Eʋe recreational drum music in the course of time

Eyram Fiagbedzi

Agbadza has been a popular dance-drumming tradition of the Anlo-Eʋe since the late seventeenth century (Fiagbedzi, 1977). Its etymology can be traced to a combination of two Eʋe words: agbe (life) and dza (fresh or pure) – meaning agbadza brings fresh life to the participating people (Kuwor, 2017). Others believe that it is a funeral dance originating from an older war dance, atripkui (Anku, 2009). Agbadza has many variations, such as agba, kini, ageshie and akpoka, distinguished mainly by the different temporal varieties of expression.

The Anlo-Eʋe consider agbadza dance-drumming as a symbol of their culture and collective identity. Although it was originally used by men to prepare for war and to celebrate triumph or mourn defeat after war, today it is performed as recreational dance-drumming open to both sexes, irrespective of age or social status. It is performed at both sad and joyous occasions, such as funerals, church services, weddings and traditional festivals.

A set of agbadza drums from the Ulli Siebenborn collection / drummuseum.com
Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich (Kathrin Leuenberger) 2019

The agbadza drum set consists of the atsimeʋu (master drum), sogo (a supporting drum that can take the role of a master drum in other ensembles), kidi (the second supporting drum), and kagan (the first supporting drum). It also includes idiophones such as gankogui (double bell), axatse (rattle) and clappers. Eʋe traditional drumming may be explained as transformative because, while the superficial aspects such as drum language texts may alter over time and space, certain structural principles remain unchanged (Burns, 2005). So, while the fundamental rhythms of agbadza endure, the drum language assigned to the rhythm continues to change depending on the community, context or period. Moreover, drummers also create new drum languages for existing drum variations.  Hence, they are expressed in multiple versions, at any time.

Drummers in the agbadza drum ensemble employ stick drumming and various combinations of hand techniques. However, particular techniques – such as muted strokes (very soft, almost inaudible), stopped strokes (rather loud, usually one stick or hand pressing the drum head while the other strikes at the centre of the head) are prescribed for each respective instrument. The atsimeʋu master drum combines three main sets of playing techniques, with each technique embodying a variety of playing modes. These are the stick-and-hand combination technique, two-hand combination technique, and two-stick combination technique.

Bɔbɔɔbɔ (pronounced “Borborbor”) dance-drumming emerged in the 1940s in Wusuta as an offshoot of older secular dances called konkoma, tuidzi and akpese, but gained prominence in the 1950s in Kpando in the Volta region as one of the creations of the independence movement in Ghana. Beginning as an ethnic recreational tradition, it became party-political when the first Bɔbɔɔbɔ band was grafted into Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s C.P.P (Convention People’s Party) with the brand name Osagyefo’s Own Bɔbɔɔbɔ (Badasu, 1988) from the mid ’50s until Nkrumah was removed from power in 1966. ‘Osagyefo’ is an Akan title traditionally given to leaders who have been victorious in battle. This title was spontaneously bestowed on Nkrumah by the people of Ghana. Other people also referred to the group as Nkrumah’s own Bɔbɔɔbɔ (Collins, 1996; 2018). This group survived the political persecutions because its founder, Francis Nuatro, reorganised his band and started performing at non-political events such as funerals and other social occasions. Bɔbɔɔbɔ ensembles may be loosely sorted into categories such as community groups, hometown associations, church-based groups, privately-owned groups and momentary groups.

Since the 1980s when Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming found its way into the Christian church, it has been influenced by Christianity and Western art music, which are evident in new dance movements, instrumentations, songs themes and musical elements of the style.

Drummers of the Nutifafa Bɔbɔɔbɔ Group from Kpando  at a performance in Dzolo-Kpuita in the Volta Region of Ghana, December 2018. Photo © Eyram Fiagbedzi 2018.

Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming only employs the two-hand combination technique. In a sitting position, the ʋuga is held in between the player’s thighs and intermittently raised off the ground to provide tone variations. While the ʋuga thus provides rhythmic and melodic variations, the ʋuvi and asiʋui provide a continually repeated steady rhythm in alternation.

Bɔbɔɔbɔ dance-drumming has become one of the most popular indigenous dance-drumming traditions in Ghana and neighbouring Togo. While pro-Eʋe Christian churches employ bɔbɔɔbɔ drumming in their liturgy, others have established bɔbɔɔbɔ ensembles that complement the musical needs of the church. Such ensembles usually represent the church at their members’ weddings, anniversaries and funerals, and other occasions within and outside the church. Bɔbɔɔbɔ master drummers are currently in high demand due to the growing number of bɔbɔɔbɔ ensembles and high demand for their services in both rural and urban communities in Ghana. A number of ensembles who do not have permanent master drummer(s) are compelled to decline engagements due to their inability to engage the services of such expert(s). This has made some master drummers reluctant to become permanent members of ensembles, in order to earn a higher fee for their services. Thus, the sustainable future of this dance-drumming tradition lies partly in the need to train more master drummers to meet the demands of the booming bɔbɔɔbɔ industry.

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Header: Photo © Eyram Fiagbedzi 2018

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References

Burns, J. (2005). “My mother has a television, does yours? Transformation and secularization in an Ewe funeral drum tradition.” Oral Tradition 20, no. 2: 300–319.

Badasu, A. (1988, June 3). “Tribute to FC the originator of borborbor.” Ghanaian Times, p. 4.

Collins, J. (2018). Highlife Time 3. Accra, Dakpabli & Associates.

Collins, J. (1996). Highlife Time. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Kuwor, S. K. (2017). “Understanding African Dance in Context: Perspectives from Ghana.” Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.10, no.4, June 2017: 47-64.

Anku, W. (2009). “Drumming Among the Akan and Anlo Ewe of Ghana: An Introduction.” African Music 8(3): 38–64.

Fiagbedzi, N. (1977). The Music of Anlo: Its Historical Background, Cultural Matrix and Style. Ph.D. diss, Los Angeles, University of California.

Young, P. (2011). Music and dance traditions of Ghana. North Carolina, London, McFarland & Company, Inc.