Tamango/Urban Tap, photo by Joy Bell
As the wider world opened to European exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, travelers brought back with them marvels and oddities from other cultures and landscapes that soon created a kind of collectomania among scholars and nobility. Displaying their treasures in Wunderkammen, or Cabinets of Wonder, they aspired to gather together a conglomeration of objects, specimens, and cultural artifacts that would represent the dazzling diversity of the world. While the logic of these assemblages is impenetrable to us today, there is no question that these collectors were animated by their awe at the seemingly inexhaustible variety of nature and culture.
Our world has shrunk in the half-millennium or so since the heyday of the Wunderkammen. Technology has tamed the vastness of the planet, making its most remote reaches instantly accessible, and damping our ability to experience the frisson of novel experience. It has been nearly a half-century since Marshall McLuhan proclaimed the arrival of the global village, and today the ghostly light of the television screen illuminates even the most isolated villages and remote archipelagos. What possibility is there left for us to marvel at Wunderkammen today?
With his Urban Tap enterprise, Herbin “Tamango” Van Cayseele has come along to revive the notion of the Cabinet of Wonders for a contemporary audience. Tamango understands that the old ideas emphasizing otherness will no longer serve. With his postmodern variety show, we are meant to marvel not at the strangeness of the world’s diversity, but at its commonalties. As an impresario, Tamango collects the rhythms of world cultures and creates a space for them to come together and to pass from person to person. He goes McLuhan one better in understanding that global flow occurs not just through the medium of machines, but through the rhythms and movements of the human body.
Tamango’s interest in world cultures is inherent in his own story, which represents an extraordinary cross-cultural odyssey. Born in Cayenne, French Guiana, he was raised by his grandmother, a vodun practitioner whom he accompanied on her rounds as a healer. Watching these vodun rituals—syncretisations of Yoruban and Roman Catholic practice—Tamango knew himself as neither African nor European, but as heir to both traditions on yet another continent. This knowledge was made flesh in Tamango at the age of eight when he first experienced a possession by his vodun loas (deities who manifest themselves through nature), Exu, the divine messenger, and Shango, the spirit of thunder. Now literally rooted in a deeply spiritual way to his native ground, Tamango was devastated when he was sent shortly thereafter to live with his biological father in Paris. Sundered suddenly from everything and everyone he had known and loved—from the sources of his understanding of life—Tamango was desolate in France, and he began to pour his grief into poetry and drawing.
His salvation came in the form of a neighbor, Michel Van Cayseele, a French baron, who took an interest in the young boy, encouraging his creative endeavors and eventually legally adopting him as Herbin Van Cayseele. He attended art school, but knew he was still looking for something else as yet indefinable. It was his father who directed the twenty-one year-old to what would become his life’s work by encouraging him to study tap dancing with Sarah Petronio, who was known among aficionados for the complexity of her footwork and her dedication to jazz values. Petronio was to be Van Cayseele’s only formal teacher, for, after a year of training with her at the American Center in Paris, he moved on to the university of the streets. Performing as a busker with a group of musicians, Van Cayseele concentrated on the honing of his improvisational skills and the formation of a distinctive style residing outside of the rhythm tap tradition. From Paris, the group moved on to busking throughout Europe before deciding on a whim to head for the United States. In 1988, he and his musician friends, who called themselves The Over Excited, hit the streets of New York, but within six months, the musicians had been dispersed by the mercilessness of that venue. Van Cayseele continued on alone, accompanied by a boom box, performing on the five-a-day circuit of the Staten Island Ferry.
Gradually, Van Cayseele made his way into bars, clubs, and alternative venues on the lower East Side, working with jazz musicians when he could, but also often unaccompanied. At the same time, he was expanding his contacts with other cultures by collaborating with choreographers from France (Philippe Decoufle) and Japan (Min Tanaka), as well as traveling internationally with Cool Heat, Urban Beat, the show he created with hip-hop artist Rennie Harris, and with the Irish step dance extravaganza Riverdance for its 1996-1997 United States-Australian tour. Back in New York he had a regular gig at the club S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil) that drew on his South American roots. And it was while performing there in 1998 that he had a transformational experience that paralleled that first spiritual awakening in French Guiana. One night onstage he found that his pursuit of the groove was leading him into trance, and in this state, he began to riff verbally. It was, he asserts, a kind of rebirth, and in acknowledgment, Van Cayseele reclaimed his childhood name of Tamango.
The clarity of this spiritual experience energized Tamango as he took the latest incarnation of his show, Urban Tap, to The Kitchen, hallowed ground of New York’s downtown scene, in 1999. It proved a breakthrough for him, garnering press and popular attention as well as a “Bessie” (a New York Dance and Performance Award) for its innovative style. This show and its successor, Caravane, are a summation of all of Tamango’s extraordinarily varied experiences as a citizen of the world, reflecting his transcontinental upbringing and his nomadic artistic wanderings. Its animating spirit is a kind of global vaudeville, as it features turns by performers from around the world, who, on any given night, might include a stilt walker from Côte d’Ivoire, Brazilian capoeiristas, a paralyzed Guinean who dances on his hands, a “human beat box,” American tappers, an Indian singer, hip-hoppers, a one-handed trumpeter from Italy, and assorted musicians from the African diaspora. (Tamango himself plays the didgeridoo, an instrument that he discovered on his Riverdance excursion to Australia.) Unlike traditional vaudeville, however, where the performers vied for favored spots for their separate acts, Tamango’s performances are communal affairs, where he serves as host while the artists trade licks with one another.
In assembling this living Wunderkammen for the twenty-first century, Tamango asserts new principles for adventuring in the world that forswear the rapaciousness and arrogance of those earlier European explorers. He collects not to own but to share, not to dominate but to acculturate. Like the caravan that provides the title for his newest show, these performers are a party of travelers who migrate together, settling momentarily in a myriad number of cultures each night as they take to the stage. An antidote to insularity and intolerance, Urban Tap demonstrates that to share rhythms is to know one another in the most profound way. It is, at once, the most ancient and the most forward-looking of human experiences.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001