Kinetic Orality

How different things would have been if the Igbo tongue had achieved the same “universality” as English! We should then have been seeking for universals in nkwa and regarding the whole process of western “serious” music as an aberration because it excluded dance. (C. Nwachukwu)

It is said in Africa that a person who hears music understands it in dance… As a continuum of energy on an organic, creative path that begins in spirit: mojo/kimoyo (the tele-kinetic)… expresses rhythmically through the vehicle of nommo (the oral-kinetic)… which in turn in-forms and animates its physical and social extensions such as “dance” (the visual-kinetic). The kinetic relationships between  music(ian)-dance(r) that have been forged in the oral-aesthetic universe of forces is extensive: the “charleston;” the “twist;” the “funky chicken;” the “popcorn;” and the Thriller dance,” for instance, were respectively created by James P. Johnson; Chubby Checker; Rufus Thomas; James Brown; and Michael Jackson.

It is this kinetic imperative in African creativity that creates the misunderstanding of her cultural processes, especially when examined through abstract Eurocentric perspectives of music and dance as separate aesthetic categories. Rhythm is a critical element, and creates the weakest link to formal methods of study that try to transcribe to paper and analyze the mechanical aspects of musical organization, rather than understanding its Africa-centered terms that are interactively inscribed in the dynamic arena of life.

Formal transcription has played a crucial role both as an analytical tool and as an emblem of professional competence in the development of comparative musicology, later ethnomusicology in the Eurocentric academy. The founding fathers of these disciplines needed to meet the academy’s requirement of proof that there was a basis of scientific rationalism in their academic enterprise. Music theories deriving from canons of the western classical tradition were standardized as the “rational” norm, and presented as a “universal” baseline even though they were specifically Eurocentric. With haute couture (high-art) on one end of this self-valorizing scale, African oral-aesthetic expression was effectively inferiorized as belonging on the “pre-logical… pre-rational… pre-literate” other end. The principles that organically inform, characterize, and anchor the quantum field of African life remained misunderstood and under-appreciated, despite their creative and socializing processes in the development of popular music.

The way forward in our attempts to understand African rhythm does not lie in the production of more analyses of the mechanical aspects of its organization, but rather in a careful investigation of its basis in the various modes of signification that characterize… African life itself. (Kofi Agawu, Ph.D. – Princeton University)

Community is paramount in the African life-world: I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am (ubuntu). The generative and transformative power of nommo lies to a great extent in the kinetic modalities of rhythm, and in its unique abilities to functionalize the concept of ubuntu/community. Indigenous speech patterns (nommo) are carried in the heavily emphasized African rhythms, which in turn initiate processes of community by their emotional and physical impact in the dance. The vast cultural array of rhythmic and dance motifs attest to the saying that each person has a rhythm to which they alone dance. Rhythm is thus a metaphor that validates the uniqueness of the individual, even as the polyrhythms that are conveyed in performance suggest and elicit community.

Requiring interactive relationships for aesthetic fulfillment, the African communal imperative also overrides the impositions of formal Eurocentric boundaries that for instance separate performer and audience. The African audience arrives at a performance venue fully expecting to “come and jam with…party with…get down with…and be moved by” the performance which may take place from a staged setting. As the designated chorus in the call-response dynamic, they may provide responsorial accompaniment such as “tell the truth… sing it baby;” hand-clapping, finger-snapping, foot-stomping, getting their “bounce on” and other movements conveying the kineticism of communal vitality, which extend into and through their walk/dance.

This oral-aesthetic motif has always been attractive to young white audiences who, in the 1950s were in a mood of rebellion against authority and ripe for cultural experimentation. Their exposure to rhythm-&-blues artists such as Chuck Berry (“Father of Rock and Roll”), Little Richard, and Fats Domino and the growing popularity of the genre amongst white youth spawned the creation of rock’n’roll as a white version of this genre. Syncopated African rhythms (reflecting the groove or kineticism of Ebonic speech patterns) and the “back beat” (so designated in relation to a metronomic, mechanical time-line) suddenly became hot commercial properties. Artists such as Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Bill Haley, Ricky Nelson, and Andy Williams earned their initial popularity by covering black R&B songs.

The appropriation of these rhythms brought white rock’n’roll artists in touch with nommo and restructured cultural patterns of perception, interpretation, expression, and interaction as they relate to sound and subsequently translate to image. It is interesting to note that such white appropriations of African oral-aesthetic motifs were interpreted and became expressed as a duality of sex and rebellion. The overt sexual connotations of the term rock’n’roll were not lost on “Elvis the pelvis” as he became known from his performance style. Kinetic orality, with its gender-complementary modalities, was the liberating motif from mind-body-spirit divisions that had been culturally institutionalized for many.

This transformative motif has continued to facilitate the participatory spirit of ubuntu within the global village while cultivating the popular imagination and granting it license and personal freedom to “walk the talk” as vested participants in the dynamic creative process African cultural expression has brought to human discourse.  Indeed it is through kinetic orality that one participates in and finds revelation of the deeper, gender-complementary mythoforms that govern the African oral life-world. This world is at once an organic and quantum field of creative forces that is always in interactive play. Life is called forth and animated through the generative power of the word/seed/nommo.


Nommo – in its generative power as rap music – called forth life out of the void/wasteland that Reaganomics had created in America’s inner-cities (specifically 1970s Bronx) and called this multi-faceted expression of African oral culture “hip-hop.” As visual extensions of nommo, hip-hop’s elements of graffiti and break-dancing provide significant examples of kinetic orality defiantly signifying life in the human arena through its organic flow out of the seminal elements of DJing and MCing (ref: “Master Drummer” & “Griot” discussion under the talking drum motif).

Graffiti was initially associated with the third-world of America’s inner-city. Tags, the most prevalent type of graffiti, were stylized signatures of the artist’s nom de plume e.g. “TAKI 183” (which attracted the New York Times’ attention in 1971). An important category of nommo in Africa, a person’s name forever reflects the circumstances surrounding their birth each time it is invoked, thereby contextualizing his or her significance within the larger universe of forces. With this name/nommo, graffiti artists aspired to signify and immortalize themselves within their inner-city universe by for instance tagging the “heavens” (highest spots), hitting the trains (movie spots), or adding a third-dimension to a piece in an effort to achieve maximum eye-gain, presence and status within a community that the socio-economic situation had rendered invisible and voiceless in the 1970s. Describing hip-hop as the “life blood,” Doze Green (graffiti artist and B-boy with Rock Steady Crew since age 14) identifies with the organic flow of kinetic orality that merges the audio and visual elements of his expression of this inner-city cultural energy.

Break Dancing in the African context is, according to Robert Farris Thompson, “smashing through to the other [spirit] side to get in contact with God’s healing and therapeutic powers” (from New York: The Secret African City). Among the Bakongo and Angolans (who comprise about 40% of the slave trade from Africa), there is also a dance-combat style in which walking on hands and cartwheeling are regarded as traveling in the spirit world. The Brazilian term for this combat style as it developed in the New World is capoeira.” African retentions are powerfully present and readily recognizable in the street dance styles and battle modes that were developed by the b-boys and b-girls  of hip-hop. Again, it is an Africa-centered activation and demonstration of the flow of kinetic orality following a creative path that, through the generative power of nommo, merges spirit and body as a communal process.

(Posted May 8th, 2012 – Malaika Mutere)

Comments on: "Kinetic Orality" (2)

  1. […] MuNtu/BaNtu; KiNtu; HaNtu; KuNtu; Nommo; Call-Response; Mojo/Kimoyo; Masquerade; Talking Drum; Kinetic Orality; and […]

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