Thursday, October 14, 2021

Excerpts About How Some Traditional West African And Central African Music & Dance Patterns Helped Shape The Afro-Caribbean & The Black American Ring Shout

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides four excerpts that provide information about how some traditional West African and Central African music and dance patterns helped shape the development of the Afro-Caribbean and the Black American ring shout. 

With regard to those African music and dance patterns that are described in these excerpts, I'm particularly interested in the use of circular formations and circling movements, the use of drums and/or other percussion instruments including hand clapping,  the use of repetitive singing, and the use of repetitive dance movements as ways of evoking the spirit/s.  

These excerpts are quoted without the citations that they included.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
This post is part of pancocojams' ongoing series on the ring shout and on Afro-Caribbean religions. Click the tags below for more posts in these series.


“Shabach Hallelujah!: The Continuity Of The Ring Shout Tradition As A Site Of Music And Dance In Black American Worship

Erica Lanice Washington

A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music

December 2005


[page] 11

"A primary purpose of each African worship experience is to communicate with the divine. The most universal acts of worship among sub-Saharan Africans are sacrifices and offerings. These expressions are fashioned in order to secure help for the community in regards to daily life. Prayerful offerings are made to God, to the living-dead, and to other spirits in time of need and sometimes accompany acts of worship. Music historian Samuel A. Floyd observes, “the African religious faith was utilitarian, practical, and spiritual.”31 The gods and men communicate with each other through sacrifice, divination, and spirit possession. 32


[page] 12

Music and Dance Patterns in African Religions

 Africans make contact with spirits through music. According to Raboteau, “dancing, drumming, and singing play a constant and integral part in the worship of gods and the ancestors.”34 Indeed, they work together. Gods mount – that is, possess – their devotees through dance, the physical expression of the musical elements. The relationship of dance, song, and drum in African-based worship is evidenced in the possession dance Akem performed in the Akan tradition:

The priest whirls round and round after he has first marked spots with powder and delimited both his dancing ring and important positions. As many rounds of this piece are played as the priest desires, while the singers call to God, the creator of the firmament (Oboonyame). One of the important gestures the priest has to make in this opening dance is to point his dancing sword to the sky and then downwards towards the earth.

When enough rounds of the music for the opening dance have been played, the drummers begin the next piece, called adaban. Instead of using swift turns, the priest moves forward along a circular track while the singers sing songs of invocation. 

After the adaban the drummers play the music of abofoe, imitative of the hunters’ dance, while the singers praise the prowess of the divinity who, like the hunter, hunts down evil and protects his child from evil men and spirits. A similar piece entitled abefotia is played as a sequel to this, followed by the remaining eight pieces.

When the spirit so moves him, the priest may change the order around by asking for any songs or drum pieces he likes. He never stands still. When he is not dancing, he will walk about, do short runs, dash in and out of the crowd, impersonate various creatures, invite people into the ring by throwing a fly whisk or cowtail switch which he holds in his left hand to them, or shake hands with people along the dancing ring.35

Although dance, song, and drum are described separately in the Akem dance, they work together to form a single expressive entity. The priest, drummers, and singers can signal the

[page] 13

ending, beginning, or function of a music/dance section. The rhythms of the drums are heard through singing and seen through dancing.

Melva Wilson Costen's notion of an exchange between divine and human responses in African American Christian worship is seen as a confluence in the Akan Akem example. God’s divine initiative is first seen in the obedience of the devotees to worship God through other deities. It is also seen in the act of the priest clearing the space for worship of the gods through dance and accompanying music (drum). The next activities fall under the category of human responses in which the priest and devotees praise and invoke the presence of gods through dancing and singing. Prayers are also offered up through this dancing-singing phenomenon.

Lastly, there is music (drum), dance, and song to aid the devotee to reach spirit possession by the god or gods. This is a plan to allow practitioners to receive a message from a particular god. 

Ethnomusicologist Portia Maultsby, in her study of Africanisms in African Music suggests that …”black people consciously use their entire bodies in musical expression, and music and movement are conceived as a single unit.”36

This intersection of music and dance supports my concept that dance, drum, and song constitute the whole of the musical elements in African-based worship. It is important to note that all three components – dance, drum, and speech – communicate through language-like features. Many music traditions are associated with each religion. 37 Folklorist Alan Lomax, cited by Floyd, found parallels in the
…”extraordinary homogeneity of African song style….When most Africans sing they are non-tense, vocally; quite repetitious, textually; rather slurred in enunciation; lacking in embellishment and free rhythm; low on exclusive leadership; high on antiphony, chorally; especially high on overlapped antiphony; high on one-phrase melodies, on litany form; very cohesive, tonally and rhythmically in chorus; high on 

[page] 14

choral integration or part-singing; high on relaxed vocalizing; and highest on polyrhythmic (or hot) accompaniments.

