Friday, November 11, 2011

The Funga Alafia (Fanga) Song - Part 1

Written by Azizi Powell

[latest revision April 27, 2019]

This is the first post in a three part series on the "Funga Alafia" song and the Funga (Fanga) dance. Part #1 in this series focuses on the history of the Fanga dance and the "Funga Alafia" song.

Part 2 of this series provides text versions of the "Funga Alafia" song/chant, including information about the meanings of the Yoruba words in an early version of that song/chant. Click for that post.

Part 3 in this series showcases seven selected YouTube videos of the Funga (Fanga) song and/or dance. Click for that post.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Funga" (more accurately "Fanga") is a traditional Liberian rhythm & dance. "Funga Alafia" is a song which was composed by an African American to be sung while performing (usually non-traditional) versions that African rhythm and dance.

The word "funga" is a folk etymology version of the word "fanga". Although the term "funga alafia" is less authentic than "fanga alafia", I usually use the title "Funga Alafia". I do so partly because that's the title I'm most familar with, and also because that title is the one that appears to be most often used for that song.
and appears to have been the title used by that song's composer, African American dancer, choreographer
LaRocque Bey.

"Funga" is usually pronounced "fun-gah" or "foon-gah". The word "fanga" is pronounced "fahn-gah".

The Fanga rhythm and dance is traditional to the Vai people of Liberia. The rhythm is played and the dance is performed as an evocation to the earth and the sky (" [website no longer available April 2019]

The first person to introduce the Fanga drum rhythm & drum to the United States may have been Asadata Dafor.

"Asadata Dafora Hortan (August 4, 1890 – March 4, 1965) widely known as Asadata Dafora was a Sierra Leonean multidisciplinary musician. He was one of the first Africans to introduce African drumming music to the United States, beginning in the early 1930s...

In 1929 Asadata Dafora journeyed to New York City to try and pursue his career as a musician. He was then 39 years old...

Dafora was a multifaceted artist, talented in opera and concert singing, dancing, choreographing and composing. In 1934, Dafora created Kykunkor (The Witch Woman), a successful musical/drama production utilizing authentic African music and dance and is considered one of the pioneers of black dance in America.

He also co-authored a radio play with Orson Welles entitled "Trangama-Fanga" [in 1941]."

Sierra Leone borders Liberia, and some members of Assata Dafor's dance company were from Liberia. It's therefore likely that Dafor would have known the Fanga rhythm and dance. In her PhD dissertation, dance historian Marcia Heard indicates that Asadata Dafor was the first person to introduce the Fanga dance to the United States, and he called that dance "Fugale". Furthermore, multi-instrumentalists, writer, and educator Sule Greg Wilson, who drummed with Babatunde Olatunji, asserts that Assata Dafor was the first person to introduce Fanga to the United States. (I'll write more about Olatunji later in this post).

A source for this assertion about Olatunji is; page 89; hereafter referred to as "Schwartz: Pearl Primus Biography".

But it's Pearl Primus and not Asadata Dafor who is usually cited as being the first person to bring Fanga dance to the United States.

"Pearl Primus (November 29, 1919, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago – October 29, 1994) was a dancer, choreographer and anthropologist. Primus played an important role in the presentation of African dance to American audiences.

Primus was born in Trinidad in 1919 to Edward and Emily (Jackson) Primus... When Pearl Primus was two years old she, with her two brothers were brought to New York City where they were reared...

Primus and the late Percival Borde, her husband and partner, ...taught African dance artists how to make their indigenous dances theatrically entertaining and acceptable to the western world."...

"[Pearl Primus] was born in Trinidad before her parents immigrated to Harlem in 1919. She worked at the New Dance Group Studios which was one of few places where black dancers could train alongside whites. She went on to study for a PhD and did research on dance in Africa. Her most famous dance was the Fanga, an African dance of welcome which introduced traditional African dance to the stage."

From The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography Of Pearl Primus by Peggy Schwartz & Murray Schwartz:
""Fanga" was central to Pearl's school, her performances, and her lectures. A dance of welcome that she brought back from her first trip to Liberia it was probably a variation of a traditional dance that she continued to change over the decade." [page 88]
Pearl Primus' Fanga dance was picked up by other African dance companies in the United States and was reconstructed by them. Babatunde Olatunji was the first company to do so, because two dancers from Primus' company left to perform with Olatunji. (Ibid). Master percussionist, educator, social activist, and recording artist Babatunde Olatunji (April 7, 1927–April 6, 2003) is probably most often credited with the popularization of the Fanga rhythm & dance. But Baba Olatunji didn't write the "Funga Alafia" ("Fanga Alafia") song. The composer of that song was LaRocque Bey, an African American choreographer, dancer, percussionist, and founder of the Harlem dance school that still bears his name.

Here's a quote from The Dance Claimed Me: A Biography Of Pearl Primus (p. 88):
""Funga alafiyah (usually given as alafia) ashe ashe is pronounced in the USA "FOON-kah ahlLAH-fee-ah AH shay AH shay". The correct spelling for the Yoruba word "ashe" (meaning "life energy/power") is "ase".

Virtually every black community dance company in America has its version of "Fanga" and most start with the chant "Fanga alafiyah ashe ashe, fanga alafiyah ashe ashe"* as its accompaniment. This chant was added by LaRocque Bey, a percussionist in New York in the late 1950s, was not part of the original work. Primus used two other chants "gehbeddy jung jung jung" with a strong, active, insistent rhythm, or "dum dake dake dum dake, dum dake dake dum dum dake", gentler, and with a swing and a sway to it."
There are good reasons why most American dance companies who perform "Funga" ("Fanga") start with the chant "Funga alafiya/ ashe ashe":
1. "Funga Alafia" (as composed by LaRocque Bey) uses a familiar tune ("Li'l Liza Jane").
2.That song has an uptempo beat, and easy to pronounce African words, making it appear authentically "African" for those African musical & dance performances.
3. Furthermore, the call & response pattern of the song "Funga Alafia" helps galvanize audience interests & involvement, thus setting a positive tone for the rest of the performance.
4. That "Funga Alafia" is considered to be a "welcome song" makes it a perfect fit for the beginning of African dance performances.

