In the summer of 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to the village of Dagbamete, Ghana to study music. As a percussionist, I couldn’t ignore this chance. This was a three-week study abroad course through SUNY Potsdam. During this time, we lived in the village, taking music lessons Monday through Friday during the day and excursions around Ghana on the weekends.
Dagbamete is located in the Volta region of Ghana, which is in the southeast, near the border of Togo. Ghana is an incredibly diverse country, with over 100 languages spoken. The people in our village belonged to the Ewe people. In Ewe tradition, music consists of three parts: drumming, dancing, and singing. Without all three components, a piece is not complete.
We learned three different styles of music in Dagbamete: Gahu, Zigi, and Kpanlogo. This article will be focusing on Gahu. Gahu, which means “expensive dance,” originated in Nigeria and was integrated into various Ghanaian cultures as people moved. Each tribe has its own variation on the Gahu. The patterns I will be discussing are specific to the Ewe version of Gahu as taught by Kwasi Frederick Dunyo. In addition, I am including notation for the drumming and singing and video for the dancing.
The best way for students to learn about a foreign culture is to experience it firsthand. Participating in Ghanaian music is a way to introduce aspects of Ghanaian culture. This activity can lead to discussions about Ghanaian values, religious beliefs, the role of music, and the influence of cultures on one another. This article focuses on Gahu because it is a more well-known style of music from Ghana and can be performed by most age and ability levels, with appropriate adjustments.
There are two instruments in Gahu that serve as time-keepers, similar to the clave or cowbelll in latin music. The gonkogui (gahn-ko-gwee) is a double-bell, similar to an agogo. It serves as the primary time-keeper in Ewe music. The pattern does not vary during the duration of a performance. The gonkogui has two sounds, “low” and “high.” These sounds correspond to the pitches of the two bells of the instrument. The axatse (a-ha-che) is a hollow gourd with beads on the outside, similar to a shekere. Like the gonkogui, the pattern does not vary. The axatse makes two sounds: “pa” and “ti.” “Pa” is played by hitting against the thigh. “Ti” is played by hitting against the open hand. The rhythmic patterns for the gonkogui and axatse are printed below.
There are three supporting drums in the Gahu, all played with sticks. Kagan is the smallest drum and is played by angling the head away from the player. It is the only supporting drum that does not change its pattern with specific variations. Kidi is the middle drum and is played flat on the floor. Sogo is a larger drum that is also played flat on the floor. When playing drums with sticks, there are two different strokes, open and closed. To play an open stroke, hit the drum in the middle of the head with the stick and allow it to rebound back up. To play a closed stroke, hit the drum in the middle of the head, but do not allow it to bounce back up; press it more firmly into the head of the drum to make a more muted sound. The rhythmic patterns for all three drums are printed below. The text below the rhythms refers to open and closed strokes, as well as dominant versus weaker hand.
The lead drummer plays the largest drum, called a gboba. Gahu contains a large number of musical and visual variations. These are indicated by specific patterns played by the lead drummer. In between variations, the lead drummer is free to improvise as he or she sees fit, referring back to the main rhythm (atsikogu) played on the shell of the drum. The rhythm for the atsikogu pattern and first variation are printed below.
Many styles of Ghanaian music follow a call and response form. Gahu is no different. One member of the ensemble performs the call as his or her discretion, aligning correctly with the beat. There are multiple songs used with Gahu and they can be called in any order. The music printed below is a guide that can be expanded through improvisation on and harmonization of the melody. The lyrics loosely translate to “Welcome to the Gahu; the Gahu welcomes you.”
Gahu is performed in a circle that moves counterclockwise. The basic step is fairly simple. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent, take two steps with the right foot, then two steps with the left foot. These steps should be on the beat, lining up with the quarter note. With each step, drop that shoulder. It should almost look like punching towards the ground, but not too emphatically; that comes in the variation. Each step should move the circle clockwise.
This basic step continues until the lead drum plays the call for the variation. When the call is initiated, the dancers raise their hands in the air and say “Ho” for six beats, listening for the gboba. When the gboba plays straight quarter notes, hunch over and punch towards the ground in the same right-right-left-left pattern from the basic step. The dancers turn their heads as they drop the shoulder so they face away from the side that dropped. The feet continue to move throughout this entire process. When the gboba plays the signal to end the variation, the dancers jump into the air and raise their hands, this time without saying anything. Additionally, the feet stop moving for four beats. As the atsikogu pattern begins from the beginning again, return to the basic step.
The following are links to PDFs of notation for Gahu
Song: Gahu Woe
Drumming: Gahu Notation
Variation: Gahu Variation 1
The following videos have been blurred to protect the privacy of the individuals performing. The first video shows the beginning of a Gahu performance, which is at a slow tempo. The second video is further along in the performance at a much faster tempo. If you would like a video of the entire performance, please contact me.