Sunday, March 15, 2015

Descriptions Of The Kongolese Competitive Dance "Nsunsa"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on certain traditional African competitive dances, games, or sports.

This post features information about the Kongolese empire, descriptions of Kongolese nsunsa and descriptions of South American adaptations of nsunsa.

Click for Part II of this series.

Part II provides information and video examples of Congolese Nzango and Ghanaian ampe.

Click for Part III of this series.

Part III of this series provides information about and videos of the Latin American dance "malambo" and its Congolese dance.

The content of this post is presented for historical, cultural, recreational, and aesthetic reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to those who created nsunsa and thanks to the past and present practitioners of this dance. Thanks also all those who are quoted in this post.

"The Kingdom of Kongo (Kongo: Kongo dya Ntotila[4] or Wene wa Kongo[5] or Portuguese: Reino do Congo) was an African kingdom located in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[6] as well as the southernmost part of Gabon.[7] At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Kwango River in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in the south. The kingdom consisted of several core provinces ruled by the Manikongo, the Portuguese version of the Kongo title 'Mwene Kongo', meaning lord or ruler of the Kongo kingdom, but its sphere of influence extended to neighbouring kingdoms, such as Ngoyo, Kakongo, Ndongo and Matamba.[3]

The kingdom largely existed from c. 1390 to 1891 as an independent state, and from 1891 to 1914 as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal, with the defeat by the Portuguese of a 1914 revolt resulting in the forced abolition of the titular monarchy and the assimilation of its remaining territories into the colony of Angola."

Descriptions of nsunsa that refer to footwork
The following quotes describe nsunsa as a male only activity.

From Tango: The Art History of Love By Robert Farris Thompson, pages 74-76
"Nsunsa : The Sass Dance
Dance bands abound in the tango. There are duels on the dance floor, like the night in the 1920s when the famed stylist El Chachafaz took on his black rival El Negro Santillan. There are precedents galore for tango contests of virtuosity in Kongo tradition of male-on-male challenge dancing, especially thee type called nsunsa.

The word nsunsa derives from the Ki-Kongo verb sosa, to look for a fight, to malign, to provoke, to sass. In fact, sosa seems logical as a source for the American vernacular term “sass”, which has the same valence of defaming and challenging. It was probably reinforced by the English adjective saucy, in the sense of insolent toward superiors.

According to the late Woyo elder Nzau-Balu of the town of Mwanda, nsunsa arose in Cabinda. Elders in Manianga and Yombe contes this, saying is virtually pan-North Kongo form with no single point of origin. Most sources agree that nsunsa is “old, going back at least for two centuries”, according to Nzau Balu.

An eighteenth century attestation of this dance in action, across the seas, corroborates this dating, John Gabriel Stedman saw ”soesa” (note its new Creole name) danced among the Lwangu (North Congo slaves) in Surinam in 1790:
Soesa [nsunsa] consists of [two men] dancing opposite each other, clapping their hands on the side to keep time, when each with pleasure throws out one foot. If they meet across, [one person] wins one point, if sides, it is for the other one, till one or the other has got twelve, sometimes twenty points who gets the game. So very eager are they at this play that sometimes six or eight [male] couples are engaged at once.

The same game, with the same rules, goes on today in North Kongo. In Vili country it is called mbunga from ku bunga, “to play”, for example drawing figures in the sand...

The rules of nsunsa and mbunga have stayed the same for two hundred years: if I shoot my right foot out and at the exact moment, my opponent shoots out his left foot, I win. But if he cancels me with his right, I lose. Each time I win, I get one full point (kongo dimosi). With twelve points (makongo mumputa), I win the game.

Sharp eyes and lightninglike reflexes rule...

Dance combat traditions extended across Kongo and included neighborhood like Kuyu, which mounted a famous dance contests called kyebe-kyebe. All this was probably reinforced by dance duels among captives from Mahi, Yoruba, and Hausa in early nineteenth-century Buenos Aries (Argentina)."...

From Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture [3 volumes]: Origins, Experiences, and Culture by Carole Elizabeth Boyce Davies; (Google eBook), p. 533
..."the “uprock” style of dance that dominated breakdancing before back spins and such is much like nsunsa, a Kongo battle dance (or sport) that is performed one on one and is very popular among males. (Thompson 1996, 218). The connection between capoeria in Brazil has also been made. “Hip-Hop 101” must be Pan-African at base, affirming present combinations of the old and the new in Hip-Hop revolution.”

Descriptions of nsunsa that refer to other movements instead of foot work
The following quotes describe nsunsa as an activity females can perform. Are these descriptions of nsunsa later adaptations of that heretofore male only activity?

"Hambone: An ingredient for delicious soup,or an instrument for scorn, or for strong rhythm,or for hot sex?" by Erwin Bosman
“The hambone dance has a long history. C.L. Keyes describes the hambone as a dance derived from the antebellum dance called the “juba”, performed to rhyming verses by the patting and clapping of one’s thighs, chests, hands, and even the top of the head. It goes back to the very roots of black music (W. Erbsen). C.M. Phillips traces its origin to a game played in Congo by young girls, called ‘nsunsa’, that involved crossing the hands underneath and above the thighs. The thigh-and-chest slapping dance imparted confidence and self-spirit."
This sentence is given in italics to highlight it.

African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision edited by Tamara L. Brown, Gregory S. Parks, Clarenda M. Phillips, p.
“The Congo serves as one source for the waist, hands, and foot movements found in stepping.. Malone quotes Zairean scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau after his first viewing of footage from a step show: “I can’t believe this is passing; that this is being done. Who is the trainer of these young people? Because this person could not lead them to do this without going to the Congo area.” Fu-Kiau comments that “crossing the hands underneath the thighs and above the thighs is typical “Kongo play” performed by young girls called "nsunsa". Further, the precision hand and arm motion, according to Fu-Kiau, have their foundation in the play of children of the Congo. “Mbele literally means ‘knife’ and it consists of moving the hands in a cuttinglike fashion, similar to fighting. This type of play is married with song"...
This sentence is given in italics to highlight it.

Darlene Powell Hopson gives a description of a Congolese children's game called "Nsunsa" in her 1996 book Juba this and Juba that: 100 African-American Games for Children (p. 75) However, that description is unlike any other one that I've read to date for nsunsa. Hopson describes two parallel lines of up to twelve players who compete to see if the opponents can perform the same arm grabs. Those instructions are somewhat similar to the descriptions I've read for nzango although that Congolese game involves foot work and not arm grabs. Information about nzango is found in Part II of this pancocojams series.

This concludes Part I of this series.

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  1. absolutely amazing....thank you....ache

    1. You're welcome, judy sue.

      Ache (more power) to you too!