This text is an illustrated version of the essay featured in All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm exhibition brochure, adapted for the MHV Lecture given on Wed. 17 Feb. 2016 at the University of Central Lancashire.
One day, some time around 1982/83, Lorna – a friend of my elder sister’s, a South African teacher, journalist and anti-apartheid activist exiled in London – took us to visit an old man. It was somewhere near Saint-Michel, Saint-Germain, in Paris. His flat looked like an abandoned place, with cardboard covering broken windows and pieces of paper scattered a bit everywhere. We were told he was a painter.
At the time, I did not understand why Lorna took us to that place and I was quick to forget about the old man until he reappeared in our lives some time later. By then he had become Oncle Gerard, as a mark of respect shown our elders in the Cameroonian and, generally speaking, African community. We would visit him to his retirement home in Nogent-sur-Marne; other times, my sister would bring him home for friends and family gatherings.
Although I cannot recall any meaningful conversation with him, I clearly remember him enjoying the spectacle of our dances. All sorts of dances, on a variety of black musics, the most spectacular of which was the dance we performed to a music called Bikutsi.
Bikutsi, means “beat the earth” or “smash the ground” in Ewondo, our Cameroonian language. It is a fast pace, 6/8 or 9/8 rhythm, traditionally played with balafons (African xylophones/marimbas). (See an example here).
Bikutsi music is said to have appeared in the 1940s and was mainly the preserve of women who used it as a medium to express themselves from a female perspective. It gained a new lease of life in the early 1980s with the electric keyboard and guitar adding to, or replacing, the balafons. The dance involves keeping up rhythm in an energetic back and forth movement of chest and hips – a movement popularized in urban dance. We might not have had a good command of Ewondo, but as children from the Cameroonian community, within the African diaspora, knowing how to dance Bikutsi was a way to claim our cultural identity. It was almost like a rite of passage that legitimized a cultural belonging validated by the elders.
Growing up with one of the singers who contributed to the revival of this musical genre, our encounter with Oncle Gerard happened in the same decade that we were intensely exposed to this music. I don’t think I ever saw Oncle Gerard dance. He had been knocked over by a car some time earlier. So he usually sat down and looked with fascinated eyes. He said things in English that I did not always understand. I remember once asking my sister for a translation. She told me he said that, looking at us dance reminded him of home…
Later came some women […] all dancing to the rhythm of drummer
Gerard Sekoto (1913-1993) had left his native South Africa in 1947, a year before the implementation of what Jacques Derrida called ‘racism’s last word’. Although he had enjoyed some form of acknowledgement in a racially divided society, it is only toward the end of the apartheid regime, and the end of his life, that his art gained national and international recognition. He is now regarded as a one of the pioneers of African modern painting. In the context of the Paris-based black diaspora in the late 1940s, it comes as no surprise to find out that Sekoto – who also played the piano in Saint-Germain jazz clubs – interacted with Négritude and Présence Africaine.
Négritude was a literary and ideological movement developed in the 1930s by poets and political figures Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), Léon Damas (1912-1978) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001). One of its disseminating outlets was Présence Africaine, a journal and publishing house founded by Alioune Diop (1910-1980) respectively in 1947 and 1949. The movement and associated publications were both important for the propagation of an anti-colonial discourse and instrumental in the 1950s-60s decolonization process.
Sekoto never explicitly positioned himself as an advocate of Négritude, however he was certainly responsive to its philosophy. He contributed written pieces to the journal and took part in to the Society of African Culture’s First and Second Conference of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris (1956) and Rome (1959), for which he designed the poster. He also took part in the First International Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar (1966). This trip to Senegal was the only time he ever returned to Africa. He stayed there for a year and upon his return to Paris, his painting had noticeably changed. He had developed a style of “facet-like” planes, to quote South African curator Lesley Spiro; rhythmic strokes of paint conveying the impression of colourful rays, or light beams, cutting through the picture.
Sekoto’s extended stay in the West African country responded to his own recommendation for Africans and members of the diaspora to return “now and then to Africa to draw their inspiration from spiritual sources which have not been influenced by western culture”. In aesthetic terms, Sekoto’s post-Senegal compositions resonated with Senghor’s idea of rhythm as being at the centre of Africa’s system of thought and experience. Rhythm influencing the continent’s and diasporas cultural productions.
