Ewe percussion (Ghana)

Traditional dance-drumming among the southern Ewe people of Ghana continues to be one of the most thriving music forms in West Africa. It is connected with traditional religious events, seasonal festivals, funerals, and daily life. The majority of Ewe groups remain unknown outside their communities, despite extensive ethnomusicological research focusing on the work of a few musical families. The lack of media access is problematic in modern Ghana, as it is throughout West Africa, because mass-produced recordings of popular music have begun to overtake traditional music at many cultural events. While traditional music is still popular today in Eweland, this case study seeks to understand the emerging concerns of Ewe performers and elders at the beginning of this century. It incorporates the views of immigrant Ewe groups performing in and around the capital Accra, as well as Ewe music teachers engaged with transmitting the drumming, singing, and dancing to both local and foreign students, and identifies potential long-term issues affecting the sustainability of traditional Ewe music.


In southern Eweland learning music continues to follow an informal process that is completely aural/oral, without the use of notation, recordings, tablature, or learning aids of any kind. Instead of lessons, all of the artists interviewed followed a long period of immersion into the music by paying their dues— attending thousands of funerals, ceremonies, and festivals during their childhood where they assisted the older artists by playing one of the supporting parts during a performance. Musicians in Eweland continue to believe that they were chosen for a musical life due to the se (individual destiny) given to them by God, as well as due to the cultural inheritance they received from their ancestors.

The Ewe musicians we interviewed for this project believe that musical ability comes from a combination of the talent (aɖaŋu) bestowed on them by God/Destiny (Mawu/Se) and the talent inherited from their ancestors (tɔgbuiwo/mamawo). Grand Drummer Jean Gamadi expresses this commonly held sentiment in his own words, “In Africa, here, an azagunɔ is someone born into it, with a spiritual talent given by Se (Destiny)” (Jean Gamadi). Having an aɖaŋu (spiritual gift) that is recognized by the community is central to becoming a respected musician. Grand Drummer Kwadzo Tagborlo elaborates further on this concept in his interview, “If you are not born with the talent of drumming you can never become a great drummer. Those that had to study drumming, and those born with it, are of a different class” (Kwadzo Tagborlo). Tagborlo’s statement distinguishes between those who had to spend years studying the music (including outsiders and members of the national folkloric companies) from those who have been bestowed with a divine talent for music. A comment by Grand Drummer Richard Tuwornu connects divine talent with ancestral talent: “God sends us into the world with different abilities. If you are given singing, you will come down and be a singer, if you are given drumming, then you will come down and be a drummer. It all comes from the ancestral talents of one’s clan” (Richard Tuwornu). Musicians sometimes speak of being “caught” by the spirit of one of their ancestors, which forces them into a life of music. Grand Singer Afaxoe Ameno addresses this succinctly in his interview, “My musical work began due to the ancestral talent given to me to be a singer. When it caught me, I followed it” (Afaxoe Ameno). In discussions about their musical talents, our respondents all moved between the concepts of destiny and ancestral heritage, indicating that they are interrelated— for example, one’s ancestors may bestow the ability to sing, but one’s individual destiny could be marked for mediocrity.

