Elevate Difference

Second Annual International Body Music Festival (12/5/2009)

San Francisco, California

Body Music is an inherently populist art form. You just need a body, your hands, your feet, your mouth, the ground, a sense of rhythm, or any of these elements in any combination. Body Music has been around forever, created and passed down through generations of people from all parts of the world, and often serves as an expression of freedom in the face of oppression.

The Herbst Theater, on the other hand, is a fancy schmancy theater decorated in ornate European style, whose very architecture denotes class and spectacle. The mostly white, well-dressed audience reinforced the feeling of formality fostered by the space, but the performers at the second annual International Body Music Festival attempted to break down that divide.

Saturday night's show opened with the Manuia Polynesian Review, a San Francisco-based dance troupe that performed high-energy traditional Polynesian dance based on activities like slapping mosquitos and paddling canoes. Festival founder Keith Terry then took the stage and led the audience in call-and-response rhythms and vocalizations that highlighted the best possibilities of audience participation—true engagement on a physical and energetic level that creates a shared experience, breaking down the “fourth wall.”

My friend Joe responded to the intricate rhythms of Parisian dancer and percussionist LeeLa Petronio, affirming her with a loud “yeah.” She looked in our direction and said “yeah?” which was kind of hot, and seemed to encourage others in the audience to interact and participate. It was sweet to feel the audience loosen up a little, and entertaining to hear the middle aged white men around me busting out with their “mm”s and “ow yeah”s.

One of the most popular performers of the night was Kenny Muhammed, the “human orchestra” from New York. An amazing beatboxer capable of doing seemingly thousands of different things at the same time, watching his facial muscles twitching in syncopated coordination was entertainment in itself. I also deeply enjoyed the music of Bouchaib Abdel Hadi Ensemble with Amine Mohammed, Susu Pampanin and Faisal Zadan. This was the only act that included instruments other than the body—drums and an oud—accentuated with layered clapping rhythms, and occasional barefoot stomping and clapping from the lead musician.

I have a preference for loud, solid rhythms as opposed to quirky shuffling ones, so it's not surprising that I found Step Afrika! to be one of the most compelling performances of the night. Part military drill, part hip hop, part African dance, stepping as an art form originated in African American fraternities in the early 1900's. It grew out of circles where men would sing together, but after World War II it evolved into lines that mirrored military formations. The director of Step Afrika! discovered similarities in African gum boot dance, which originated with diamond miners in South Africa who found that their rubber boots, filled up with water and sweat, made interesting sounds when they stomped.

Step Afrika!'s first piece had them dressed as diamond miners in gum boots (galoshes), speaking with South African accents, practicing their moves when the boss wasn't looking. The stomping, slapping rhythms are joyful, defiant, and LOUD—I found myself wondering how their boss wouldn't notice. A minute or so into the dance, a whistle blows and the boss enters. Played by the most light-skinned member of the troupe, at first I read him as a white man. It was thought-provoking that they chose to put him in the role of the boss, highlighting racial stratification rather than adopting a color-blind approach.

After Step Afrika! left the stage, a woman from the balcony yelled “your auntie loves you, Makeda!” and emcee Linda Tillery said “I think I know you, do we go to church together?” It was funny and sweet, and I was grateful for the presence of African American community in the space.

I found last year's venue, Theater Artaud, to be much more accessible, creating a more unified feeling among the audience and performers. I am happy for the organizers that they were able to grow into a larger space, but I wonder if the sacrifice of intimacy was worth it. There are plans for a 2010 tour of US cities, and next winter the IBMF will be produced in another part of the world, which feels like an authentic way of living up to the “International” part of their name.

Written by: Nomy Lamm, March 7th 2010