Introductory note: Wamunzo is a choreographic work by Zab Maboungou and Compagnie Danse Nyata Nyata, which has been touring since 2018.
Jody: I’ve been wanting to interview the two of you for Montréal Serai for some time now, because the kind of music you create and perform is so distinctive.
For one thing, you are doing contemporary music – and contemporary dance – that is rooted in traditional African music and dance, and in the entire body of thought and reflection that has gone into those centuries of music and dance.
For another, your relationship to music is so multifaceted. First of all, Zab, you’re not just a dancer-composer, you’re also the choreographer, artistic director and founder of Nyata Nyata, and also the mother of Elli.
And Elli, even before you were born, you were immersed in this music – literally bathing in this music.
Also, you are both in a very multicultural urban environment. You tap into an array of different perspectives that not everyone can call on as artists and musicians. Some Indigenous artists and other creators from deep-rooted cultures are striving to respect cultural and ancestral traditions and make them theirs, right now, like you are.
I’m interested to know what that’s like for you, because it seems to me that there are certain responsibilities involved.
As well, you’re using the most ancient instruments – our selves, our bodies, our breath, our skin – and you’re creating music on drums, which are ancient instruments that also use skin. There’s something very physical and at the same time, because it’s skin, something related to protection there… There’s a whole element of spirituality involved – very deep cultural roots – and at the same time, very contemporary urban elements.
How do you feel about all of that?
Zab: I want to thank you for that introduction, which was just beautiful. Just gorgeous! You really put your finger on how, as human beings, when we practise the kinds of art that we do – dance, music, singing – these are arts of the body, which live in and through the body. These are arts that love the body and are not afraid of it. The way you speak about it makes me think that you know there’s nothing much more than that (laughing). You know?
There’s this movement, and all we do is kindle it. We set things in motion so that our breath continues to refresh us, even when we’re at the end of our rope.
That’s why the drum is so important. And why I’ve kept my relationship with the drum in a contemporary culture that didn’t want to hear about drums. It was no coincidence (that the drum was suppressed). Don’t forget that this contemporary culture is very much a product of colonialism. I found it unbelievable, this kind of displaced perspective: the drum is universal. People who don’t play the drum are in a minority. We’re in Canada. There are many Indigenous peoples, and the drum is at the centre, the heart, of their lives. I arrived here from Africa and am treated like I’m exotic, but long before I got here, the first peoples were here with the drum, with songs and resonance, call-and-response, everywhere.
I felt connected to them and at the same time separate, because the nations that were receiving me, Québec and Canada, didn’t take Indigenous cultures into account in their cultural institutions. Indigenous cultures were excluded. And I know something about exclusion.
That exclusion and marginalization is also about western societies’ rejection of parts of themselves. It’s important to understand that. The Christian religion came on the scene and did a “clean-up,” clearing out what was spiritually “unacceptable” from what was “acceptable.”
Western art is inconceivable if that relationship to religion is not understood. It’s important to understand how that happened and how it has evolved, even now in contemporary culture, where religion is seen as a scourge to its development. There is nonetheless a link. It is a particular history that we in Africa, and Indigenous peoples, have endured. When the colonizers came, they came with priests… And then they brought TV. (Laughing)
Jody: TV, the opium of the people.
Zab: (laughing) Exactly. So the priests came first. They used more radical measures on others that they wanted to conquer. And violently, because they weren’t on their own territory. When you are on someone else’s land and you want to take it, you have to use violence.
That sense of history and historical awareness is something I acquired because I had no choice. I grew up in a revolutionary family that was politically active, in the post-independence era. This is something I received from the time I was young, and of course I have tried to impart that to my kids.
Not “congas or whatever”: respecting Congolese drums
Elli: I’m really happy to be here – it’s my first interview with my mother!
Zab: Thank you, Jody, for this family reunion between me and Aunt Jody and Elli!
Elli: Giving a little push for the younger generation to step up, eh? [. . .] It has taken me a long time to understand the complexity and richness of the drum and its rhythms, particularly rhythms from Africa – and for me, because of my family, rhythms from Congo and Central Africa. I found it very difficult because when I started to study music in Cegep at the age of 18, I was not taken very seriously as a percussionist, studying jazz.
People would say, “Oh yeah, you play the ‘tam tam’ – cool, you can do some backup with us.” In concerts or jam sessions, that was how other musicians in jazz thought about Congolese and other traditional African drums. I think that attitude was pretty widespread in jazz circles in Montréal and across Québec. I didn’t have confidence in my instrument, even though my mother always told me the drums had a richness to them. But I didn’t have confidence in myself.
It took me a while to understand. It wasn’t until 2013, when I started to put together my band Jazzamboka, which means “jazz from the country or village” in Lingala. I began to do more research on rhythms from Congo and to see how I could really combine them with jazz. That’s when I started to get it. I thought, “Ah, there’s something there that’s starting to come out in my drumming that I couldn’t grasp before,” and people around me started to see it, too, and respect it.