Apart from a shared sense of divine talent and their initial exposure to music, the paths of those who specialize in drumming, singing, or dancing are different.  Many drummers report that in their toddler years their earliest attempts at drumming were playing on ganugui, a homemade drum constructed from a discarded metal can covered with a lid or plastic bag. Youngsters carry the ganugui around the town, beating it with a pair of sticks cut from tree braches in imitation of the drummers they have seen playing at local music events. When a prospective drummer progresses to adolescence, they will be given the opportunity to play the bell or one of the support drums. There is no formal lesson or instruction, they are expected to watch a brief demonstration and then be able to start playing immediately. There is often a period of thirty minutes to an hour at the start of each music event where a group of beginners and less talented musicians will be given a chance to play. This opening period of music, while people are assembling for the event, serves as the main ‘practice’ time for prospective drummers. While there are many music genres circulating in the community, many of the artists report beginning with a specific genre, which allowed them to grasp the larger performance dynamics of Ewe music forms. At some point during the pre teen years, an acolyte will be given the chance to start learning the response drums. In most ensembles there will be two or three response drummers, so there is room for a talented youngster to sit down on one of the drums and start learning the response parts by observing the other two experienced players. Through their teenage years a response drummer will continue to learn the music visually and aurally, observing their fathers, uncles, and older brothers playing the lead drum while they sit next to them playing the response parts. By the time a drummer reaches twenty or so, they will be given a chance to play one of the lead drums during the opening period of an event, and increasingly, during part of the main musical activity. Emmanuel Agbeli speaks about learning at his father’s side until “it came to a point that I could play the master drum when he was not there” (Emmanuel Agbeli). Speaking about his own evolution as a drummer, Donné Amegble says, “I started playing the Agbadza asiʋui (a response drum), then my uncle (Kwadzo Tagborlo) showed me how they play the sogo (lead drum) in Agbadza. After that my study of the drum was complete” (Donné Amegble).

Ewe music-making is generally called ʋuƒoƒo, (drumming) and a music event is called a ʋuƒoƒe (drumming place/event) (Fiagbedzi, 1977). Like many cultures in Africa, the Ewe use the term ʋu (drum) as a metonym for a community artistic event that features drumming, dancing, singing, fashion, group interplay, solo displays, and occasionally theatrical plays (Anyidoho, 1983; Nzewi, 1997). Ewe ʋuƒoƒe may be categorized by the type of musical space they operate in, from a relatively closed musical space, where an organized group is performing for an audience, to a relatively open music space, where a group of talented musicians facilitates a communal music event that encourages audience participation in all of the aforementioned aspects of the performance (Burns, 2009). At every ʋuƒoƒe there are three basic musical roles that an average community member could step into: ʋuƒolawo (support drummers, bell players, gourd rattle players), hadzilawo (chorus singers), and ɣeɖulawo (dancers) (Fiagbedzi, 1977; Ladzekpo & Ladzekpo, 1983). All of these supporting roles are led by a more elite group of music specialists, whom I will introduce below.

In the southern Ewe region music genres are not associated with certain social strata in society, although there are specialized songs for fisherman, hunters, warriors, and chiefs; nevertheless, these are not heard very often, and are slowing dying out (Jones, 1959; Fiagbedzi, 1977; Agawu, 1995). Today one generally encounters public music making, which may be patronized by anyone free of charge. In terms of the division of musical roles in an Ewe ensemble by gender, there are very few specific prohibitions guiding local practice, what emerges instead are various socially preferred roles for men and women, which occasionally may be transcended (Burns, 2009; Hunter, 2012). The greatest distinction between genders is in the area of drumming, where men generally play the drums and women generally play the bell and gourd rattles. In the area of singing, men and women equally may lead the songs or sing in the chorus. Everyone is expected to be able to dance certain popular dances like Agbadza at local funerals and events, and dancing is the most common form of musical participation in Eweland.

Ewe music genres are indentified by a proper noun follwed with the suffix ʋu (drum), e.g., Yeʋeʋu, the drum(s) of the Yeʋe shrine (Jones, 1959; Anyidoho, 1983; Agawu, 1995). As discussed above, ʋu is a metonym for an entire music genre including its associated instrumental music, dance(s) and songs. Within southern Eweland there are several common music genres found in every town, such as Agbadza, Kinka, and Atigo, which are played at funerals where everyone is encouraged to participate by dancing the basic dance sequence, singing with the chorus, or by playing one of the support instruments (Jones, 1959; Pantaleoni, 1972a; Alorwoyie, 2007). Apart from these open music events, every funeral will have events where organized musical associations known as habɔbɔ come to perform their rehearsed and often original music for the funeral audience (Ladzekpo, 1971; Fiagbedzi, 1977; Anyidoho, 1983). The titles of habɔbɔ genres tend not to be descriptive of the musical form that accompanies the songs, rather, they often derive from personal names, proverbial sayings, and foreign expressions, such as Dzigbordiʋu (Patience drum), Nobodyʋu (Nobody drum), and Akpaluʋu (Akpalu’s drum). Lastly, there are various sacred music genres, whose titles tend to reflect the name of the spirit or pantheon, and not the actual style of music played, e.g., Yeʋeʋu (Yeʋe drum), Breketeʋu (Brekete drum), and Ahɔluʋu (Ahɔlu’s drum) (Fiagbedzi, 1977; Burns, 2009; Locke, 2010).