Rhythmic attitude: may we remember the word
In the year he published his seminal essay “Ce que l’homme noir apporte” (What the black man brings), the Western world had embarked on the dark chapter of the Second World War. For Senghor, Africa’s contribution to the making of this new world was not to be valued by the number of African troops joining the ranks of Europe’s, but rather through singular works by black writers and artists. However his essay was not so much about that. It was about “all the virtual presences that the study of the Negro allow[ed] one to foresee.”
Senghor focused on African culture, the fertile elements of the “negro style” and, more precisely, in the visual arts, sculpture that he considered as Africa’s most typical art form. He also highlighted the importance of the human figure in African sculpture and noted that, within anthropomorphic statues, the masks were predominant. On classical African aesthetics, he wrote:
This ordinating force that makes the Negro style is the rhythm. It is the most sensitive thing and the least material. It is the vital element par excellence. It is the primary condition and the sign of art, like breathing in life […]. Such is the rhythm primitively, in its pureness, as it stands in the masterpieces of Negro art, particularly sculpture. […]
It is not a symmetry that engenders monotony; the rhythm is alive, it is free. For retake is not repeating, nor repetition. The theme is taken again at another place, another plane, in another combination, in a variation; and it gives another intonation, another timbre, another accent. And the overall effect is intensified, not without nuances. So does rhythm act, on what is least intellectual in us, despotically, to make us penetrate into the spirituality of the object; and this manner of abandonment that is ours, is itself rhythmic. 
Senghor’s rhetorical approach to rhythm in sculpture is not far from describing the forms and effects of rhythmic occurrences found in African music and dance. He goes on to write that like sculpture, music cannot be separated from other African cultural aspects, such as dance and ritual songs.
Although this relationship might be acknowledged across disciplines ranging from ethnography and anthropology to history of art and performing arts, in the West the presentation and experience of African sculpture or masks remains fraught with issues raised by museum-type displays that disconnect the objects from their intended rhythmic impulse.
The fact that elders in Burkina Faso’s Yatenga region appraise the aesthetic quality (or beauty) of Mossi masks using terms referring to how well they dance is quite telling. 
Likewise in 2000 Paris-based Ivorian dancer and researcher Alphonse Thiérou introduced a new discourse on African sculpture when he notably focused on the bent legs or diagonal bases of sculptures – such as the lozenge characterizing Kota reliquaries (Gabon) – which he associated to the position of the legs in primary African dance movements that he theorized under the appellation dooplé. This angle of reading had hardly, if ever, been considered by Western specialists before.
British-Nigerian artist Sokari Douglas Camp’s kinetic sculptures of Calabash Masquerades (British Museum) exemplify some of the attempts to create forms of displays that reconcile African masks, movement or dance, and sound.
Black body in movement and accompanying sound
Africa’s virtual presence and the fertile elements that compose it transpire well beyond the continent’s own cultural field, early on in the modernist period. One might not be so prompt as to agree with Senghor when he writes of black people that, “instinctively, they dance their music, they dance their life” – an assertion perpetuating a well-known stereotype. However one would not disagree with the fact that the legacy of African music has lived on in “westernized” and “americanized” black cultures.
Senghor pursues his argument in his 1939 essay by addressing Africa’s contribution to music in “modal” terms, in other words, in terms of form and structure. He cites Sierra Leonean composer and music scholar Nicholas G. J. Ballanta (1993-1962), himself quoted by Alain Locke (1885-1954).
Locke, also known as the Dean of the Harlem Renaissance, is important to signal in relation to Négritude. The Harlem Renaissance was a black cultural, literary and intellectual movement that originated in New York in the 1920s. In a discourse pronounced in Miami in 1987, Aimé Césaire acknowledged Négritude’s debt to this movement. “It is here, he declared, in the United States, among you, that Négritude was born. The first Négritude was the American Négritude”.
