Dance in Ghana and Mali

Posted July 9th, 2012 at 5:57 pm (UTC-4)

My mind has been on dance lately. The late A.M. Ipoku, Director of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, once said that dance and music should be so closely connected that one “can see the music and hear the dance” (Barbara Hampton, 1984, “Music and Ritual Symbolism in the Ga Funeral.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 14:75-105). I learned this concept in very real terms when I studied dance with the Ghana Dance Ensemble in 2008. Mr. Ipoku wasn’t there, but regardless, when I first started to dance with them, my instructor, Nii Yartey, gave me about 5 minutes to work out some of the moves, then ordered me to go sit with the drummers, and play their part. “But I’m a dancer” I said. They all laughed. I sat at the end of the row of drummers, found my part, and watched as new dancers popped up on the dance floor from amongst the drummers. After a moment, I was instructed to move to another drum section of the percussion ensemble and learn THAT part. I watched in amazement as another crop of drummers turned into dancers and vice versa. When my turn came around to the dance floor again, I understood. I understood the dance better, the rhythms better, and that quote came back to me.

When I was a student of dance on the Legon Campus, we danced outside under the trees. But I did not have a video camera back then.  However, you can “see and hear the dance” on this informative and lovely video of the GDN in Texas in 1993, thanks to Daryl Dalton, co-producer, director of photography, and editor of the documentary.

I made several research trips while still studying at Legon to the Volta region which is the land of the Ewe people.  I marveled at how dynamic and prevalent dance and music was during a funeral of a paramount chief. One particular recreational dance was especially entertaining and fun: Borborbor. The photo was taken during one of these trips on the Volta River with my fellow University of Ghana students.  Listen to one recording I made of borborbor live in the Ve-Deme area! I used a portable cassette recorder and the event was live in the outdoors at night.  From what I remember, the  dance centers around the women shaking their posteriors as fast and robustly as possible while walking forward in a line in a two-step. We carry white handkerchiefs and twirl them in the air in between drumming sections. The tempo is medium to fast, and the dance is overtly suggestive. They say that many boy-girl liasons develop during borborbo dance events.

  • [audio:] Boboobo2

In the Leo Sarkisian archive, I also found a wonderful vinyl album featuring dance music from Ivory Coast recorded in 1981. Boloron is a Senufo recreational dance for the youth. The band is composed of two 13-keyed xylophones called jegbaa, two 2-stringed harp lutes called boloro-gboo, and a metal scraper called boloro-kanga. The album describes the dance: 12 girls in a row dance while facing 3 young men who take turns showing off acrobatic moves. The band sings the following phrases in turn; “Mariam is the prettiest of the girls”, “Jenneba is marvelous when she dances”, “Keke Ngolo saw the girls at the river.”

  • [audio:] boloron

On October 29th, 2011 in Bamako, right before having to leave Mali because of the March 22nd coup d’etat, I attended a modern koteba, also referred to as “African ballet” at the French Institute, formerly known as the French Cultural Center. Koteba is a traditional form of Bambara artistic expression that marries music, dance, and storytelling in three sequences: an opening ballet, a prologue, and a succession of short plays.  Some scholars describe koteba as conservative and short-sighted in vision.  Kamal Salhi, for example, finds that “although usually offering commentary that is socially critical, it [koteba] also reveres traditional, patriarchal themes which tend to offer little outlet for modernizing the role of women.” (African Theater for Development. 1998: 159). Others find it quite the opposite.  Don Rubin, for example, describes koteba as popular and participatory because it focuses with a sense of humor on everyday, current problems, especially marital relations, and usually featuring “sketches involving a range of traditional characters from everyday life and defined by established physical and psychological traits. These include the unfaithful wife, the victim of elephantiasis who limps along with enlarged testicles, the leper with twisted hands, the blind man, the boastful hunter, the smooth talker, etc. During colonial times, other characters were added – the white commander, the interpreter, the native policeman and so forth.” (World Encyclopedia of  Contemporary Theater: Africa. Routledge. 1997: 103).

