Batuku, the famous Cape Verde dance banned by colonizers for being ‘too African’
Cape Verde is one of the most visited countries in Africa thanks to its wonderful beaches and breathtaking 5-star hotels and resorts that keep tourists coming back for more. The country is also well known for its songs, proverbs, popular beliefs, superstitions, among other oral traditions. A popular oral tradition today is the Batuku song and dance. It is essentially a woman’s dance even though men are seen clapping their hands to the sound of the drum or playing an instrument.
The oldest documented musical tradition in Cape Verde, there are various explanations of the origins of Batuku. While some say it emerged during slavery when slaveowners sexually abused women, others believe it originated from women’s misery over the death of a child or spouse or other relatives while living under slavery or colonialism. It is however widely agreed that Batuku was brought by slaves to the islands.
During slavery, Batuku was a form of expression. Enslaved men and women living in bondage found moments of freedom while spending hours performing the dance. Women, apart from enchanting many with their sensual and energetic moves, felt heard and respected while performing Batuku, expressing their views about their societies with songs that express their pain or sorrow.
Batuku, alongside another type of dance funana, was banned during colonialism. King Manuel I of Portugal passed a law prohibiting the dance, saying it was “too African” and “too primitive”, “noisy” and “indecent”, authors Katherine Carter and Judy Aulette cited historians as saying. It was also considered an offense to the values of Christianity, the official religion of the Portuguese Empire at the time.
What is more, colonial authorities argued that the dance was a “rehearsal for freedom” and hence had to be forbidden by law. They warned that anyone who went against the law would be fined or sent to prison. But Batuku prevailed. The dance form continued to be performed although “underground in people’s homes.”
After Cape Verde gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, the island country’s new leaders urged citizens to study Batuku. At the same time, the dance form was promoted at events, particularly festivals while politicians hired the services of Batuku dancers to perform at their conventions. Today, Batuku is performed at various social events including weddings, parties, baptisms, and so on.
You might hear women chanting about their ancestral history or giving compliments and pieces of advice to spectators during the dance.
And here’s how it is performed.
Authors Carter and Aulette write that: “Batuku consists of a rhythmic beating and a call-and-response; the singer calls out and others respond. Words are often made up as the sing progresses. The dancing is guided by makeshift drums which provide the rhythm-a rolled up pano or cloth held between the legs, sometimes covered with plastic and pounded with the hands.
“Women sit in a semicircle and sing, while one woman, wearing a shawl around the upper thighs, dances in the middle of the circle (Lobban, 1998). The woman dances slowly at first with rotating hips, and then faster until there is a peak of dancing, cloth pounding, and chanting (Irwin, 1998).”
Carter and Aulette add that some women, in order to showcase their skills, put a bottle of an alcoholic drink on their heads while dancing. “At the end of each song the dancer selects the next dancer, by giving her the shawl, or placing it around her, and leaving the circle (Máximo, 1998).”