Juba Dance – A Musical Masterpiece
Nathaniel Dett was an accomplished African American/Canadian composer, pianist, organist, choral director, and teacher born in 1882 In Drummondville, Ontario. Dett’s musical journey began at a young age when he would sit in on his brother’s piano lessons, and then play his pieces, even though Dett had no formal training. By the time he was seven, Dett’s mother had it arranged for him to take lessons too. Having a natural ear and talent for music, Dett quickly progressed. In 1903 he enrolled into the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. It was here that Dett would be influenced by a performance of Dvorak’s “American” Quartet op 96 which would shape his own musical style. The American Quartet was influenced by Dvorak’s interest in Black-African American music. This piece reminded Dett of Spirituals that his grandmother sang to him, and he vowed his life to preserve the music.
In 1908 Dett graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory with a bachelor of music degree in composition and piano; he made history as being the first Black person in America to do so. Dett would go on to study at many more institutions including Colombia University, Howard, Harvard, and others. Dett would also be awarded two doctorate degrees, one from Howard and one from Oberlin. Dett’s composing style is considered romantic laced with negro American folk music.
Dett’s love for his culture is shown through his music. This can be seen in “Juba Dance,” a piece that Dett wrote off the popular African/ slave dance The Juba. The Juba rhythm originated in Ethiopia along the Juba River. It is described as a dance for the hands and feet, done to the melody of a singing fiddle plus a combination of rhythmic stamps and percussive hand claps. This stamping and clapping, done by one third of the dancers, keeps time while the remainder of the dancers dance to the tune. This is captured in the left-hand syncopated patterns while the right hand imitates the fiddle with repeated open fourth and fifth patterns. This piece was one of Dett’s most famous and most played pieces.