I began working more on my playing, and listening to musicians in Congo, Ivory Coast, Guinée, etc. I realized that this music had everything it needed and was incredibly rich and complex. But here, people denigrated it somewhat. They had the idea that people are born with the ability to play drums, that it’s easy. It’s not true. Even musicians in pop or jazz bands in Africa all too often disregard traditional local percussion.
I started to push it harder. I felt it was my duty to try to demonstrate the richness of that culture. That’s still what I’m trying to do.
Now I get asked specifically to bring my drums from Congo for a number of projects. Not “congas or whatever” but my Congolese drums. This is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do.
Jody: In the concert Wamunzo, when you open on the drum, it has an immediate effect. It goes straight to the sternum, the breastbone. It is a very powerful call, not forceful, but has a kind of gentle strength that reaches the heart. What is the relationship between the drums and the person dancing? In the creative process there is a choreography, but there is something creative that happens in the moment too, isn’t there?
Elli talking about the role of the drummer
Elli: Yes, for sure. And that’s where another aspect enters into it that is a little more mystical, you could say – more about energy.
I think the role of the drummer with the dancer is to guide one another. The drum guides the dance and the dance guides the drum. It’s difficult to have this kind of connection, and that’s what we work on a lot with my mother. It’s the connection between the dancer and the drum, and between the musicians themselves. You can’t go to school and acquire a kind of energy like that. It takes constant effort, and it’s about working in co-relation with people … in an exchange. It’s a relationship.
Jody: There is a spiritual side to your shows, too – “shows” is not quite the right word…
Jody: Yes, because it’s more about sharing, I think. The people in the audience are part of it too, and their energy has an impact… And there are those who aren’t physically there but who seem to be there…
Jody: Yes, and those who are with us in our hearts. Do you prepare in a certain way, Elli, before playing in public? It seems to me that you’re especially receptive when you’re on stage. It’s a special quality – it reminds me of ’Ti-Georges Rodrigues.
Elli: A certain kind of concentration, yes. And I try to be at peace with my instrument before I play on stage… to be in synergy with the instrument and make sure we’re in sync before I start to play. And it’s important to not think too much, to be calm and quiet and rested before going on stage, and really concentrate on that. One thing is certain: when I come to the drum, I don’t think about anything else. I leave my worries behind. It’s magic.
Zab speaking about the art of the drum
Zab: That’s the art of the drum: the encounter is always A LIVE encounter. Like when I read a book and there is a literary encounter with one of the characters in the book, it’s through my body. It’s a live encounter. That’s I think how poetry occurs. That’s why I call my performances “poetics” – more than choreographies. I felt it was more appropriate for me to see myself doing poetics instead of choreographies. […]
I have always known that I wasn’t just the centre of things. I am a centre within centres because I have a body. So we’re at the centre somehow. But even that centre moves. All this time, I’ve constantly been placing myself in relation… to have a sense of my place among things, and with things – including humans, animals, nature, everything around us. Humans aren’t the only thing. There is life after humans. Life before. Life above and below, in everything. […]
We have to constantly educate ourselves
Zab: You can’t educate others if you don’t educate yourself. Anything to do with education is about you, primarily. It’s less about others. For me, It’s taken a lot of years of working, questioning, reflecting, criticizing… doing… This has been very important for me, the act of doing.
When I talk to people or go to a conference, it’s something I DO. It’s not just my intellect spreading itself around. I go in my body, I assess the context, and I take responsibility for that context. I’m not just a guest. If you invite me, that’s it, I’m already with you. You know? I can’t just come as a stranger. I’m aware I come from somewhere else, but I’m already a part of you. So this is what we have to learn to assume and understand. How am I part of a person who dares to invite me to talk? Something is already going on. What can I MAKE of this?
In the case of my kids, I told them, “Whatever you make of your life, I’ll be sure to teach you what I have to teach you.” I didn’t want them to feel alien when they come to Congo where there is a huge family waiting. This is an African family, so it’s not just Mama, Papa, the dog and the cat – we’re dealing with the village… I wanted to make sure that my kids know they have a place, that this is their family, this is their genealogy… along with their father’s side of the family from the USA.
So this is reality – but beyond our family’s reality, basically, this is HUMANITY.
Geometry is at the heart of what looks like a circle
Jody: I think there’s an honesty in your art, Zab, that makes no bones about being physical, spiritual, social, political, intellectual – there’s kind of an architecture to it, there’s a structure to it, but there’s also a fluidity. And I think there’s no cover-up. Of course with all art there are things happening – some artifice – that suggest certain things…
Zab: which I bypass – I sort of deconstruct what I show…
Jody: Exactly. In a resolutely contemporary way, you deconstruct it.
I was going to say that in traditional Indigenous dances, we often see more circular patterns and formations. In your poetics, the dancers’ focus is very intensely internal. There’s a potency about their individual beingness and presence, and at the same time the movement is more angular, not as circular, not as spiralling. There is a kind of solidarity between them, but it’s not a touchy-feely kind… There’s a different quality to the intensity of the individual experience in a group, and it almost forms geometric patterns – like abstract contemporary art.