Ewe musicians who live and work in their hometowns are not professionals, hence, their music making is seen more as a form of community service rather than as a source of income. There is no regular remuneration for Ewe artists, who spend a great deal of their lives labouring at community events for only token drinks and food; therefore, they must maintain a separate career to be able to survive. Most important community events require music, so musicians are given some degree of social prestige for what they do, but their lack of financial resources prevents them from attaining a decent standard of living. A very small minority of Ewe musicians have been given the opportunity to work in one of the national dance companies in Accra or at an institution like the University of Ghana, where they earn regular salaries and can make a professional career out of music. Still fewer have been given the chance to work in Europe or the United States, where they can enjoy an even higher standard of living through their music. Unfortunately, with one or two notable exceptions, Ewe musicians who have pursued opportunities outside have not returned to help their home communities.

Musicians tend to come from certain extended lineages within each district of an Ewe town. In some cases they are also associated with the chieftaincy, or with various leadership roles within local shrines. This gives them a great deal of social prestige, and they are some of the most popular citizens in the town.

One of the challenges to being a musician today is that traditionally artists do not get paid for performances, making it impossible to survive off of music alone. As noted by Emmanuel Agbeli, “There is no money in traditional drumming. If you play at an event they might give you some alcohol and nothing else” (Emmanuel Agbeli). This sentiment was echoed by Grand Drummer, Kwadzo Tagborlo, “Here in this area drumming is in fact a useless occupation. You will go and play somewhere (for a funeral or ceremony) and they will bring a bottle of akpeteshie to thank the group… when we finish drumming we go home and that is it” (Kwadzo Tagborlo). When there is a funeral or ceremony, the host will send a formal delegation to the local drummer’s home, and will offer a dza (token offering), usually a bottle of akpeteshie and a small gift of money, to reserve the date. During the eventual live performance the audience may occasionally be moved to give a small tip, “when you play or sing and make someone happy… if they have some spare money they give it to us as a tip” (Freenight Awalekpor). However, this practice is certainly not as common as in other parts of West Africa, where tips form a major part of a musician’s income (e.g. Waterman, 1990; Charry, 2000; Tang, 2007; Djedje, 2008). Hence, Ewe musicians are trapped by their talent and heritage into providing an important service to the community which gives them some measure of respect, but not the financial reward to enjoy even a modest standard of living.

To survive, musicians will seek some form of self-employment that will earn them enough for daily sustenance, but will still give them the freedom to perform when called: “No, I cannot support myself through music. I do other kinds of work. I do kente weaving and farming” (Augustine Awalekpor). Like Grand Drummer Augustine Awalekpor, male artists will typically turn to various occupations such as farming (Emmanuel Agbeli), driving cars (Ebenezer Herman), doing manual labour, “I work at the Dzodze Akanu border post loading and unloading cars for customs inspection” (Donné Amegble), or raising animals, while female artists will establish some type of trade in the market, or learn a skill such as tailoring or hairdressing (Burns, 2009).

Due to their lack of financial success, most of the artists interviewed report that despite the important role they fulfil within their cultural tradition, they are not given much respect in the community: “In truth drummers are not respected here. If something happens to someone (i.e. they have a funeral in their house), they ask us to come and play, we come and play drums. But when the funeral is over they will insult you that you are a drummer that does not do any work,” (Richard Tuwornu).

