Afro-Improvisation & My Trip to Rio: Part 1

Nettrice Gaskins
3 min readSep 7, 2023
Clementine de Jesus, 2023. Me + Midjourney and Deep Dream Generator.

In a couple of weeks I will be heading to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will be the third and last in-person gathering for my Ford Global Fellowship cohort. Brazil (and South America) has been on my ‘bucket list’ for many years, a desire that was intensified when viewing the film City of God and the spin-off TV series City of Men. Before that I recall watching films such as Jubiabá and Black Orpheus. The latter film, set in the late 1950s, features Afro-Brazilians dancing the samba to drums and other instruments in a favela.

A segment from “Black Orpheus”

Samba consists largely of music and dance performances with roots in Africa where enslaved Afro-Brazilians originated. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian cultural practice — simultaneously a fight and a dance — that can be interpreted as a tradition, a sport and even an art form. Jubiabá is set in Bahia, the country’s epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture as well as the birthplace of samba and capoeira. Both samba and capoeira feature a circle dance that you can see in Jubiabá (see at 22:00 and 29:00) as well as in different cultural art forms in the United States such as the ring shout.

The Ring Shout

Many enslaved Africans in the U.S. during the late 1600s and 1700s spoke different languages as they were coming from different coastal regions of West and Central Africa. The ring shout (see above) helped to cultivate community. It served as the vehicle for communication. This is important because while enslaved Brazilians were permitted to use drums, these instruments were considered dangerous tools in the U.S. Enslaved African Americans invented hambone or ‘Pattin’ Juba’, which made rhythms with tambourines, or involved hand clapping, body and thigh slapping. ‘Pattin’ Juba’ led to tap dancing… Juba, Jubiabá… see the connection?

Pattin’ Juba demonstration
Pattin’ Juba + guitar

Many of these practices (ex. samba, capoeira, ring shout), are embedded in hip hop culture (see Wild Style clip below), as mechanisms for invention, communication, creative expression, and embodied improvisation. Embodied improvisation is the same as call-and-response participation, in that there is a speaker and responder. Both are acting or performing in response to the environment. The great thing about hip hop is that it takes elements from many cultures and cultural art forms, bringing together people from across the African Diaspora.

A segment from the film “Wild Style”

Two years ago, a paper by Brazilian researchers compared/contrasted DIY culture (Gambiarra) in their country to my research on techno-vernacular creativity and innovation. In my book, I assert that the circle dance embodies the circular design of the Kongo cosmogram (see below), a cultural map of the universe or cosmos. Cultural practices or rituals such as samba, capoeira, and ‘Pattin’ Juba’ visualize spirituality and movement, and represent improvisation. TVC (embodied) improvisation applies culture and critical theory to STEAM and making.

Pages 92–93 in my book, Techno-Vernacular Creativity & Innovation

Earlier this week, I used Midjourney to create a portrait of Clementina de Jesus (1901–1987) who was a Brazilian samba singer and began her professional career when she was 63 years old. De Jesus was one of the most popular singers in Brazil, known for her contribution to carnival music and for her identification with the poor. Note the way samba and carnival is expressed visually through colors, textures, and shapes. I’m looking forward to learning more about samba, capoeira, and other Brazilian cultural art forms and techno-vernacular inventions.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.