On Friday, Nov. 16, the Music Department hosted “A Taste of Ghana,” giving select musicians the opportunity to showcase drum and dance pieces from Asante, Ewe, Ga, and Dagomba Traditions. The event featured 12 pieces, including members of Brandeis’ own Ahenema Cultural Group, Fafali, which is made up of Brandeis students, as well as special guests including Attah Poku, Francis Akotuah, and Richard Dwomoh.
Throughout the show, Ben Paulding, residency curator and percussionist leader of Fafali, highlighted the cultural origins of the works and explained the backgrounds of each featured artist. Paulding, while the only American performer, lived extensively in Kumasi, Ghana, and learned about other cultures through his studies of Ethnomusicology at Tufts and World Music Performance at UMASS Dartmouth. Some of the performers received music performance degrees from American universities as well, including Michael Ofori, who attended Ohio and Boston University, and Koblavi Dogah, who attended Berklee College of Music. Others, like Attah Poku, had more unorthodox approaches toward musical affiliation, having trained with his grandfather at the age of five, and later joining the Asante King’s Drum Ensemble at 10. Often Ashanti tradition requires an entourage of drummers to introduce royal authorities, so Attah’s transition to music has much more personal significance. Nonetheless, all the artists share some means of upbringing in Ghana, and undeniably portrayed their personal roots, singing with passion and smiling throughout the performance.
The first piece began with a solo drum beat, which slowly progressed into a gentle crescendo as other musicians joined in. Men then flooded the stage wearing white robes with blue geometric patterns, singing in unison as Gloria Dyame, the female dancer, dressed in gold headbands and bracelets, swayed her arms and gave taunting hand gestures. The drummers then layered their rhythms as the intensity of the performance increased, syncopating and accenting beats to what seemed like a 6/8 meter with underlying triplet hemiolas. Interestingly, this complex layered structure prevailed throughout the rest of the pieces, as the meters and rhythmic phrasing never repeated.
In the second piece, two groups of men hid behind the stage panels and echoed each other’s chants. They screamed “Ooo ya,” “Yega,” and “Yebuga” twice before drumming ensued, and two men, now with green and orange striped robes, began dancing. The third piece was quite similar, involving a woman with blue tally marks on her face and body sprinkling powder across the stage while another woman and man echoed each other. The beat in this piece kept subdividing and increasing in tempo until the drummers played rapidly, and the woman, now flaunting a wooden stick, twirled in front of the audience. This piece, as explained by Paulding, was a rare experience for the Brandeis audience, as it has never been performed at any university.
Following that dance was an introduction to proverbs through drum beats. Paulding explained that during the British colonization, drummers used multiple beats to create a second language, or speech code, to compensate for the restrictions they had on notifying many people outside of their radius. The first proverb began with three gentle hits, signifying “Mutie, Mutie, Mutie” or “Listen, Listen, Listen.” The other proverbs became increasingly more complex, but translated to “The divine drummer says you should listen,” “Today is a big day for all of you” and “We give you endless thanks,” among others.
Then they transitioned into a piece featuring Koblavi Dogah dancing. Men came out wearing multi-colored tutus while he danced and interacted with the audience. Similar to busking, it is a common practice in Ghanaian performances to give money to the dancers, but unlike placing the money inside an instrument case or bucket, it is placed on the performer’s forehead. One woman took the spotlight and dispersed multiple bills on top of Koblavi’s head, heavily amusing the audience.
After an intermission where Gold Coast Catering provided traditional Ghanaian food for the audience, Fafali took the stage, with all the Brandeis students wearing plaid skirts and spinning large wooden sticks. Their routine was quite compelling, as they moved around in circles following one another, their shadows quickly changing as the string lights dangled above. The pieces that followed involved similar drumming techniques, until the final performance, where the audience joined in with a piece named “Gota.”
In retrospect, as a classical musician, I often reject percussion-only music because of the apparent lack of melodic structure and diversity. However, this performance completely changed my perspective, as each piece contrasted rhythmically, dynamically, and texturely. Likewise, in consideration of how predictable music can be in our modern age, the unique vocal chords and unprecedented dance routines surprised me, revealing the potential power of the performing arts in defining a culture and one’s identity.