Ewe music-making continues to be associated primarily with funerals, ceremonies, and seasonal festivals. Since the colonial period up to today, Ghanaian Eweland has been a relatively peaceful region without any major outbreaks of violence or governmental repression, a fact that has allowed Ewe music to flourish over the past one hundred years. Nevertheless, today there are two major challenges to the sustainability of traditional music making, the Christian religion, which has attacked music making and other aspects of traditional culture as evil, and the changes brought by modernization in Ghana, which frame traditional music-making as an antiquated activity with no career potential and hence, a limited future. The Ewe composer and intellectual Philip Gbeho summarized these hostile forces in a 1954 essay on music-making in the then Gold Coast: “This “Iron Curtain” between the educated African and his own music has been the work of missionaries. They have done many things of which I am justly proud, but their early teachings that our music was the work of the devil— in order to convert us to Christianity — has done a lot to prohibit the music that is at the center of our culture” (Gbeho, 1954, p. 63).

Music is interwoven into the primary public events in Eweland such as funerals, ceremonies, and festivals, and forms an integral part of the daily life of a community: “since there are a lot of deaths in the village, the drums are sounding all the time” (Kwadzo Tagborlo). Grand Drummer Gideon Foli Alorwoyie has also noted, “Drumming is very important in our lifestyle. It is like a daily thing for us. Every other day we play in our hometown” (Davis, 1994, p. 14). In most Ewe towns and villages the sound of certain genres of music can identify the occasion, even from a distance.

Nevertheless, the rise of the Christian religion and Western education over the past century has had a major effect on Ewe traditional life. As noted above by Gbeho, Christian leaders both foreign and domestic have taken a hostile attitude towards all forms of traditional music making, because it supposedly references traditional spirits, encourages the use of alcohol, and leads to sexual promiscuity (Anyidoho, 1983; Meyer, 1999; Burns, 2009). The church initially tried to introduce Western hymnal singing, without any dancing or drumming: “In the beginning, the Christian Church said that its members should not join in traditional music-making, (according to them) the Bible says that we praise God with the organ and singing (church songs), not with drumming and dancing” (Nudzor Prosper Gbeti). Because of the supposed dangers of traditional music, church members are called out in front of the congregation if they are observed at a music event.

There are two central values regarding music-making in southern Eweland: it should occur at free public events, and concurrently, one of the most visible and important ways of fulfilling one’s civic (and family) responsibilities is to participate in the music-making (Gadzekpo, 1952; Burns, 2012). Hence, all of the artists interviewed reported that people from different strata of society make music together. Lead singer David Gali gives a typical response: “We all play the same music, poor and rich. When the drums start sounding, if people feel it in their bodies, they will come around” (David Gali). Anyone is free to join a habɔbɔ, “We are all in one habɔbɔ, poor people are inside, rich people are inside… the rich and the poor are all doing one thing” (Daniel Avaga). As discussed above, most musicians are poor, so they can articulate the sentiments of the average rural Ewe resident, who is also poor: “Most of the songs were composed by poor people who were lamenting on life, or on losing a relative. Later people with money came and also joined in” (Kwadzo Tagborlo). Grand Drummer Richard Tuwornu echoes this sentiment, “In the beginning the song and drum leaders bring out new styles of music. People hear the music and appreciate it so the musicians become popular in the community. There are people from our town that live in Europe and America and have a lot of money, but are still in a habɔbɔ” (Richard Tuwornu). Apart from joining a habɔbɔ group, residents of a particular district are expected to participate in local funerals by at least coming to dance Agbadza. Shrine and Church members are also drawn from all levels of society, and they meet and worship in the same places, so there is no separation by class or wealth in their musical activities either.