This relaxed, cohesive, multileveled, yet leader-oriented style, is distinctly African. It dominates African song from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Gibraltar and west into the American colonies, and is the source and symbol of African cultural homogeneity.” 38

Music of African Americans includes several characteristics of African music. For example, the whole body is used in musical experiences; call-and-response form is present, which allows for repetition; there is community participation in a musical event; change of leadership roles; and variation and sameness in rhythms. Ritual is always contextualized with music.39 

In West Africa, according to Hounnongan Agbegbe Guendehou of the Thron temple in Cotonou, Benin, “each ceremony has a specific music. Every ceremony has a specific dance. It is not the same dance and music for all ceremony. ”40

Two factors determine the music that is used during worship. On the one hand, the African gods are important as there are specific styles of music and instruments that are associated with the worship of a particular deity. On the other hand, the goals and cultural patterns of worshippers likewise contribute to the organization of music due to society’s perception of the divine, characteristic musical practices, and the summoning of the divine for the welfare of the whole community.

Clearly, there is a connection between African cosmologies and African American Christian worship. Within both religious practices, there is a strong belief in the supernatural and spirits; frequent contact with divinity as well as different methods of communicating with the divine”…


Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals › books

Arthur C. Jones · 2005 ·

[page 76]

City called Heaven
…In their singing and praying worshippers embraced selectively those aspects of Christianity that were in harmony with their intuitive African frame of reference: even when they lost knowledge of specific tribal beliefs and ceremonies, they maintained a basic African world view, which was difficult to eradicate.  One of the principal features of this world view was the necessity for direct communication with the divine spirit, often in the frenzy of spirit possession. Singing and dancing in the ring shout, participants entered into an altered state, much like their West African ancestors. Historian Margaret Washington Creel has described this phenomenon as it was experienced among the Gullah slave communities of South Carolina:
“The Gullah ring shout…involved an altered state of consciousness and had the attributes of “possession”. It represented either an unusual behavior, inspired and controlled by an outside agent, in this case the Holy Spirit, or the outside agent displaced the individual’s personality and acted in its stead. The background of the Gullah ring shout, a manifestation of possession trance, was West African in origin.”

The singing of spirituals in the sacred circle of the ring shout provided an ideal setting for the emergence of spirit possession.”…

" Early in the United States the Baptist Church prohibited drumming and dancing which ruled out most of the religious dances of African decent. Dancing was defined by many things by the Baptist Church, primarily the crossing of ones feet (was considered unholy dancing.) Since the Ring Shout didn't generally use any musical instruments only a percussion of clapping and stomping or sometime a stick beating down on the floor and a "call and response' type of singing (shouting) all the while using counterclockwise dance-like movement. The Ring Shout usually occurred in a church after the formal worship, in "praise houses", Barns, or thanking God(Africans deity was Yoruba god Elegba, which later when converted to Christian slaves became Jesus) at the end of the day in the bush arbors or field. These generally lasted until a spiritual possession of "God" or "beloved ancestor"(a Sasa period) would be felt. Most Christian's frowned on this practice as heathen, but allowed it for various reasons.

The ring shout was first described in detail during the Civil War by outside observers in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. The Shout was very popular in South Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Louisiana and its practice continued in those areas well into the twentieth century which eventually some say gave birth to a secular parody of the Ring Shout called the 'Walk-Around' in Minstrel Shows (Pattin' Juba dance is also connected to the Ring Shout). With a fresh arrival of slaves to the new world on a weekly basis, the slaves would be able to keep ties with their spiritual connections, dances and music, even if outlawed.

Up to 20% of the Africans brought to America were Muslims. Islam had established a presence along the West African coast long before the Portuguese introduced Christianity there... this leads us to the word shout which refers to the dance, not shouting verbally and is believed to be derived from the Afro-Arabic saut, referring to the counter-clockwise movement around the Kabaa in Mecca.

The Ring Shout utilizes the whole body (feet, arms, legs, Hips, belly, head, hands etc.) with the main focus being rhythms. The dancers begin by first walking in a 'congo pose' and one by one, sliding their feet as they move, shuffling round, one after the other in a ring (circle). The song is danced with a kinda shuffle step, while the hips would wiggle and sway while the shoulders were held stiff and various heel tapping and stamping, each doing their own improvisations. At the end of each stanza of the song the dancers stop short with a slight stamp on the last note, an then, putting the other foot forward, proceed through the next verse all with a style and grace, occasionally a dancer would enter the center of the ring. Due to many contrary movements in the dance there was a sort of jerking motion which agitated the entire shouter.

Birth Place: West Africa

Creation Date: 1700s?

Creator: None

Dance Type: Religious Dance"
There is some disagreement as whether the word "shout" in ring shout actually derived from the Arabic word "saut" and what that Arabic word means.   