Back in the 1930s, Senghor mentioned how Afro-Americans had remained close to African sources in musical interpretation. The same could be suggested about dance. Professor Tamara Levitz, musicologist at UCLA, observed that:
In the decades following the Harlem Renaissance, pioneers of “black dance” – including Hemsley Winfrey, Edna Guy, Kathrine Dunham, and Asadata Dafora – had fought to combat racial prejudice and find a space for African-American and African dancers beyond the traditions vaudeville and musical theatre, and within the Eurocentric tradition of modern dance. Inspired by Alain Locke’s proclamation of the “New Negro”, and by Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s sociological positivism, which suggested that African Americans could gain equality in the United States by “developing their artistic abilities”, these pioneers had established a “black form of modern dance based on “folk cultures of the rural South, the vernacular dance and music that thrived in black urban communities, and the rich African and Caribbean traditions of ritual drama and dance.”
African-American dancers drew from black traditions both creatively and to articulate sociopolitical positions. It is against this background that Cornish School dance student Syvilla Fort began exploring her African heritage. Fort, who later joined Dunham’s company was a student of Bonnie Bird (herself a student of Martha Graham), who had hired the young John Cage as musical accompanist.
In his formative years, Cage was inspired by musicians such as Henry Cowell, a leading figure in American modern music. We learn from Professor Levitz that, in spring 1933, Cowell gave lectures at the Denny Watrous Gallery in Carmel, California, where he played rare recordings of “African pygmies, the Maori of New Zealand, Greek Shepherds, as well as music from the Caribbean” then unknown to most Westerners.
Cowell, Levitz adds, admired the dance music of non-western peoples, which he understood as “the first step toward inducing the proper rhythmical urge which finally bursts into bodily expression”. A composer for the famous “Big Four” of modern dance (Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Wiedman and Hanya Holm), he theorized on music’s relationship to dance at a stage where modern dance was still in its infancy in the United States. “Inspired by his study of the music of the world’s peoples, Cowell (in line with dancer Mary Wigman before him) concluded that dance should be accompanied by percussion instruments”.
In Bird’s studio, Cage accompanied Dorothy Hermann, Syvilla Fort and Merce Cunningham (who was to become his long-term collaborator and partner). Fort invited Cage to accompany Bacchanale as part of her graduate recital in Spring 1940.
Professor Levitz, who has conducted extensive research on the making of Bacchanale explains that in composing the music piece:
Cage responded not only to the Africanist gestures that led him to believe Fort’s dance was about Africa, but also to her modernist bodily stance and classical expressive attitude. The sounds had to be simultaneaously “African” yet modern, culturally situated yet formalized”.
“Cage found a sonic match for Fort’s objective, modernist Africanisms by modifying a European piano so that its timbres resembled those of an instrument (African in origin) discovered in Cowell’s classes: the marimbula, or Cuban thumb piano. Ten of the twelve octave-specific pitches used in Bacchanale were prepared by placing wheatherstripping behind the strings. The last two pitches – F above and B-flat below middle C – received special preparation, with a small bolt for the former and a screw with nuts and wheatherstripping for the latter.
So was born the prepared piano…
Revisiting the story behind Bacchanale not only allows us to question a dominant narrative that has disconnected the piece’s sonic, rhythmic and percussive structure from the movements that have informed its making. It also emphasizes the socio-cultural and, most importantly, the racial context that shaped the black body’s choreographed movements, a black body that has contributed to the history of both American modern dance and minimal music experiments. This is also pregnant when considering other early prepared piano pieces Cage composed during his collaboration with another two African American dancers: Primitive (1942) created for young prodigy Wilson Williams, and Our Spring Will Come (1943) for Trinidad-born dancer Pearl Primus.
Primus’ choreography was based on Our Spring, a poem by Langston Hughes, a leading author of the Harlem Renaissance. Published in the International Literature in 1933 Our Spring was never reproduced in any of Hughes’ subsequent publications. This makes it a rare poem.
Hughes’ poem retained its currency in the 1940s and was rather topical in the context a segregated America. So much so that an article in the Afro-American newspaper, featured months after Primus first performed the piece, was titled: “Dancer Bases New Compositions on Langston Hughes’s Poem”.
Here, neither Primus nor Cage make the headline but Hughes. Fast forward and today, in the popular knowledge and public sphere, most searches and discussions around Our Spring Will Come directly lead to Cage’s music, hardly ever referencing the dancer, the poet, and the black experiences it encapsulates.
