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Moving Song and Singing Moves

14 December 2011


Dr Amanda Villepastour recently visited Philadelphia to present some of her world-leading research to the Society of Ethnomusicology (SEM) conference, held jointly with the Congress on Research into Dance (CORD).

Amanda drew on a decade of musical research in Nigerian and Cuban sites along with fresh fieldwork in Nigeria in 2011 for her presentation on the role of movement in transatlantic Yorùbá music.

Music among the Yorùbá in Nigeria and their descendants in Cuba has received considerable scholarly focus, yet – with some notable exceptions – relatively little attention has been paid to dance, movement and gesture within these related traditions.

Amanda said: “Movement is firmly embedded in both transatlantic musical and religious traditions. Among the Yorùbá people, music intermeshes heightened speech, song, instrumental music, gesture and dance.

“While some Nigerian Yorùbá songs and recitations are accompanied by hand and arm gestures in a performance style not apparent in Cuba, other movements are routinely performed in both countries as part of orisha devotion and have retained parallel symbolic meanings. Other gestures now have different interpretations across the Atlantic, though the movement and its outcome, sometimes spirit possession, can be the same.”

“Although separated by at least a century and vast physical distance, contemporary Nigerian Yorùbá artists and descendants of Yorùbá slaves in Cuba embody, remember, learn and innovate their music and movement."Bata drums

Amanda put together a panel of leading researchers in the field, Katherine Hagedorn (Pomona College) renowned for her research on the music of Santería in Cuba, Debbie Klein (Gavilan College), who has done significant research on the batá in Nigeria, and Elizabeth Sayre, who has published on the Cuban batá and is perhaps the most advanced female performer in this tradition in the world. The panel, called Moving Heaven and Earth: Yorùbá Movement Systems within Transatlantic Music Traditions examined Yorùbá aesthetics on both sides of the Atlantic within movement systems designed to bring the physical and metaphysical worlds into balance.

Amanda said: "Although there were eleven panels happening simultaneously, the room remained full during the Moving Heaven and Earth panel. Aside from the quality of the papers, the audience were particularly enticed by the dynamic live performers, who brought the examples to life.

"Philadelphia-based discussant on the panel, Elizabeth Sayre, organized an ensemble of three batá drummers. Sayre led Carolyn Brandy, Adwoa Tacheampong and mesmerizing Cuban dancer Yesenia Fernandez-Selier. The fact that batá drumming is traditionally all-male added interest to the panel, as Brandy and Sayre have led female batá drumming in the United States."

The panel session was streamed live and an archive version can still be viewed online.