EXCERPT #4 "Reviving Culture Through Ring Shout" by Tamara Williams [no date given; retrieved October 14, 2021]
"The Ring Shout.  What is it? It is an African American spiritual tradition many regarded as long lost and forgotten, but that manifests today in the black Baptist Church, and in a spirit that has been carried along through Methodist and other Protestant churches and praise houses—all of these bear the history evolved from the very first Ring Shouts. The ancestors brought to the United States during the Transatlantic Slave Trade used dance and music as a coping mechanism:  the original Ring Shouts were a mix of rich cultures, traditions, songs, and dances from various communities, a mix designed to create a new community within the violent New World. In Cuba, Trinidad, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Jamaica, these traditions are closely identified with the Orishas (divine spirits of nature)


The spirit of Ring Shout is not only in the gospel churches of the United States’ south, but the same energy and culture can be found in the Shouting communities of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and more.  The memory holds thick.


I grew up a young girl in the Bible Belt of the United States attending church with my mother and grandmother. My grandmother's church was an old white building with wood floors and benches in the back woods of South Carolina. I recall every Sunday going and hearing the women’s feet patting on the wooden floor to the old hymns.


When I traveled to Trinidad, I realized how similar the movement vocabulary and patterns were to the “Holy Ghost” dancing that I observed as a young girl in my grandmother's church. The Shouting that occurs in Trinidad is closely aligned to the Yoruba Orisa (divine spirits) lineages and also has influences of Christianity.

Ring Shout is the earliest form of resistance that African Americans embraced in the United States. It is an African diaspora dance form, meaning that it is a dance and cultural form that was developed away from the continent of Africa, but created by the descendants of African people, with significant African influences. The African influences include polyrhythms, syncopation, movement aesthetics, songs, and artistic cultural practices. The Ring Shout is an amalgamation of traditions from the Yoruba, Akan, Bantu (Congo), Angola, Ewe and Fon people of West Africa and Central Africa. The Ring Shout’s resistance was applied to the inflictions of the state. The Ring Shout was practiced in the back woods, barns or cabins on the plantations, or in the slave quarters in urban areas, by the enslaved people. The tradition was practiced in the late evening/night hours to maintain its secrecy. In an era when the enslaved people received no time to properly mourn and/or bury the deceased, the Ring Shouts were performed as a ritual to honor the ancestors. The Ring Shout provided the suffering enslaved people unification and cultural fortification.


Practitioners of the Ring Shout sing and move around in a counterclockwise circle with movement gestures relating to the songs and rhythms present. The circle represents life energy and its infinite cycle, which may change in quality but is never broken. The counterclockwise direction in Ring Shout tradition honors the ancestors, since this direction specifically connects beings to the ancestral realm. This may be viewed by some as a way of reversing or traversing time in order to unite with spirits. This type of connectivity to divine spirits is rarely found within the linearity of western spiritual practices.


Since the drums were abolished during the majority of the Ring Shout era of slavery, wooden sticks played on wooden boards acted like the drum rhythm and call.6  The drum is the heartbeat. It has its own power of ase. The drum speaks and it calls upon the spirits. The drum itself is a powerful spirit. The ancestors hear the call of the drum and respond. Movements together as a congregation are key to reaching spiritual transcendence; whether in the form of rocking, swaying, or other movements. The counterclockwise circle of Ring Shout is a characteristic of African dance ceremonies that honored the deceased. The belief carried on into the Ring Shout tradition is that “The grave is the most sacred point upon which a person can take an oath or affirm that ‘life is a shared process with the dead below the river or the sea.’ ‘Drawing or singing a point’ on the ground summons the power of God and the ancestors.7 ” This summoning of power occurs in the movement of Ring Shout; it is in the feet. The shuffling of the feet on the ground and the movement of the torso above provides direct connection with the ancestors below. The energy that is generated from the friction of shuffling feet with the earth creates the foundation to directly communicate with God. Once the energy of the circle builds, the presence of Divine Spirits and the ancestors can be felt by the practitioners in the circle. The movers burst into sudden moments of trance, which can be signified by the movements of the person affected: these may include a dropping of the knees and torso, spinning, bouncing of the knees, shoulders and other parts of the body. Such movements would occur as the circle continued around the person in trance. “Iron pots were placed in the center of the circle, turned upside down to absorb the sounds of the dancing, singing and rhythms allowing the practioners to continue their ritual in secrecy.”  “The pots also focused the ancestral energy to the center of the circle and acted as a conduit to connect with those spirits.8 ” This aspect of the “shout” was removed later in the practice. It is my speculation that the increased presence of Christianity amongst the African Americans contributed to this change."....

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  1. With regard to repetitive movements and singing during the ring shout, I've noticed how the choir and congregation in Black Apostolic Pentecostal churches sing the same short choruses over and over again for their offertory Praise Marches and at other times in their worship services. That repeated singing and the choir's stylized marching helps bring down the Holy Spirit.

    Click for a pancocojams post entitled "Repetitive Songs In Contemporary Black Worship Services That Are Sung To Evoke The Holy Spirit: "We Have An Anchor". This is part of an ongoing pancocojams series that will showcases such songs.

    1. For clarification, I'm not saying that these Apostolic worship services are ring shouts. I'm noting that parts of the roots of those services are from ring shouts, and before that from traditional African religious practices, among other influences.