This koteba that I saw was named Yélé (Light) and was created and choreographed by one my my African dance instructors in Bamako, Dieli Makan Sacko, and his dance troup Benkadi, which means “collaboration is sweet”. As you now know, I am no stranger to sub-Saharan traditional dance and its core principles and practices:  parallel feet,  articulating polyrhythms with body isolations, flat back, loose hips but tight abs, and smiles – always smiles – and, in my case, no one ever had to tell me to smile because that came naturally. Dancing with a powerful battery of traditional, live percussionists still feels every time like one big, extended tickle that only ends when the music does.  Needless to say, I frequented the dance center, La Maison des Arts de Bamako, for traditional dance sessions and even an occasional salsa class. However, I am a novice to koteba. I have seen a few community productions that were commissioned by national health campaigns on HIV/AIDS awareness, but full-blown, modern productions are rare, and I was thrilled to learn that Makan, the elder dance instructor and co-owner of La Maison, was creating a new koteba soon to be debuted.

The French Institute auditorium was packed. I sat in the second row to the front with my camera alongside other dance students and family members of the cast. The audience was predominantly white, which was not surprising, since local audiences rarely pay top dollar to see interpretations of their own musical theater. Most neighborhoods in Bamako have their own community dance centers and troups that offer free participation by way of dance, music, or just hanging out.

You can see the publicity for the performance here:  Yele.  I had to re-read the plot summary as presented on the webpage because, unfortunately, I never was able to understand it during the concert, and I don’t think the entire problem was due to the language barrier. Loosely translated, the summary reads “Inspired by secular tales and founding myths, he [Sacko] invents his own story, in our modern times of a Mali in full transformation of epic proportions, in which youths attempt to respect tradition yet seek liberation at the same time.  It is in this context that the young heroine struggles for her life, struggles for her rights, struggles for her choices. It is the Malian woman’s destiny to be caught in the tug of war between the demands of family heritage and individual emancipation.”

The show itself was what I would call a work in progress, because the message so clearly articulated did not transmit in the performance, though it began with a big bang.  The opening scene depicted a community of hopeless youth, singing and throwing trash all over the ground, drinking, and couples sneaking off, in stylistic modern-dance movements, to dark corners . A row of musicians with three jembes, balafons, flutes, dunu drums, and iron scrapers line the back of the stage in stunning traditional attire and play a gentle Malinke accompaniment. The actors sing in Bambara. Suddenly, a loud booming voice from the heavens berates them for their slovenly ways and commands them to clean up their lives. They scramble to clean up and as the dust clears (because there really was a lot of dust that got stirred into the air and onto us sitting in the front row from their sweeping the “ground” with traditional brooms), and the story begins to unfold.  Next, three (or was it four?) acts were gorgeous to see and hear. The acting was typical koteba — caricatures of the patriarchal father, the stoic mother, a young woman in love with a charming and exuberant young man, but torn because her lover is not her father’s choice, and plenty of others (though no lepers, blind men, or enlarged-testicle limpers). The theme was true to form because it centered on the current preoccupation among young Malians struggling with balancing modernity and tradition in family and other social areas, but it offered little by way of solutions–at least, not as far as I could tell. The end was a big downer, sadly, leaving all of the characters on stage crying. What I liked about Yélé, though, is that it existed at all. Traditional theater is alive and well in Mali and the genre continues to evolve. Parenthetically, Mali celebrates Women’s Day on March 8th.

Here is a clip of Yélé that I took from my second row seat. The man in the center with the horsetail fly is Makan Sacko.

Stay tuned for more posts about African dance. Though I have yet to discover other dances and African ballet companies on the continent, if you pressed me to choose between enjoying traditional dance or koteba, I’d stick with the  former. That puts a smile on my face every time.

Check this ensemble out. I recorded it right outside of my home in Bamako in 2012.

And a special thank you to Dr. Ruth Stone from Indiana University.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

4 responses to “Dance in Ghana and Mali”

  1. Allan says:

    I really enjoyed reading this, and especially enjoyed the dance troupe in your neighborhood. Thanks for bringing your knowledge and experience to us all.

  2. Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

    Allan, you are most welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Dan Dennis says:

    African dancing is so fascinating to me. There are so many parallels between how we dance here in America and at the same time is sooooooo different. The tradition of dancing has been around since the beginning of time… Wish I was there 🙂

    • Heather Maxwell Heather Maxwell says:

      It is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to the continent. I always dance regularly with some troup or another when I’m there. There are so many opportunities for dance study there from highly structured programs to totally impromptu individualized study. You should plan a trip!



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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