Traditional drum and dance performance

Occasions on which local communities gather and dance to jembe music range from wedding celebrations and other life-cycle rituals to Islamic holidays, a successful harvest, a politician’s or NGO’s wish to demonstrate power, wealth and good will, or an ethnographer’s or tourist manager’s wish to arrange for such an interesting cultural event to be particularly accessible. In several papers (Polak 2007, Polak 2021), I studied the relation of performance and audience and between presentational and participatory aspects of performance in the historically oldest and still most socially relevant context of djembe performance: playing for dance in the framework of local communal celebration culture.

Traditional djembe dance-drumming is participatory in that, often, everybody gathered is invited to participate in dance performance. However, it is presentational at the same time, in at least two fundamental respects. First, some modes of action such as the drumming fall in the exclusive domain of specialists (compare the contrasting idea of an open-access drum-circle in the West). Second, in the participatory dance performance, dancers present their identities to the public, and the event is framed so as to guarantee that the dancers are recognized (seen and known).

Polak & Doumbia (2022) study how children and youths learn to dance and participate in vernacular music-dance performances in southern Mali. Strikingly, the development of this skill appears to take place mainly during the performance practice itself. By contrast, teaching does not play a role. This observation has implications for the transmission concept, typically understood as the handing down of specific cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Such a model of transmission may appear plausible concerning institutions of modern pedagogy such as schooling or museums. By contrast, practice-theoretical conceptualizations of situated learning emphasize the relationship between the learning process and its social environment, assuming that learners' development of cultural skills is embedded in its practical implementation. 

In sum, participatory and presentational aspects of the performance are more than entangled, they mutually constitute each other in jembe drum-dance performance. Moreover, it is exactly this integration of participatory and presentational aspects that allows for the observation and imitation-based learning of dancing and participatiory skills to be fully embedded in the performance practice itself.   

Click on images to enlarge. All photographs: Polak