Zab: Yes, it’s abstract contemporary art, as you say. And this is a work of resistance. After a performance of Wamunzo, someone in the audience who was of African descent asked me, “How do you do it? How do you resist the circle?” That person really got it.
I totally counteract the tendency of circumvulation that people find typical of those dances, because I have another notion of what people think those dances are. If you look at those ancient, traditional dances, whether from here – Indigenous dances – or from Africa or Asia, you’ll find that geometry is at the heart of what looks like a circle. And first of all, the rhythms themselves call for geometry, lines in space, architecture, points, you know?
So the circle is what you may see visually, but you don’t have to visually see a circle. You can very well make a square and yet be in a circle. You create the vertical, but to reach that verticality and draw both the horizontal and the vertical, you need the circle. It’s the breath that is circling, and which allows you to have that.
This is why I was very secure in myself when I created the technique I call “Loketo” – rhythm, posture and alignment in time and space – and I thought, this is not just for African dance. Someone who dances ballet, classical dance in the West, can benefit from what I teach with Loketo… because these dancers go vertical, but in reality their breath is circular.
There’s also the capacity of “retaining,” which is a term I use often. What do you hold in and why? Because the body doesn’t just give itself away or flaunt itself. When I tell that to my students, they’re all surprised, especially the ones who are in theatre. They are a bit shocked when I say you have to hold something in reserve, not give it all! They think that’s in contradiction with what they’re supposed to do. I say, “You think we give, just like that?”
An offering requires a whole design
Zab: So here we may have the pseudo-Christian view of being generous. (Laughing). But I come from a culture that’s not just Christian. It involves ancestors. It deals with nature. It deals with all sorts of things. And I’m not just there, outside, giving. That is a very simplistic view of what giving is. Are you capable of receiving before you give anything?
Are you aware that you are the result of an act of receiving? You are what is received. That’s how you are. You have to be able to know or sense that in order to be able to assess that state of being – in order to offer properly, instead of giving away. It’s an offering – it’s different.
An offering requires a whole design. There’s a design inside because of a design outside, everywhere. In reality, there are trajectories that need to be illuminated, prepared, cleaned, healed and reinforced.
I don’t approach technique just as a technique. If there’s a technique, it has to heal my body. It has to make my body happy with itself while it’s working. When my body is exerting effort, it has to feel the joy of the effort, because the body is made like this. I didn’t choose that – my body is made for that. I have to be able to answer to what the body is made for.
So this idea of circle, of geometry, is really a way of retaining the circularity that is often seen superficially and misunderstood – a bunch of people in a circle doing their exotic dance, and we know that these are traditional people, which is why they’re in a circle… This is ignoring the power of what circularity is. This is not really understanding what is non-linearity. This is not understanding that we are not symmetrical people.
I go against all of that. Everything I do, whether it’s with space, rhythm, or my body, as soon as I perceive the easy way, I counteract it with a line – not just a rhythmical line, but a line of the body, too, which looks like it is breaking the circle when in fact it is promoting that circle in another dimension. Dimensions are very important to me. On stage, it’s about building dimensions. Being able to make dimensions appear.
Rhythm is infinitely creative
Jody: It’s almost like overtones in music. All of a sudden there’s something else happening that wasn’t planned…
Zab: Yes, exactly. But in the meantime, you have to build the paliers – the levels. And since the rhythms are very organized and codified, they’re complex. That’s why I tell people we’ve had algorithms for a long time – they are there in the drums…
But what’s amazing is that rhythm is infinitely creative. You can’t just hold it in a box – that’s not what rhythm is about.
Rhythm is about time. That’s the circularity, the infinite, you know? My challenge here is looking like I have completed something, and showing that it’s not complete. That’s the main challenge. This incompleteness is very essential for me.
Jody: That’s also part of the honesty of what you’re sharing here.
Zab: It’s what I call “opening the space.” When people ask me, “Zab, what do you hope for?” I say, “Opening space. I hope that when people come to see us, they feel that there’s a space for them that’s been opened.” That’s all I strive for, basically.
Check back soon to see a video of the full unedited conversation.
Nyata Nyata received the inaugural Envol Award for cultural diversity and inclusive practices in dance (Conseil des arts de Montréal – CAM). The company was shortlisted for the CAM’s 30th Grand Prix in 2015 and was named Dance Laureate 2015 for its powerful piece, Mozongi.
Zab Maboungou is the recipient of the Charles Biddle Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award from Montréal’s Black Theatre Workshop, and the 2020 Dancer/Company of the Year award at the Dynasty Gala, which celebrates excellence in Québec’s Black community. She was also celebrated under the UN’s “International Decade for People of African Descent” for her exceptional contribution in North America.
Elli Miller Maboungou’s jazz band, Jazzamboka, won the Stingray Award for Best Music Composition at the Montréal International Jazz Festival in 2017.
 Cegeps are Québec’s community colleges.