Ewe music-making continues to take place outdoors in public meeting spaces, which are open to all members of society. Music events are always free in Eweland. When there is a need to rehearse, a group can meet in the open space inside of a compound house. There is no governmental support for local arts, and consequently the government has little influence in local music. Since Ewe music continues to be a largely unrecorded oral tradition, there has been no attempt to copyright any of the music or to regulate its dissemination.

In Eweland performances are generally held in public meeting spaces (ʋɔnu or ablɔme) which are open spaces between compound houses in each district of the town: “If we play drums, there is a meeting ground in our area, we meet to play there. When we are to play we send out a messenger, who will notify the community that we will be playing there at a certain time” (Richard Tuwornu). These messengers walk through the town in early evening when people have returned home, and deliver notices of funerals and other events orally by first gaining the attention of a group of houses by playing the gankogui double-bell, and then announcing the message loudly for all to hear. Since the ʋɔnu is a free public space, most groups do not need, nor could they afford, their own performance or rehearsal grounds. When, for example, a habɔbɔ group or other group needs to rehearse, they will meet inside a large compound house, which will have an open space in the centre that can be cleared of laundry, cooking pots, animals, and children for a temporary rehearsal space. Shrines and churches maintain their own compounds, the former of which may have its own building or may be part of a larger compound house. As discussed above, sacred music events have a more exclusive musical space, which is within sacred grounds, although people who are respectful and dressed properly can be allowed to enter certain areas within these sacred spaces.

At the present time all of the respondents unanimously indicated that there is no government or institutional support of any kind for their music. Kwadzo Tagborlo gives a representative response: “There are no sources of help for drummers. If you come to play the drums for someone today, and you have a wife and kids, you will not end the show and they will give you $1 or $2 for your work. They might give you some food or drink, or praise you and then send someone to thank you for helping with the funeral. We are struggling, we do not find any profit in drumming in Africa here, among the Ewe people” (Kwadzo Tagborlo). Richard Tuwornu adds, “Drummers and singers do not get any help at all. But we are all here helping people (with our music)” (Richard Tuwornu). While there are chiefs in Eweland, they never maintained a system of court music or sponsorship, and consequently we do not find any of the praise or oral historical functions of the griot cultures to the north. Since the government does not support traditional music making, there is no governmental regulation of local arts.

The lack of significant government support for traditional music has had both positive and negative effects in Eweland. On one hand there are no regulations, taxes, dues, or fees to pay, so musicians can practice their art without restriction. On the other hand, the lack of government involvement makes it impossible to enforce copyright laws and therefore to receive royalties or other residuals from one’s performances or recordings. Since music making occurs at public events, it is also not possible to sell tickets so there are no funds to build concert venues or practice facilities. Instruments are still difficult to obtain, and cannot be afforded by individual musicians.

The most notable aspect of this domain is the lack of presence of Ewe music in the commercial music industry, particularly when compared to Ewe groups living in Togo. Reflecting this absence of media influence, when we asked our informants the questions in this domain, there was little response— many resorted to previous statements about habɔbɔ organizations. While there has been a significant international presence of Ewe music in World Music textbooks, this has not had any tangible affect on local music. All of the artists surveyed want to record their music so that it can spread outside their community, and to be able to leave it for succeeding generations, however, they do not have the resources to fund the studio time nor the technical understanding of recording process to realize this aspiration.

At the present time, Ghanaians are able to use modern mass media forms including radio, T.V., CD/DVD players, MP3 players, and cell phones. There is not much of a problem from the consumer end of things, and are plenty of devices and media to consume. Regional West African pop music, now dominated by Hip-hop influenced musics from Ghana, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, and Nigeria dominate the airways along with imported pop music from England and the United States.

Ewe traditional music continues to live outside the media industry. Looking at all of the groups sampled in the study, virtually none of them reported having an existent recording of their group to market. Part of this is organizational, the district funeral ensembles, and sacred music ensembles do not collect dues, and therefore they have no source of capital to fund a recording session. Occasionally, music promoters do approach certain groups to sponsor a recording, for which they are paid a fee, after which the promoter can market and sell the recordings on their own, paying little to no royalties to the group on the sales of the product. Understandably, many groups refuse to record under these arrangements.

