The Rise of the Queens is a fusion of traditional East-African dancing, Afro-Brazilian fight-dances and Menard Mponda’s own music and choreographies inspired by stories about three African Queens of water. They are said to be present in the everyday life of all women. In the same way as water can be the symbol of life and death, the mythical queens are not only characters, but symbols of the various dimensions of life.
My work as a dance and music teacher in Finland as well as in other countries has opened me a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the world of women, often perceived mystical by us men. The way of my Finnish students to devote their time to their hobby for long periods of time has enabled me to follow many of them as they have grown to take different roles in their lives, even as mothers of large multicultural families.
It combines my own choreographies with elements from African and Afro-Brazilian dance, music and mythology. It explores how these elements endure, change and mix with one another in the never-ending global migration of people and ideas. On a more emotional level the production also celebrates the joy and beauty of life as well as the power of togetherness and collaboration in times of both hardship and happiness.
My focus is based on the movement of people as well as the common history they share. Stories, melodies, instrumentation and dance movements change when travelling from one place to another and the concept and function of music and dance may also change within the new society. As a Global music master I am looking at how people, music and movement have travelled globally as a triangle picture, particularly the movement of people from Africa to Brazil and then to Europe…and back to Africa. This is my fascination and I hope to elicit interest for the global triangle where we are living.
Some of the dances and music come from Tanzania and Gambia, where they are a part of everyday life. Other parts come from Brazil, where millions of Africans were sold as slaves in colonial times. Their arts and mythology lived and developed into new forms, such as capoeira, a martial art and dance and the candomblé religion.
The Queen of the Ocean who represents love and motherhood; she is seen as the mother of all creation that protects us all.
Yemanjá is an African goddess of the ocean, whose name comes from the Yoruba expression Yéyé omo ejá, meaning “Mother whose children are like fish” who is considered the mother of all. She is the source of all the waters, including the rivers. As all life is thought to have begun in the sea, all life is held to have begun with Yemanjá. She is motherly and strongly protective, and cares deeply for all her children, comforting them and cleansing them of sorrow. She is said to be able to cure infertility in women, and sea shells represent her wealth. She does not easily lose her temper, but when angered she can be quite destructive and violent, as the sea in a storm.
In Afro-descendent religions Yemanjá is worshipped as one of the seven Orixás in the temple of all gods. She is the Queen of the Ocean, and was brought to the New World with the African diaspora and She is now worshipped in many cultures besides her original Africa. In Brazilian candomblé and umbanda religions she is known as Yemanjá. She is the Sea Mother who brings fish to the fishermen, protects boats travelling on the sea and grants safe passage through her realm.
The Queen of the freshwater, beaty, joy love and prosperity. Oxum is a goddess who can assist with problems in human relations. She can also be called a “golden goddess”, because she has the power to turn bad luck into much fortune, and she is often portrayed in golden colors.
The Queen of Rain and Thunder is typically portrayed as a warrior and people associate her with the power of nature over people, even death. She is described as a goddess with a sword of fire and “The lady of the passions”. Iansã is the queen of storm and rain.
African music and dance
In traditional African societies, music making is generally organized as a social event, Public performances, therefore, take place on social occasions-that is, occasions when members of a group or a community come together for the enjoyment of leisure, for recreational activities, or for the performance of a rite, ceremony, festival, or any kind of collective activity. For many East Africans, the concepts of “music” does not exist, there is a very thin line between music and dance, actually in Swahili, word music it does refer to dance, same way, word dance refers to music, in Swahili both music and dance are in same vocabulary word “Ngoma”. Music and dance are activities that characterize an African musical expression and play an important part in the lives of the people. Many African cultures do not have a word for music and dance. For example, the Kpelle people of Liberia use a single word “sang” to describe a well danced movement, in Nyakyusa tribe where I grew up, they use the single word “Indingala” a beautiful dance and music for older people.
However historically it is widely acknowledged that African music has undergone frequent and decisive changes throughout the centuries. What is termed traditional music today is probably very different from African music in former times. Nor has African music in the past been.
Capoeira and Maculelê
Capoeira is a martial art that includes elements of dance, music and acrobatics. It is practised as an imitation of combat between two opponents, with other participants playing music and singing songs in celebration of the event. Elements of capoeira movements, music and its traditional came from Africa particularly in Angola, Because of slavery movement of people, capoeira became a new arts form, in which it was reborn in Brazil, and the reasons were to practice fight and mental skills in order to handle difficulties during slave time.
Capoeira evolved mainly among the African population in Brazil. In historical times it has been a method of resistance against authorities, and like many other African practices in Brazil, an object of persecution and dislike by the high ranks of society. Today it is celebrated in Brazil and has spread globally, practiced by people of all ages and social backgrounds.
A key characteristic of capoeira is that it comes in very many flavours. It can be a combative fight sport with physical contact, as well as a playful, theatrical and expressive ritual, and anything between these.
