Kizomba, A Notable Phenomenon

By Jean-Pierre Sighé




A fever has erupted on the West Coast of the U.S.; swept over from Europe where it penetrated the hearts and souls of all – France, its epicenter. It arrived with such swiftness on America’s western shore that many wonder what took it so long. This fever is actually a dance, hot off the floors of Europe and landing on the soles of American feet only two years ago. At the time, the name itself evoked as much mystery as its moves.
Kizomba. This dance, originating from Angola, evolved from a mix between the French Caribbean Zouk and the predecessor of Samba, the Angolan Semba, People of all races adopted its style, together uniting the world as one big village. Zouk, on its own, could have been the phenomenon of the 1980s, had the Internet been around. In a sense, Kizomba is bringing along Zouk music and dance on its coattails. You see, many people are now for the first time exposed to Zouk. A double spoilt; how wonderful!
How fortuitous for the patrons of Tango Magdalena as Kizomba knocks on its door. We answer and open wide our space to this experience. Dancers of all disciplines will greatly benefit with this new practice; after all, isn’t dancing the very expression of living?

When I arrived in France in 1981, Zouk had just inundated the Paris dance scene. Salsa remained very popular too; but Zouk was the “mysterious” phenomenon that irresistibly permeated the clubs. I remember the mainstream media downplaying and working hard to ignore this wave. In 1979, musician Jacob Desvarieux of Guadeloupe, together with Pierre-Edouard Decimus of Martinique founded the band Kassav. Jacob Desvarieux, a studio musician, worked with many Cameroonian celebrities in Paris and discovered the Makossa rhythm. He also created unique horn arrangements for them. A friend of mine from Cameroon and acquaintance of Desvarieux brought me into this musical inner circle. We frequently visited the studio during recording sessions just to hang out. Desvarieux seemed quite attached to Cameroon’s Essèwè rhythm (read "From Candombe to Tango" 1 +2). Of course, he played it very well. The first keyboard player for Kassav was a Cameroonian buddy, Mbida Douglas. Desvarieux’s genius exemplified the sound by mixing the Essèwè rhythm with the Caribbean Beguine or Calypso. Kassav’s Zouk-influenced style, known mostly by the people of Martinique and Guadeloupe, soon grew to be the genre’s world signature. A phenomenon emerged and the fever subsequently took over Europe, Africa and the world.
I must say that Kassav’s fame came in spite of the French media. Kassav was able to fill up the gigantic Bercy stadium simply by word of mouth. No media-hype, no promotion whatsoever. This surely indicates how much the movement had penetrated society, fending off resistance from the show-biz decision makers. Of course, everyone eventually jumped on the bandwagon after the promoter, who initially scheduled two shows, extended it two weeks. Success!
Kizomba takes over from where Zouk left off, especially from the dance angle. One can easily recognize many Tango moves and figures. Original Kizomba videos from Angola already embraced those moves, including the banned Quebradas. In Argentina, skilled dancers added additional moves, stylizing the dance more and more. Kizomba’s story is reminiscent of Tango’s own development. In fact, Kizomba definitely proceeds from the same Candombe drumming. Yes indeed! It is yet another sub-branch of the good old Candombe. It has long been my belief that the curiosity about Candombe makes better dancers. It is refreshing to live in this San Francisco Bay Area where in the last five years the word Candombe has ceased to be mysterious. It’s no longer a word that once caused people to frown. Information is a life changer.
Kizomba dancers serious about their dancing are eager to learn Argentine Tango. One can easily predict the growth of the Tango community, infusing Tango’s evolutionary journey. This might irritate some “orthodox Argentine Tango dancers”. However, I would kindly invite them to keep an open mind and let the dancer within guide their exploration. Kizomba and the Argentine Tango share much in common. How could it be otherwise when one learns about the common root of Candombe? The appeal to Kizomba lies in the rhythmic elegance to which sensuality constitutes the crowning jewel. In other words, the rhythmic experience sustains the smoothness of the sensual moves; the fusion of these two ingredients produces beauty. Pleasing Kizomba dancing allows the dancer to expand and not be caught in considering one of the two ingredients at play to the detriment of the other. They are both necessary for the dance to be appealing. Skilled dancers, in this regard, have a role to play in inspiring and creating dance moves that continuously seek their resources from the duality of rhythmic experience and sensual moves. Dennis Richards who teaches Kizomba at Tango Magdalena and Emile Carter, a promoter of Kizomba and other dance forms, are among the few West Coast Kizomba pioneers who take seriously this leadership responsibility. It takes that kind of care to facilitate creativity in beauty; otherwise, the great potential would subside to leave an empty shell of first degree dancing.

