Arts & Culture » Culture

He's Got a Slammin' Body

Keith Terry hosts the International Body Music Festival.



Keith Terry discovered the musical capacities of his own body decades ago, long before he learned that "body music" is actually a serious discipline with its own genealogy. It spawned from other dance forms like hambone, which supposedly had its genesis in the Stono Slave Rebellion of 1739. Lore has it that slave owners seized their slaves' drums in the aftermath, so the slaves began improvising and ultimately turned themselves into human percussion instruments. Hambone is one of the world's most elemental forms of dance, but its bedrock rhythm bleeds into everything. By mixing with European clogging and Native American dance forms, it created tap, which is considered a progenitor of hip-hop and step dancing. Meanwhile, body music developed independently in many other parts of the world. Spanish flamenco uses hand clapping and stylized footwork. Arabic dancers came up with their own form of interlocked clapping. South American gauchos created their own zapateo or "shoe-tapping" dance. One could even say that krumping (a street dance from Los Angeles) and hyphy turf dancing (from Oakland) are descendents of the form.

The protean nature of body music impressed Terry as much as its longevity. Now well known as a scholar of the form and founder of Oakland's own Slammin All-Body Band, Terry recently added to his list of accomplishments the International Body Music Festival — a weeklong celebration of cheek slappers, beatboxers, and shoe tappers throughout the diaspora. Terry launched the first all-body fest last year after securing a Guggenheim Fellowship. He recruited dancers from Brazil, Turkey, and France, as well as Inuit throat singers, hyphy turf dancers from Oakland, and a Balinese composer whose kecak chant piece featured gamelan rhythms. Some will return this year, not to perform but to check out the second iteration, which promises to be equally broad in scope, with performances of Spanish flamenco, South African gumboot, zapateo criollo, step dancing, and Samoan sasa — a call-and-response from that involves a lot of chanting and slapping the floor. Vocal percussionist Kenny Mohammad will unveil his vast arsenal of polyrhythms. Oakland's Rashidi Omari will showcase contemporary hip-hop dance with a one-man rhythm section provided by Slammin beatboxer Steve Hogan.

There's no set rubric for the festival, and Terry's only rule is to eschew outside instrumentation. He's even asked tap dancers Evie Ladin and Max Pollack to perform in leathers. "One could say that shoes in general take away from the body," Terry explained, with the caveat that he's still playing with the concept. At present, he wants to make the performances as spare and primal as he can, the way body music was at its inception.

The International Body Music Festival runs Dec. 1-6 at various Bay Area locations, including La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) and Freight & Salvage (2020 Addison St., Berkeley).