Capoeira in Tanzania
Even though capoeira originally came from Africa, particularly in Angola, later moved to Brazil, capoeira has been one of the declining art in Africa, today capoeira is a new art form, were by young people devoted wanting to learn how is the martial arts is practiced, most of the teacher are white people who have been practicing capoeira for ages, went to Brazil and gained the knowledge from there, now spreading in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa.
Capoeira in Brazil
Capoeira is a strong art form in Brazil which came all the way from Africa, it was recreated in Brazil during the struggle and movements of slave time, one could say it was born in Brazil because when capoeira arrived in Brazil, became a new art form, the reason for capoeira was to practice fight also a strategic way on how to control mental skills to handle difficulties situations during slave time. Today capoeira is an art form which is used for festivities, in rituals, ceremony, in uniting people and a method to keep peace in the community.
Capoeira in Europe
Because of its great art form and the idea behind, most Europeans have travelled to Brazil to learn about capoeira, became masters in an informal way, in Europe capoeira is very popular in the society, it is practiced as hobby by all age, it one of the best art forms which involve both men and women, dressed in white, it does help to calm down oneself and find peace of mind as individual, in Europe there are capoeira academies which invites yearly Masters in capoeira from Brazil to come and witness but also to give better instruction as to make sure it does continue to better and the right direction, massive camps are organized during summer season, for example in Holland and Denmark they have got most popular camps only for women. Many Europeans have dedicated themselves into researching, writing books documenting and taking the art form to another level.
Maculelê is an Afro-Brazilian folkloric dance. The dancers wield wooden sticks and dance to an energetic beat from drums and call-and-response songs. The movements are rapid and acrobatic, and expert dancers may use machetes, which spark when struck together.
It has same background as capoeira, it was born in Africa, and it was composed during the rising spirit to fight for freedom.
Instruments and their changes over time
Berimbau is a single-string percussion instrument, a musical bow from Brazil. The berimbau was eventually incorporated into the practice of the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, the berimbau (the soul of capoeira) leads the capoeiristas movement in the circle where the capoeira is played — the faster the berimbau is playing the faster the capoeirista moves in the game.
Ngoma is a Swahili word, a traditional drum most popular in the East Africa, Ngoma means an instrument, Ngoma also means a dance and music happening. Ngoma refers to a music and dance festivity, in the coast area of Tanzania and the Zaramo people have extended the word Ngoma to Ngomani (a special dance and music for initiations rites), special only for women, when girls are taken for traditional education in the transition of childhood to adulthood. This is a rite of passage marking entrance or acceptance into a group or society. It could also be a formal admission to adulthood in a community or one of its formal components. In an extended sense it can also signify a transformation in which the initiate is ‘reborn’ into a new role.
Kora is an ancient Instrument from West Africa with a characteristic and beautiful sound, The biggest part of the kora is calabash soundbox. A calabash is a fruit and can vary in size from a plum to a large watermelon. For the kora the calabash is cut in half, the insides are cut out and the shell is dried. There is a hole cut into the calabash which lets the sound out.
Mtonya is one kind of drum in Africa, mostly popular in East Africa, the shape is made similar to conga drum, in fact it is said, Conga drum have been developed from the Mtonya drum.
Bamboo flute is an end-blown flute used to produce a variety of tones and played similarly to blowing over the end of an open bottle.
Atabaque is a Brazilian popular drum, in old time in Africa in some country it was called Mtonya, in today life in Europe it is known as Conga drum. In capoeira it is used as an accompanying instrument among others, while the berimbaus lead the music. In maculelê there are traditionally three atabaques, high, medium and low. In candomblé religion the atabaque is a sacred instrument, and they also use three drums with different pitches.
Agogô is a bell, that in old time in Africa was used for an easy way of keeping cattle, when they got lost, they were found by hearing the cow bell, or if someone tried to steal the cow the cowbell ringing was heard. It is a traditional West-African bell instrument. In Brazil it is used in samba, capoeira and religious ceremonies, among others. In capoeira a two-bell agogô is used. It is made either out of metal or wood and large nutshells. Like atabaque, it is most often used as an accompanying instrument in capoeira.
Mtonya, Atabaque and Conga
These three instruments are the common instruments, which have been changing according to the new place they arrived, in Africa Atabaque was called mtonya, the same Atabaque in Europe it is known as Conga.
Ndono and Berimbau
These two instruments are similar but named different, Ndono is the original berimbau. Ndono existed and still exists in African culture. I personally grew up and observed Ndoni music in my village. Ndono is one of declining music instrument in Tanzania, but it has been forgotten and lost its identity. Today berimbau is known as original instrument from Brazil, because the Brazilian when immigrated to the new culture took the instrument with them. They made a new art form out of it and renewed the instrument, gave respect and modernized the instrument, created a new culture around it, the culture which became most popular in the world. The world now recognise Ndono with a new name berimbau as an original Brazil instrument. In Finland almost each regional has more than one group practising berimbau and capoeira music and dance culture from Brazil.
Menard Mponda is a choreographer, music arranger and leader. He is also a member of Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble.
Photos: Julia Autio (Benin, 2014)