Kizomba, in a sense, almost brings to full circle the journey of Tango. After its adoption to the Argentinean ballroom milieu, Tango underwent a series of “esthetic” surgical assaults, removing most of the initial pelvic movements (especially in Milonga). We can summarize what we now know by simply identifying racism as this motivating factor. It was important to sever the country from any historical tie to the descendents of black slaves. Anything black or referring to a black culture of manners had to be erased. This continued for more than 100 years. Even today in the 21st Century, Argentina wrestles with that terrible side of its history - and rightly so, for the truth always comes back to claim its denied place or reality.
Kizomba, by showcasing the two ingredients mentioned, with no complexity, brings forth one of the beauties that dancing communicates to the dancer: the freedom of spontaneous  creation. From that place, any effort aimed at facilitating that creativity more efficiently must be encouraged. These efforts can include: learning how to become proficient in the African rhythmic call-response, acquiring a better and elegant posture, or acquiring a better control of one’s balance, etc. These efforts are realized as Kizomba dancers understand the importance of Tango moves in their improvisations. It makes perfect sense to the serious Kizomba dancer to embrace Tango’s teachings.
Paradoxically, Tango dancers would tremendously benefit from the Kizomba experience. Some “orthodox” Tango aficionados might turn up their noses at that idea (knowing the community as I do, I’m ready to bet that it would be the case). To them, we urge a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness that always results in discoveries. I would remind them that not too long ago (100 years is not as long as one might think), many Argentineans didn’t want anything to do with Tango; same was true in the U.S. with Jazz. Many turned up their noses at Jazz and did everything they could to stay away from it. The enrichment of a Tango dancer opening up to the Kizomba spirit is obvious.
Let’s consider the rhythmic side. Kizomba music is rooted in Zouk and Semba, both very rhythmic structures generated from a special environment. We have to remember that Tango music was originally written as chamber music. This had an adverse effect, making it difficult for many Tango aficionados to comprehend certain pieces or orchestras. The strong downbeat of the Kizomba brings the required sense of grounding. The flow with the music is better; to the very least, it enhances the Tango dancer’s Milonga. Thus, at Tango Magdalena, we started using the Zouk music as an additional tool to help beginners understand the Milonga dancing and be less stiff. The habit of melting into the Zouk or Kizomba beat brings a better understanding of the Milonga and, therefore, allows a better understanding or feeling of the Habanera in Tango songs; even the “difficult” pieces or orchestras.
The Kizomba environment also provides an enhanced connectedness of Tango partners - very useful in Tango. Recently, two renowned Kizomba instructors from Portugal, Joao Rocha and Mafalda Amado, provided the Bay Area’s first Kizomba workshop. Amado referred to the connectedness of both partners as the primary objective: ”Kizomba is not for the show, it is for the couple.” Furthermore, because the mood and mode of the Kizomba music is easier to melt into, connecting with a partner feels better. It is interesting to observe Kizomba dancers. The partners absorb one another, moving as one even during complex body syncopations. Being in the moment is of great importance. Tango dancers would enjoy this in Kizomba.

Finally, what matters is dancing, isn’t it? Dancing and expressing life. She or he feels the excitement of expanding the horizon and enjoying the flow. Dancing is life itself in motion. Dancers can create an uplifting experience by allowing the soothing feel of the Kizomba to embellish their living expression.
We hope the introduction of Kizomba in the San Francisco Bay Area will add to the emulation already established by other dances. This improvement to the quality of the dance scene can only result in a positive impact. And, if wisely coached, it will add breadth and depth to the Tango scene. Of course, Tango Magdalena will play its part to nourish this rising fever.


© April 2012