Ewe music has a large presence in the national media, particularly through broadcasts of state events or important funerals in Accra. Ewe dances also form a large part of the repertory of the two National Dance Ensembles, as well as other private folkloric groups operating in Ghana. Grand Drummer Daniel Avaga acknowledges the impact that Ewe music has had on people of other ethnic groups.

There is the potential to enjoy financial gain through production and marketing of recordings, but the opportunities up to this point have been limited. There are many commercial media outlets that play the available recordings of local music, including a few radio stations in Ghanaian and Togolese Eweland, but these are limited to a relatively small number of groups that have been fortunate enough to produce a recording.

Although the Ewe have one of the most widely recognized music traditions in Ghana, they have not been able to successfully create a sustainable recording industry that has the capacity to record, promote and market local music. Their geographical distance from the major media outlets in Accra is part of the problem, and although there have been many recordings of Ewe music made by ethnomusicologists, most of these recordings are not available in Eweland. Recently, this author started a collaborative project with two music groups in Eweland, Dzigbordi and Dunenyo, that provided the opportunity for them to make a series of audio and video recordings of their music, which they have been duplicating and selling locally in Ghana. These recordings have also been featured on local radio and television stations, substantially increasing the status of these artists within their respective communities.

As discussed throughout this report, southern Ewe music continues to thrive at local funerals, ceremonies, and festivals, and appears like it will continue in the immediate future, although other ethnic groups in Ghana have seen D.J.s spinning popular music take over increasingly greater parts of live events. Ewe music also has an important presence in the representation of Ghanaian culture among folkloric groups and in the national media, and has certainly established itself as a representative form of African traditional music in ethnomusicology courses throughout the world.

Traditional music continues to be a vital part of southern Ewe traditional life. It is intertwined with important social occasions, funerals, festivals, and sacred events, and is one of the prime ways that people participate in community affairs. The Ewe notions of aɖaŋu (divine gifts), and amedzodzo (the rebirth of ancestral talent), at least guarantee that the next generation will also be called into musical service.

One of the major problems affecting District Funeral Ensembles and Sacred Music Ensembles is that there is little provision made for musicians, instruments, and supplies in these organizations. Habɔbɔ groups have the leadership and organizational structure to at least maintain their costumes and instruments, and also to be able to provide some compensation to a few key artists, however it is only the larger habɔbɔ groups that they can provide enough for it’s lead artists to earn a modest salary.

Through the local industry and market for cassettes, CDs, DVDs, and MP3s of traditional music, there appears to be great potential for local artists to promote themselves and to earn royalties on their recordings, however, there needs to be some initial outside sponsorship to create some type of local organization that would provide the opportunity for groups to record their music and to help them to effectively promote and market their music.

Perhaps the key issue affecting the sustainability of southern Ewe music is the lack of pay and professional opportunities for local musicians. While a small number of Ewe artists have been given the opportunity to teach in Accra or abroad, for the average community drummer it is not possible to earn a living from drumming. Without a significant income from music artists must rely on another occupation, which also cannot be pursued to the fullest due to their music-making commitments.

Up to now there has been no sense of fraternity among Ewe musicians, most live relatively isolated lives in their local towns, a process reflected in the lack of knowledge our respondents had about important southern Ewe musicians. There has also been a divide between Ewe musicians who are well educated and have established connections with the outside world, and those who have spent much of their lives in their rural hometowns. Ewe musicians that complete secondary school and have some proficiency in English can eventually move to Accra and join folkloric groups, and from there perhaps get the chance to teach abroad. Unfortunately, the few that do make it outside of Ghana, rarely come back to have any major impact in their hometown, apart from a few individuals like Godwin Agbeli and Fred Dunyo.

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