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Afrobeats Is an Attitude

A chilly, but sunny March afternoon gets started at the Annankatu big sports premise prompted by laid-back music. The body is gently being woken from winter mould; the shoulders, hips and ribcage are rotated and dance steps are being traced. Soon a full house jams to West African party music and the corners of mouths start to climb towards the ears.

The event is an Afrobeats Weekend with Annina Tuhkunen. Afrobeats is still a relative newcomer in the Institute’s course program, but the two weeked courses to date have attracted plenty of participants interested in urban afro rhythms. During a two-day course we have time to practise one, longer choreography, train the movement language characteristic to West African dances, jam freely, stretch and even hear about the history Afrobeats. We also learn that the core of these party dances is attitude; everyone is the king or girl boss of the dance floor, but one absolutely must not take oneself too seriously. Some of the moves are pure silliness, so taking oneself too seriously does not even really come to mind. However, the choreography does require concentration in order for the hip-swings, hops and spins to be timed approximately correctly and for them to move in the right directions, but the most important thing seems to be good feeling and the essence of the music. Annina has combined elements from both traditional West African street dances and from modern street dances into the choreography.

The teacher tells us that ’Afrobeats’ is an umbrella term for a multitude of various styles from both French and English speaking West Africa. This weekend we danced Coupé Décalé, a club dance, which developed in the clubs of Paris form Ivory Coast rhythms, and whose movements have plenty of influences from traditional West African dances: the Congo ndombolo, the Angolan kuduro and hiphop. Coupé Décalé was birthed by Ivory Coast immigrants who came to France in the 2000s. Successful immigrants showcased their achievements through dance, and that included playful strutting, competitiveness and dance battles, known also from hiphop, in which the dancers challenge one another. From France these rhythms soon returned back to Africa and during the 2002 Ivory Coast civil war Coupé Décalé became hugely popular among young people and became a virtual counter force to the insanity of war. Its pioneers are Douk Saga and Molare, who also have a role in the fact that the Coupé Décalé from the early 2000s became known also outside the African Diaspora. Nowadays even in Helsinki there are opportunities to dance at regularily organized Afrobeats clubs. Thus far the English-language Afrobeats, like azonto, seems to be more known in Finland than music in the French language, but thanks to these kinds of courses, various festivals and easy-to-find videos from YouTube, the awareness is on the rise also here in the North.

After the course I stay behind to have a chat with the teacher. Annina’s own background is in West African dances she has danced from the mid 90s. She told me she found Coupé Décalé about 10 years ago. During those 10 years she has also witnessed the rise in popularity of the Afrobeats phenomenon, especially among young people, on her regular trips to Africa. She reminds me that Afrobeats is not be confused with the classical, funk-like Afrobeat (without the letter s) style of music, which the Nigerian Fela Kuti developed already in the early 60s. The modern Afrobeats dances are in constant flux; movements are borrowed from other disciplines and traditional dances, they are fused, and certain styles become a trend for a while only to fade away soon after. In the modern world the use of smart devices has made fast as lightning communication possible. Anyone can film cool dance moves with their own phone and videos donwloaded on the internet can achieve large audiences in a heartbeat. One interested in the subject may want to write ”coupe decale” into the YouTube search field to get an idea of what this kind of dancing looks like (there are also a few examples at the end of this article). And if one is wondering whether Afrobeats is a fit to oneself, one may gain encouragement from this video, where they dance to Nigerian Yemi Alada’s song Johnny.

After the course one feels sweaty, but light and satisfied. Despite the frost and persistent ice outside the Helsinki summer seems to be one step closer.

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Some videos to set the mood:

Molare – Fouttement (Ivory Coast)
Serge Beynaud – Kababléké (Ivory Coast)
Debordo Leekunfa – Robot Macador (Ivory Coast)
Toofan – ”GWETA” (Togo)
FUSE ODG ft TIFFANY – Azonto (UK / Ghana)
Yemi Alade – Bum Bum (Nigeria)

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Text: Venla, the Institute of Adult Education in Helsinki