Beyond rhythmic heritage, an outlook on contemporary practice
Somewhere along the line, as I developed my research for this exhibition, resurfaced the anecdote of how Langston Hughes became a school poet as a child – a discipline that, as his English teacher stressed out, required a sense of rhythm. One of only two black children in his class, Hughes explained he was unanimously designated by the other pupils who assumed all black people had a sense of rhythm.
All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm proposed to take on this stereotypical assumption, unpack it, and complexify it by examining rhythmic sources found in material, immaterial, and performative productions within African cultures and beyond. It also sought to extend this reflection to contemporary art practice.
Opening with new sound pieces by Em’Kal Eyongakpa, the exhibition introduced a sonic environment that translated some of the artists concern to reclaim and reflect on their own cultural heritage: from Ayoka Chenzira’s film Syvilla: They Dance to Her Drum (1979) and Zak Ové’s totemic sculptures blending vintage hi-fi equipment and the aesthetics of DRC’s Luba masks; to a younger generation of artists, with a selection from Larry Achiampong’s collection of Ghanaian Highlife vinyl records, a musical legacy sampled and reworked in his Meh Mogya (2011) and More Mogya (2012-13) projects, and Evan Ifekoya’s performative video Nature/Nurture Sketch (2013) a split-screen, cross-cultural, body response to a Drum and Bass track by Venus X. While William Titley proposed a new sonic take on reappropriated black Soul music, also known as Northern Soul.
Sequences and repetitions were explored through visual and non-musical sound pieces (Younes Baba-Ali, Anna Raimondo, Julian Bayle). David Shrigley’s tragicomic Headless Drummer (2012) punctuated the exhibition with his lively beat, prompting to wonder whether rhythm is a cerebral or a compulsive act. Finally Vessel, Jon Hopkins’s track remixed by Four Tet with a video directed by Bison, combined glitchy syncopated sounds with a rhythmic editing using fractal anaglyphic images of dancer Claire Meehan’s movements.
All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm sought to question dominant discourses through revisiting documented history, excavating buried narratives, and reframing some of the trajectories that have informed our contemporary experience of rhythm.
That beat, that’s haunted us ever since…
1. Gerard Sekoto’s account of his time in Senegal in Barbara Lindop, Gerard Sekoto. Randburg: Dictum, 1988, p. 39. back
2. Jacques Derrida, “Racism’s Last Word”, in Artists of the World Against Apartheid, “Art Against Apartheid”, 1983, pp. 11-35. back
3. Lesley Spiro, “Gerard Sekoto: Unsevered Ties”. Johannesburg: Johannesburg Art Gallery, 1989, p. 58. back
4. Gerard Sekoto, “Responsibility and Solidarity in African Culture” in Chabani Manganyi, Gerard Sekoto. ‘I am an African’. Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2004, p. 223. back
5. Léopold Sédar Senghor, “Ce que l’homme noir apporte” in Liberté 1: Négritude et humanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1964, p. 24. back
6. Ibid., p. 22. back
7. Ibid., p. 35. back
8. This element was pointed out by François Larini in his unpublished dissertation Masques, institutions et identités au Yatenga (Burkina Faso). Aix-en-Provence: Université de Provence – Centre d’Aix, 1999-2000. back
9. Alphonse Thiérou, De la danse à la sculpture: un autre regard sur l’esthétique africaine. Paris: Musée de l’Homme, 2000. back
10. Léopold Sédar Senghor, “Ce que l’homme noir apporte”, op. cit., p. 36. back
11. Aimé Césaire, Discours sur le colonialisme suivi de Discours sur la Négritude. Paris: Editions Présence Africaine, 1955 and 2004, p. 88. back
12. Léopold Sédar Senghor, “Ce que l’homme noir apporte”, op. cit., p. 37. back
13. Tamara Levitz, “Syvilla Fort’s Africanist Modernism and John Cage’s Gestic Music: The Story of Bacchanale”. South Atlantic Quarterly 104, no. 1, 2005, p. 127. back
14. Ibid. back
15. Ibid., p. 126. back
16. Ibid. back
17. Ibid., pp. 134-135. back
Download All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm exhibition booklet here.
Visit All Of Us Have A Sense Of Rhythm page with information and photo gallery.
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