Saakumu fuses Ghana’s polyrhythms with dance

Unlike most music in the United States, African music is dominated by rhythm rather than melody or harmony – the instruments play layers upon layers of complex polyrhythms. On Sunday, the Saakumu Dance Troupe brought polyrhythmic music and vibrant dances to Chapin Hall from the members’ native Ghana. Sponsored by the music department, the performance, Traditions, included a repertoire of both traditional and contemporary music, and the troupe’s goal to expand the audiences by introducing them to the relationship between dance and world music was certainly achieved.

A solo dancer opened the performance with loud bangs on an animal-skin drum. He seemed confrontational yet inviting as he made eye contact with unsuspecting audience members. A few moments later, a procession of four men and four women filed out from backstage. The men – three on drums, one on a xylophone – stood at the rear of the stage, playing background music for the women. The four women wore neon yellow head wraps, green dresses with leaf-like prints and white cowry shell necklaces, each carrying a wooden bowl as they performed at the front of the stage. The bowls became drums with a flip upside-down onto small floor buffers. The women used their palms and fists to create different sounds as they happily beat the drums.

African music is generally rooted in its cultural context: the music is representative of the society that surrounds it. Therefore, listeners have to know that traditional African music cannot be fully understood when performed on a stage. Luckily, the master musician, Bernard Woma, introduced himself after the first piece to explain that the previous dance had been performed to wedding music, and that the audience should pay particular attention to the dancers’ footwork in the upcoming piece. Woma, then, became the mediator between the dance troupe and the audience, giving viewers clarity on how to consider each dance, both technically and emotionally.

The footwork in the following piece was, in fact, intricate. Two men played one xylophone each, and another sat in the middle, banging on a drum with his hands. They created a very fast beat that did not falter in rhythm or intensity. Five dancers mirrored the rapid pounding when they stomped out in gold shorts and yellow, green and orange shirts. The belts around their waists – decorated in large turquoise pompons – responded to every shake of the hip and jump in the air. One of the dancers also wore a strap around his calf with pieces of metal that jingled each time he took a step. The dancers seemed to feed off the drums’ energy, running in a circle around the players or quickly in place and then hopping backwards on one foot. Speed varied between fast and slow, and at one point the dancers stomped so hard Chapin’s stage seemed as if it might give out. Such energy was hard to ignore.

After this piece, Woma returned to explain the significance of xylophones in Ghana with a brief lecture and solo piece. While African music has complicated rhythms, he explained, one instrument is usually designated to be the lead. In Ghana, it is the xylophone. A self-amplifying instrument that has been in use for nearly 2,000 years, it is usually played by two people simultaneously. Woma’s skill, however, made it possible for him to play the xylophone alone: his playing sticks followed each other up and down the scale, or, in other moments, one hand kept a steady and complex beat while the other embellished. In so doing, Woma taught the audience that the xylophone inspires the beat for ensembles in Ghana, but there is often polyphony in the xylophone itself. The concept is complicated; the sound is entirely awe-inspiring.

By the last piece of the show, the dancers successfully broke the boundary between the audience and the performers. The procession danced off the stage and into Chapin’s audience. In the front row, a little girl bobbed up and down with a smile as she waved a fan handed to her. As the dancers continued to pass around fans, the audience members’ hesitancy was quickly replaced with smiles, bouncing shoulders and, finally, eager hands reaching out for their turn in the spotlight. As the show ended with a brief opportunity for audience members to dance on stage, Saakumu’s music penetrated the once stoic atmosphere in Chapin, transforming it into a microcosm of the communal joy traditional African dance has created.