The Via Creativa in African Traditions

In her powerful book, Let the Circle Be Unbroken: The Implications of African Spirituality in the Diaspora, Dr. Marimba Ani (Richards) recognizes the profound spirituality of community imagination and makes explicit the link in the African spiritual consciousness between ritual, music, and the making of community. “Few have understood what music is to us.” She writes. “Black music is sacred music. It is the expression of the divine within” us.

“Memphis Mural: How Sweet The Sound” by Edwin McSwine.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass, Flickr

Richards emphasizes how music connects the African soul to the cosmic powers and the divine spirit within those powers. Through music and ritual, cosmos, Divinity, and the human get it together. “Ontologically, we gain meaning, force, and being through relationship with the universal life forces by feeling ourselves to be a part of the whole. Our music manifests that relationship, as it puts us in tune with the universe. It explains to us the mysterious workings of the universe and ourselves as cosmic beings….As in ritual, in music the human and the Divine meet.”  Another powerful testimony to how human psyche and the cosmos are destined for each other!

Dance has the same effect in bringing spirit, soul and cosmos together.  In many African languages the words for “spirit”, “breath”, and dance are the same.  Says Richards: “Through dance we experience reality as immediate to us; that is, we are identified with the universe….We have experienced cosmic interrelationship…Dance, for us, is a religious expression. When we dance, through Rhythm, we express ourselves as cosmic beings. Music transcends us to ultimate realities. Dance and Song, Rhythm and Music then are part of the matrix of the African Universe.”

A South African bride and groom join with family and community in a traditional wedding dance. Photo by Azekhoria benjamin, Wikimedia Commons

Dance–along with the drum and music–is part of the spiritual expression of humanity’s deepest feelings. Furthermore, ancestors and spirits join the dance. In dance, the relation of interbeing and cosmology comes alive. As Richards puts it: “Rhythm is what causes the dance—it is Ntu, the Universal Life Force (or Spirit) that revitalizes. Drum locates the Rhythm and communicates it, until finally we are able to find it within us….The fact that Rhythm exists ‘outside’ of us, ‘before’ us, and yet can only be manifested in and through us, is a statement of the organic interrelationship of the cosmic order…In Rhythm all reality, all being is joined. Ntu animates the entire universe. To be touched by it is to know that all being is spirit.” To find Ntu and Rhythm “is to be in tune with the universe.”

Adapted from: Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing From Global Faiths, pp. 240, 242f.

Also referenced is Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death by Howard Thurman.

Banner image: “Sukuma tribe traditional dance by Mchele Mchele group, Tanzania.” Photo by Imani selemani Nsamila, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Queries for Contemplation

So much cosmology—so much is being told of how the human spirit relates to the cosmos through music, rhythm and dance.  Is this your experience also?  Since we all come from Africa it would seem that insights from Africa about art as prayer that connect us to the whole might apply to all humans.  Is that your experience also?

Does music put you “in tune with the universe?”  When?  Under what circumstances?  What results from that tuning?

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.

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4 thoughts on “The Via Creativa in African Traditions”

    1. Gail Ransom

      Dear Annette,
      We are sorry that you are having trouble with your video. All systems are operating on our side, so it seems this is nothing we can fix. Try putting the title of Matt’s video in the search bar of your YouTUBE app. That is how I often access them. (Otherwise, ask a young person……)
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Saily MeditationTeam

  1. Avatar

    As a young Franciscan Novice in the mid 1950s, I had this same experience while watching our choir directress’s hands framing the arsis and thesis of Gregorian Chant. The link below seems to connect that memory with today’s wonderful meditation.
    Unlike modern music where there is a meter or time signature imposed across broad sections of the music, chant is a series of 2 or 3 note patterns counted such as: Arsis is the lifting sublatio of the foot without sound, thesis the placement positio of the foot with a sound.

  2. Avatar

    I love how the cosmology that Matthew speaks about (creation spirituality) is so inclusive of all creation, all religions, or non religions, all people no matter the gender, race or sex… the whole universe dances with this cosmology. Blessings to all…..Keep posting.

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