Drumming and musical practices among the Eʋe in Ghana

Eyram Fiagbedzi

The Eʋe in Ghana live in the Volta, one of the sixteen administrative regions in the south-eastern part of Ghana. They are mainly grouped into Eʋedomeawo (Northern Eʋes) and Anlo (Southern Eʋes). The Eʋedomeawo include Asogli, Adaklu, Awudome, Gbi and Akpini, while the Anlo include Avenor, Tonu (Tongu), Bator and Mafi. Both groups of Eʋe have rich dance-drumming traditions. The Eʋedomeawo have musical genres such as adeʋu (hunter’s drum), gabada and  bɔbɔɔbɔ.

Adeʋu (ade = hunt, ʋu = drum) is a warrior’s and hunter’s dance that was performed in the past to welcome and honour hunters on their return from a successful expedition. It was also performed to show gratitude to the gods for protecting them from wild animals, because it was believed that some of them had fearsome spirits that were capable of working against the hunters in the forest. During such performances the hunter displayed the confrontations and antics he had gone through before killing his game. Today, adeʋu is performed by both sexes during functions such as a durbar (procession) of chiefs, at installations of chiefs and traditional festivals.

While most of the musical genres mentioned here are dominated by male musicians, there are some musical styles in which women play idiophones and sing, accompanied by male drummers. Such female musical types among the Eʋedomeawo include akaye and egbanegba. The Anlo musical traditions include recreational ones such as agbadza and the women’s funeral music atibladekame. In performances in these styles, women play idiophones, sing and dance, while men usually play the drums. In modern times women also feature as master drummers in ensemble performances, leading to discusssions about the changing traditional roles of male and female in ensemble drumming.

The term ʋu (drum) symbolises all Eʋe percussion instruments and emphasises the drum’s central role in Eʋe dance-drumming performance. Drums and drumming serve as repositories and transmitters of cultural knowledge and values. Drum texts may contain proverbs, maxims and the names of towns, chiefs or titles which teach or remind the people of the virtues they are expected to have. Through this, youngsters also learn the appellations of the towns, traditional rulers and famous people’s good deeds in their communities. It is also a way of re-enacting the historical, social and political structure of the Eʋe people.

Agbadza drumming and dancing at a funeral in Kodzi, Volta Region, September 2011. Video © Kodzo Davordzi Bannini.

Eʋes are known for their complex rhythmic drumming traditions, which are usually based on ʋugbe (drum texts). The ʋugbe rhythmic patterns are based on mnemonic sentences that drummers use to memorize the rhythmic part they play in an ensemble. Usually, one drummer will come up with a new a rhythmic phrase for another to build on. Such patterns may be created during rehearsal sessions or performances. They may also be generated from happenings around the rehearsal or performance spaces. They range from frivolous comments such as…

Zekpe doɖa, na bɔbɔ viɖe

Protrude your buttocks backwards, and bend slightly

Mieva ɖo za, za, za, mieva ɖo!      

We have arrived in our numbers, we have arrived!

Nadzedzi gbla, nadzedzi gbla    

Kolo gbogbo ɖewo doafe ne ame         

Engaging in numerous casual sexual affairs

leads to impoverishment

…and maxims and proverbs such as…

Ege metua xo na aɖaba o

The beard does not narrate historical events to the eyelash

…to appellations or praise names such as

Anlo kotsieklolo, naketsi ɖeka no dzome bi nu ame akpe wo ɖu

Anlo the mysterious, single log of firewood in the fire cooks the food for thousands to eat

Eʋe drums are either carved from a log or constructed from wood slaps fastened together with iron hooks. Drum heads are made from different types of hide, of which goat, cow, and antelope are the most commonly used. In the past the Anlo would use the skin of a fox (avugbe) found in the coastal lagoon areas around their settlement.

The names of Eʋe drums reflect either the materials used in their construction, the playing position, performance technique, the sound produced, the performer’s location or the function of the instrument in the ensemble. Drums such as ʋuga (big drum), lakleʋu (leopard drum), agblɔʋu (curved stick drum), ʋukpo (short drum), atompani/atumpani (talking drums), and adaʋatram (awe-inspiring sacred drum) are played as single instruments during royal ceremonies and traditional religious ceremonies.

Other drums are played in ensembles for recreational purposes or during funerals and festivals, such as atsimeʋu, sogo, gboba, kidi, and kaganu. Another set of ensemble drums played by the Eʋedome comprise the ʋuga, ʋuvi, and asiʋui. The adondo (hourglass-shaped drum), and blekete were instruments borrowed from the Brekete and Tigare cults from northern Ghana in the 1940s.

The late 1980s marked the beginning of incorporating Eʋe drumming into Christian worship. Eʋe-dominated Christian churches such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Ghana (EPCG), the Apostle Revelation Society, and the Roman Catholic churches in the Volta region have incorporated Eʋe drumming into their liturgy. Congregational singing of translated Western hymns and choral music compositions by Ghanaian art music composers are accompanied with Eʋe drumming, and the church choirs enhance their processional and recessional songs with bɔbɔɔbɔ drums.

Borborbor drumming during a church service in Nima, Ghana. Video © Kodzo Davordzi Bannini 2019

During the General Assembly of the EPCG, the atsimeʋu and supporting drums such as kidi and kagan are usually used in a procession to usher the choir and clergy into the chapel for the service to begin. Call to worship is also sometimes done by the atumpani (talking drums) and the liturgist recites what is being played on the drum. The use of the ʋuga and adondo, originally from northern Ghana, are very prominent in the churches named above. The adondo is played to signal when congregational hymn or a choir group singing should start and when the various stanzas should start and end. To show appreciation to a speaker or excitement about an occurrence during the church services, specific rhythmic passages are played on the adondo to which the congregants respond with a unified rhythmic hand clapping. Furthermore, drum-dancing ensembles such as agbadza, bɔbɔɔbɔ, and akpalu also exist, which augment the music performances during church services.


Header: Photo © Kodzo Davordzi Bannini 2019