The group stands with heads down, legs slightly apart and with arms at their sides. The silence is then broken from the back of the room with authority. With a smile on her face, fists clenched and her head to the sky, words like thunder come from her mouth in a melodic fashion. As she continues singing, the group begins to sway and move and they join along in response to the lead vocalists beautiful lyrics. As she joins the group, the powerful and dominating sound of the djembe drum hits your ears and your eyes and head perk up instantaneously. The group moves and sings and stomps the ground with amazing and rhythmic ease. It is as if no other exists in this space as the expressions on the group’s faces produce smiles from ear to ear. Bodies are moving and dancing with ease and without thought, effortlessly creating song, dance, rhythm and movements that are so powerful they seep down to the soul. To observe raw and uninhibited expression of music, dance, and movement to the grounding sound of the djembe is an experience that is so hard to articulate. For being in the presence of that kind of expression of ones self which causes the artist to be taken by the moment is a very humbling and thought provoking experience. It leaves you asking yourself what expression you exhibit in the midst of others and what it is that defines you. Are we really bringing forth our ‘authentic self’ or are we constrained by social pressures and norms? Are we defined by our expression of what is on the inside, or do we define or express ourselves based on material things such as the job we hold, the car we drive, house we live in, or fashion we are wearing? If one was to strip all those things away, would our authentic expression of self ooze out of us like the performers I observed who day in and day out live in a very challenging township existence?
On many occasions as I am taking my run in the early morning hours, I share the side of the road with the many domestic workers walking to their destinations. With colorful and bright patterns and humble dress, I often hear these women speaking and singing in isiZulu with others heading their way. What I find most unique is that volume is of no consequence. They talk, share, sing and laugh in a very loud and expressive way. The beauty of it is how it seems they express themselves with their whole body, using big gestures and body movements and reactions that are bigger than life. In the midst of it all a religious chorus might come up and individually or collectively one can almost “hear” the smile emanating from their face as the chorus is sung. As I pass by giving my greetings of ‘sanbonani’ and ‘ninjani’ (hello everyone, how are you), I once again am touched by how freely expression of oneself is not held back. Would I be so free to express and share joy in a public space regardless of outside judgment? Would I feel so joyous in their situation being without a vehicle, walking to work, living in the township and yet working as a domestic in a home very different than my own? And yet day in and day out I pass and greet women sharing and singing without inhibition. Once again I ask, how do we express or define ourselves and how authentic are we truly being?
Music and dance are mediums of expression that can touch and move us all. However, what I find most rewarding, is to see artists’ expressions as they perform live and are taken by the moment. At the base of the Drakensburg Mountains in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal (about 1.5 hrs from where we live) an eager and ambitious musician began his craft. He watched and participated in the many traditional Zulu dances and celebrations as he was growing up, but yet it in his mind there was more. Although they were not readily available, he was able to get his hands on an acoustic guitar and began to teach himself the instrument. As he searched for his own style, he began to mesh the traditional Zulu songs and dances he grew up with accompanied by his guitar. Today, with traditional Zulu dress, song and dance, he and his brother boldly step to the stage ready to express themselves through their craft in front of an audience made up of a cross section of cultures and backgrounds. How would their expression of gifts be received? As song by song progressed, the musicians were visibly in their own world, eyes closed at times, dancing boldly and allowing the rhythms to envelope the audience. Their bold expression won over even the seemingly “hardest nuts to crack” in their presence. How liberating to see such a beautiful and confident expression of oneself in the midst of a challenging situation. They were determined not to let these talents be bottled up.
When I observe how others so freely express themselves in this culture, I wonder how free we all feel to exhibit our own expression of self. What is it defined or shackled by? Is it based on material things or do we allow our character and day to day interactions and actions to dictate this? Many I observe seem to be authentic in a way many North Americans feel uncomfortable doing. While we always talk about development in places like South Africa, I wonder if they are in actuality more free than us, because they are allowed to express themselves and be authentic while many North Americans feel more constrained. We are so privileged to live, observe and see so many joys and challenges in another culture for it allows us to take a step back and ask some of these same questions. If you factor out the material things…how do we all express and define ourselves, what amount of authentic self is present, and how are we seen in the eyes of others?
Peace and love,