calindá), Sube mi condesa (holandés mayagüezano), and Nos vamos pa' Mayagüez (sicá-holandés). Video Credit: School of Music and Dance.

“Even something as unassuming as preferred musical style feeds into the structures we create to think about other people without actually having a dialogue with them,” Wolf said.

Like tiered social classes, music has often been sorted into racially and class-driven conceptual hierarchies. Ballet above Dagbamba. Opera above reggae. Traditional Big 10 marching bands with their military style performances above the dance-infused styles common at historically Black colleges and universities.

In short, valuing one style of music over another leads to exclusivity and ongoing colonial narratives.

“The Western paradigm views music as a luxury, not a commonality,” Wolf said. “Performance rather than participation, the belief that some people are talented musicians and others are not.”

Performance is a community practice

Habib Iddrisu, associate professor of ethnomusicology and dance, grew up in a Dagbamba village in northern Ghana, dancing with his friends and relatives, and learning to become an oral historian, which is the traditional duty of his lineage.

“In the village circle, you are not taught how to dance or to drum; you learn by observation and paying attention to what elders are doing. Children learn from the beginning it’s OK to try movements and if they don’t fit well, nobody blames you, it’s just part of learning,” Iddrisu said. “We use our music experience to tell our people the history of where we came from and to make our history more accessible to those who may not know our people’s tradition. Our music’s ‘written’ form is the talking drum.”

While such performance is much more community based, there are of course people who become professional dancers or musicians in Ghana. Once Iddrisu became an adult, he joined Abibigromma, the resident dance of the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana. The group was inspired by the Ghana Dance Ensemble, part of the vision of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, and its repertoire includes traditional dances from all sixteen regions of the country. Once Iddrisu relocated to Oregon, he started the Dema Dance Ensemble to bring west African dancers and musicians to the UO to perform. Iddrisu related how he has had to educate audiences on the very different expectations of them.

“Western audiences often feel like it is impolite to clap until the end or to jump in in the middle of the performance. But in Ghanaian dance traditions, the total participation of the audience is what makes the performance—when you are moved, you jump in,” he said.

Iddrisu said his vision for the ensemble, which is beginning again after a pandemic-related hiatus, is that the students join the professional dancers Iddrisu brings to the US to perform not as passive watchers, but in equal performance.

“When you have professionals and those just beginning to dance or make music, it creates another kind of performance opportunity. The students always find their voices, and it’s incredible how students and professionals work together.”

Iddrisu said this kind of performance is merely another step in music and dance’s evolution, another opportunity for styles to transform into something new. The ethnomusicologist is currently writing a book tentatively titled “The Myth of Authenticity: Global Hybridization of African Music and Dance” to fully discuss his point.

“Any culture that doesn’t adapt or adjust dies off. For some reason when it comes to Africa and its many music and dance traditions, the Western world assumes it’s always the same,” he said. “But on every stage, we adapt and adjust to suit the situation. No culture can be static.”

That includes the kinds of dance included in undergraduate dance programs.

“Whenever we provide ballet and modern dance classes, African dance should be taught as well,” he said. “Until recently, any dance styles that weren’t Western were not required as core subjects in the dance curriculum, just as electives, as that was part of the problem.”

The UO’s dance program is the first in the US that puts equal emphasis on dance forms, its curriculum revised following collaboration between dance faculty and the Division of Equity and Inclusion.

“Dance programs must give equal emphasis to both Western and other dance forms,” Iddrisu said. “By shedding false hierarchies, we change the narrative about human dance.”