The various musical genres of Ashanti-speaking communities and Ghana have captured the attention of European travellers and scientists since early on, but this interest was often informed by stereotypes based on grave misunderstandings. A British traveller in 1819 noted that the “wild” music of the Ashanti is “scarcely to be brought within the regular rules of harmony”. And, according to the writings of another traveller in 1899, “the West African” loved nothing more than to “abandon himself to the delight of a noisy demonstration of his instrument of torture” – the drum.
According to Ghanaian scholar Kofi Agawu, many attempts by non-Africans to describe the musical repertoires of West Africa were bound to fail. What the foreigners had missed was that musical rhythms were part of a wider continuum of rhythmic expression and experience in everyday life in West Africa. Contrary to what many Western scientists postulated, drumming is not the basis of musical expression in Africa. Instead, the rhythms of drumming are based on the rhythms of bodily gestures and, especially, on language. In the tonal languages of West Africa the relative pitch of syllables, but also the grouping of syllables in a sentence, determines the meaning of an utterance. Without understanding the significance of melodic and rhythmic expressions in spoken language, Agawu argued, one barely stood a chance of understanding the layered rhythms in the musical genres of the Ashanti.
Thanks to publications by numerous African musicians and scientists (such as Kwabena Nketia, Kofi Agawu and Willi Anku) it is possible for non-African scholars to understand at least some fundamental principles of rhythmic expression of Ashanti and other groups’ musical genres.
Most musical genres of the Ashanti are more than mere entertainment. At important political, religious and social events drummers perform specific musical repertoires on sets of drums that are associated with these specific events. At funerals, for example, rhythms and songs from the Adowa repertoire are performed. During events at the court of traditional kings, Kete-music is played on Kete drums. Even though today these clear circumscriptions are not always adhered to, drum ensembles still play an important role in political and social events.
Similar to many drum ensembles of the Yorùbá, the drums in many Ashanti ensembles are hierarchically organized and have clearly assigned roles. In the traditional court music Kete, for example, the atumpan leads the ensemble as a master drum. It is accompanied by the two stick drums aburukwa and petia, one hand drum apentemma, one hourglass-shaped drum donno and, importantly, the slit bell dawuro. These accompanying instruments each play specific rhythms that interlock with the rhythms of the other instruments and thus create a steadily flowing poly-rhythm. When the ensemble thus is rolling along, the master drummer will talk with his atumpan. He will superimpose messages, praises and recite proverbs that are appropriate to the occasion and audience of a performance.
The musical structure of such a drum ensemble is built on the principles of call-and-response and hocketing. In these, each individual instrument relates to the others in such a way that, when they perform together, a sequence of peaks and accents distributed among the individual phrases each instrument plays creates a continuous melodic pattern. The integration of the individual patterns creates a perceptual unity of the ensemble that guides the performers’ awareness and sensibilities with regard to the effects that their own part has on the music.
In order for the individual parts to interlock, the musicians orient their playing by the pattern played by the bell. In the Kete-ensemble the dawuro-bell plays a continuous ostinato and thus serves as a reference for all rhythmic patterns in the ensemble. The other instruments start playing either simultaneously with one particular beat in the bell’s pattern, or they start their pattern with a short moment of silence between two particular beats of the bell. If all players refer their pattern to the pattern of the bell, their rhythmic figures will interlock in a specific way. Thus, when the ensemble has started playing, a drummer or listener can shift their attention away from the bell. Depending on which rhythmic pattern a listener focuses on, different rhythmic elements will come to the fore and different melodic and rhythmic figures will be perceived. In that way numerous conversations between different instruments in the ensemble can be heard.
- Read more: The dùndún drums of the Yorùbá
The rhythmic pattern of the bell and, consequently, all other instruments usually refers to the movements of dancers and their footsteps. Yet, often bells and drums do not play the same accents that the dancers’ feet mark. Instead, they play around the dancers’ steps or in the gaps in between them. Drummers and dancers thus complement each another to create an interplay of acoustic impulses, gestures and steps.
The rhythms of an Ashanti ensemble are elements in a continuum of gesture, speech and music. The idea, however, that this interaction of musicians, dancers and their audiences is exclusive to “African music” has been disputed by many African authors. They argue that many of the musical characteristics described as “typically African” can be found in musical genres in other parts of the world as well – so, too, in the cultures of the mostly European and American authors who had initially made the point.
Talking with drums therefore not only entails the possibility of imitating human speech and thus conveying poetic and formulaic messages. It also entails the interplay of drummers, dancers and audiences and their shared bodily and cognitive experience of meanings that transcend verbally-transmitted knowledge.
Header: Photo © Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich 2018
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Agawu, K. (1992). “Representing African Music.” Critical Inquiry 18(2): 245-266.
Agawu, K. (1995). “The invention of “African rhythm”. Journal of the American Musicological Society 48(3): 380-395.
Agawu, K. (2003). Representing African music. Postcolonial notes, queries, positions. New York, London, Routledge.
Agawu, K. (2006). “Structural analysis or cultural analysis? Competing perspectives on the ‘standard pattern’ of West African rhythm.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 59(1): 1-46.
Agawu, K. (2016). The African imagination in music. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Anku, W. (1997). “Principles of rhythm integration in African drumming.” Black Music Research Journal 17(2): 211-238.
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Nketia, J. H. K. (1963). Drumming in Akan communities of Ghana. Edinburgh, London, Lagos, Melbourne, Toronto, New York, Paris, Thomas Nelson & Sons.
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 Thomas E. Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast to Ashantee (London, 1819), pp. 278-81.
 Lieutenant-Colonel H. P. Northcott, Report on the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast (London, 1899), p. 3