There are also several reasons why the Pearl Primus chants given above weren't adopted whole cloth or slightly changed by other dance companies (as the Funga Alafia song has been and continues to be). One of those reasons probably was that those chants were too closely associated with Primus' dance company. Reportedly, Pearl Primus wasn't at all thrilled that other American companies were including the Fanga dance based on her choreography in their programs. Presumably, she also wouldn't have been thrilled by those companies' use of the chants that she composed. However, I think that other reasons that Primus' chants weren't used by other companies were the chants themselves. Those syllables & words appear to be just a way to keep the beat. They didn't have (or weren't given) any other meanings However, the words & syllables of those chants "sound like" words that have negative meanings, particularly the "dum" in the "dum dake dake dum" chant.

Furthermore, the Pearl Primus chants aren't as easy to remember as the Funga Alafia chant. Also, those syllables & words aren't nearly as aesthetically pleasing to African Americans' and other Americans' sound preferances as the "funga alafia ashe ashe" chant. If those words were longer, or ended in "u", they wouldn't be as pleasing to Americans' ears. And if those words contained unfamiliar consonant clusters such as "dj" or "gb", they would be more difficult for Americans to pronounce & remember. There are reasons why afro-centric African Americans have most often adopted names and used words & phrases from Arabic, Swahili, Yoruba, Akan, and Wolof languages. All of those widely used languages in Africa are closer to American preferences in word length, word endings, and sound aesthetics than names and words from some other traditional African languages.

Besides all of that, "funga alafia ashe ashe" sounds like what Americans think African languages should sound like. That's fitting because these words are African (except for "funga" which is a folk etymology form of the African word "fanga"). However, prior to that song, the words "fanga alafia ashe ashe" had never been used together in any African song or saying. Their use in this chant was pure delux African American. This chant probably would not have been created had there not been a community of Yoruba Ifa worshippers in Harlem who were open to sharing their "adopted" culture with others through their drumming & dancing performances and otherwise. Engaging in the call & response Funga Alafia chant helps fulfill the desire of African Americans' and other non-Africans in the Western world to say & do something "African" and multicultural.

Click for more information about Babatunde Olatunji. Click for more information about LaRocque Bey & his dance company. And click for an essay about Fanga that was written in 1994 by Sule Greg Wilson.

Although Baba Olatunji routinely used "Fanga Alafia" in his programs and workshops, I don't believe that he ever recorded that song on any album. Thankfully, there's a 1993 video of he & other drummers playing drums and him singing "Fanga Alafia". Click That video will also be featured on a pancocojams post of several Fanga videos.

The song/chant "Fanga Alafia" that was composed by LaRocque Bey is found in the 2nd post of this series. That version includes two Yoruba words: "alafia" and "ase" (usually written in the United States as "ashay". Here's how an African American man in Harlem in 1960s likely became familiar with those Yoruba words: In the late 1950s and early 1960s (and since then) a small number of African Americans practiced/practice the Yoruba religion of Ifa in Harlem. The Yoruba Temple in Harlem was under the leadership of Baba Oserjeman, the first African American to be initiated into the traditional Yoruba religion of Ifa. Baba Oserjiman, a former dancer with Katherine Dunham, was initiated into that religion in Cuba in 1959. Source

It's likely that LaRocque Bey was familiar with Baba Oserjiman and the Yoruba drummers & dancers (if he himself wasn't a member of that drum group). And it's also likely that some of the Yoruba drummers and dancers were (also) members of Bey's drum company. The community of afro-centric African Americans wasn't all that large in the late 1950s and the 1960s. I counted myself as a member of that community-through my affiliation with the Newark, New Jersey cultural nationalist group that was headed by Amiri Baraka (Le Roi Jones). As a matter of fact, I received a spiritual reading in New York City from Baba Oserjeman in 1970 which turned out to be quite evidentary. That may have been one of the last readings that Baba Oserjeman conducted before he and his followers left New York and founded a Yoruba community in South Carolina. Click for more information about that community.

To be clear, there probably were chants used for the traditional Fanga drum rhythm that originated with and was performed by the Vai people of Liberia, West Africa. And there were earlier chants used in the United States for the choreographed dances that were derived from that traditional Liberian dance. However, because the first composer of a song that included the words "Funga Alafia" was African American LaRocque Bey, Funga Alafia should rightfully be considered an African American song.

This concludes Part I of this three part pancocojams series.

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  1. In my comments about sound preferences, I failed to mention that the beginning of the word "funga" could be said to be pronounced liked the first syllable of the word "fungus". This might have esoteric meaning. But if so, it's beyond my ability to decipher and discuss.
    I just believe that if funga was spelled fungu it wouldn't have been as well received. Think about it, how many English words end in "u"?

    Tangentially, I believe that one of the reasons why that Black doll named "Tamu" which was manufactured in the 1970s didn't hit it big with Black folks was because of the doll's name. "Tamu" means "sweet" in Swahili, but that "u" ending did it in. Even if it has a positive meaning, a name isn't going to be popular if it has a spelling and/or sound that are generally considered to be aesthetically displeasing in a particular society.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cody Mills.

    I appreciate it. It's interesting that you are using this song in your music therapy intervention.

    Best wishes and keep on keeping on!