The dancers leapt, reached, and whirled on stage to the rhythm of percussion and a live reading of Langston Hughes’s poem “Drums.” Moving and acting in harmony with each other, they brought to life their heritage—the dances of Africa, the billowing sails of the slave ships, the music and color of New Orleans, the heart-tugging strains of jazz. The story of a people with a history heavy with heartache, yet a spirit of courage and faith strong enough to carry on, to overcome.
I’ve become more aware of February as African American History Month over the past few years. But I think the powerful performance my sister and I experienced last night at our local community college will help me never forget it. The Jazz Antigua Ensemble brought to life for us Black American history, culture, art, and tradition through music, dance, improvisation, and spoken word. The energy and precision of the dancers captivated us—I don’t know when I’ve seen such technical skill and emotional expression, combined with a palpable camaraderie and love for their art.
The musicians interacted with the audience, the drummer demonstrating for us the various rhythms and cadences from Africa, Europe, New Orleans, marching bands, and the Caribbean that interwove to form jazz. Many of the performers shared personal stories—one man had lived through the marches with Martin Luther King and seen Duke Ellington perform live—or read bits of poetry by black writers. One piece they even improvised on the spot, the bass player gradually joined by the pianist, percussionist, and vocalist, then by one dancer’s spontaneous expression. Beautiful.
The group also acknowledged the crucial thread of faith weaving through the history of Black Americans, pointing out the contributing role of Gospel music in the development of jazz. Music and dance, they implied, could be best seen as an offering to God. Not often do we hear such statements at a public performance!
A quote one dancer read spoke of how the truest expression of a people comes through their music and dance. I’ve pondered this before, how the arts seem to show most clearly what is within us. Perhaps it’s because music, art, dance, story, and drama come so much from the heart, and what we create through them thus reveals the condition within us more clearly than other mediums can, which helps explain why they can be so powerful.
I was grateful to hear and learn from the hearts and history of African American brothers and sisters last night.