Hillsboro New Mexico is one of the many barely-there towns in the southern part of the state. A former mining town, it’s now a self-described “living ghost town” with little more than a main street, some historical sites, beautiful scenery, and a lively community center. In the middle of nowhere, people come out for the arts, from wherever these culture-lovers hide in the desert. I took the winding mountain road into the town, and found the community center by looking for a place with cars in front of it. There were no signs, not even one naming the street.
I could hear the music already rolling through the adobe walls. When I came in, the audience was seated, except of course for my ever-ready dancing buddy. He was standing, a fit early-sixties white guy wearing a sort of African-ish shirt, and as soon as we saw each other, we cut loose. At first we had the whole back of the community hall to ourselves. West African drum group Agalu was sending out a song so exciting, so energizing, I don’t know how anyone could sit through it, but they did. The publicity had said, “this is music that will make you want to dance.” More than want—I don’t know if I could have chosen to hold still.
At last, a graceful, well-dressed woman, youthful in every way except her salt and pepper hair, joined us, and I told her my friend was now in heaven—two women to dance with. My relationship with him is platonic, and he always tells me all about his latest attempts to break the dry spell in his love life. She seemed to flirt with him, and he later claimed the man she’d been sitting with kept giving him dirty looks, but maybe that added to the fun, a little sense of risk and adventure.
The music was frenzied with joy, and yet it took a few more songs to break the dry spell in Hillsboro’s dancing life. And when it did, it was like a monsoon cloudburst. From the audience came a wave of women, all but one of them gray-haired, most of them full-figured. Pardon my sudden shift of imagery—the ladies caught fire. They waved and shook and swayed and stomped. It made the music seem even more vibrant, as inhibitions fell away and people merged with the beat. The happiness level in the room skyrocketed.
I have a painting at home of an African village dance, showing a line of women proudly shaking everything they’ve got. These joyous elders reminded me of it. The musicians must get their energy up when the audience responds to the music. Something seemed to build. One song made me feel absolutely possessed, as if the drums were dancing me. Agalu means “spirit of the drum” and that spirit took over. In my forthcoming third book Snake Face, during one of Jamie’s performances on his troubled tour, he gets respite from his problems when he has that experience of being “propelled by a kind of electricity in his spine, hips, and feet, driven by a dance that danced him.” If you’ve ever felt that, you know what I mean, and now you know the word for it. Agalu.
I caught the attention of the only under-forty woman in the crowd as she danced near me, and suggested we circle the room. The women—and my dancing buddy— followed us, each dancer improvising a solo at the front near the stage, honoring the drummers, thanking them.
Outdoors during the break between sets my friend told me he sincerely believes the way he will die is to be shot by a jealous husband. A friendly stranger, a man with long dark hair, didn’t look up from taking a picture of the artwork in front of the community center, as he said, “I hear you. Always look at the man she’s with.” I’d noticed he walked with a cane, and imagined an injury received from the man he hadn’t looked at, the one who taught him to check first.
After the break several men joined the dancing. One gentleman of about seventy, a small trim white-bearded man, looked amazed and a little confused, as if his own public dancing was the most surprising thing he’d experienced in a long time. Am I really doing this? It’s fun, but… He kept dancing. The man whose female companion danced in trio with my friend and me never did get up and join the fun. Of all the people in the room, that couple and the photographer with the cane are most likely to end up as characters in a story. I already have a fictitious African drum group based in Santa Fe in my books. They could play in Hillsboro. The possibilities are endless for what could happen next.
From Agalu’s web site:
Agalu is led by Akeem Ayanniyi, who is the ninth generation of his family to play the traditional Yoruba talking drum. Ayanniyi, from the Western Nigerian town of Erin Oshun near the historic art center of Oshogbo, has been performing since the age of five and has toured much of Africa as well as Germany, Brazil, Sweden and the United States as a performer and teacher. He settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1993 and founded Agalu in 1998.