Foundation Course In African Dance-Drumming

Drums and Drumming

"La kuku dea gbe wu la gbagbe."
"A dead animal cries louder than a live one."


C. K. Ladzekpo

Photo Credit: Some of the principal instruments used in Ewe dance-drumming

The principal instruments among the Anlo-Ewe fall under the category of vibrating membranes, metals, and gourds. A vibrating membrane is commonly called evu (drum). A vibrating metal is called gankogui (bi-tonal bell) and atoke (boat shaped bell), and a vibrating gourd with an external network of beads is known as axatse (gourd rattle).

Evu may be defined as a vibrating membrane fastened across the mouth of a cylindrical body caved out of a solid tree-trunk, or nowadays sometimes made by coopering curved slats into a cylindrical shape with iron bands. Striking the membrane with a stick or hand sets up a vibration that is reinforced by the vibration of the air column within the hollowed solid tree-trunk.

In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, a drum is a super projection of the human voice. In this view, the role and power of the drum in play embodies the Sub-Saharan concept of combining natural forces of the universe in forming the supernaturals. In the composition of this conscious experience, human force is combined with other natural forces - skin of animal, hollowed solid tree-trunk, etc. - as a medium for arousing the attention and reaction of mankind. In a variety of tonal properties - pitch, timbre, intensity, and intricate rhythms - the drum and the drummer, in mutual cooperation, create patterns of consciousness that give a moment of inspiration to those they touch.

Among the Anlo-Ewe, a legendary metaphor, "ela kuku dea 'gbe wu la gbagbe" which means, "a dead animal cries louder than a live one," is commonly used to explain the human experience that inspired the origin of the drum. A human being has a tendency to attract a lot more attention when dead than when alive. So when the need came to communicate louder, a super voice surrogate was built out of a skin of a dead animal that could deliver the message louder and clearer.

Evu is the generic name for a variety of drums with distinct names, shapes, sizes, timbre or characteristic tone colors, and functions. These drums are usually organized as an ensemble within a collective community system similar to the structure of the basic Anlo-Ewe community.

In the sections that follow, we will discuss the structures, functions, tonalities and performance techniques of the indigenous drums and other instruments of the Anlo-Ewe.

In describing the tonalities and rhythms of Ewe music, use is made of specific vocal syllables that imply the sound of each different tone produced by the different instruments. The meaning of these syllables, like "Ga" and "Gi" and so on, will be described in the section for each drum.


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Richard Hodges