the future of my people’s musical traditions

by Steve Trombulak

This is a story about a spark of an idea, and an effort to fan it into a fire of positive change.

Last year, one of Josselyne’s teachers from Ghana, Emmanuel Agbeli, was visiting us in Vermont as part of a larger tour she had arranged for him throughout the eastern U.S. Emmanuel is from the Ewe (pronounced Eh-wey or Eh-vey) tribe that inhabits the Volta Region in southeastern Ghana and across the border into neighboring Togo. He is the director of the Dagbe Cultural and Arts Center in the village of Kopeyia, a center founded by his father, Godwin Agbeli. The center has been host to numerous students and scholars from colleges and universities in both the U.S. and Europe, who come to study the music, dance, song, and creative arts of the Ewe people. It was here that Joss began her in-depth study of Ewe music almost 20 years ago.

One evening over dinner, Joss recounted for me and reminded for Emmanuel a story: While in Ghana, she had asked Emmanuel about arranging for the purchase and shipping of antelope skins so that she could repair some of her ensemble’s drums, and he said that he wasn’t sure what he could provide, as the price and even availability of antelope skins had worsened dramatically in the last few years.

He had then gone on to say something that was deeply disturbing: “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

To understand his concern, one needs to understand something about the nature of those traditions.

First, as all of the readers of this blog are probably aware, much of African music has a strong emphasis on percussive rhythm. In the Volta Region of Ghana, music is dominated by drums, bells, and shakers, commonly played in ensembles that express both polyrhythmic (= instruments playing different rhythms at the same time) and polymetric (= instruments playing in different meters, such as 4/4 and 12/8, at the same time) characteristics.

Second, drums are headed by skins of various animals, including antelope, goat, and cow. However, the type of skin used is specific for a type of drum due to its timbre. If a drum is headed with a different type of skin, its sound changes, and it cannot fit in to the ensemble in its traditional way.

Third, the Ewe language is tonal. Similar to Mandarin Chinese, the inflected emphasis of how a word is spoken conveys meaning. Take, for example, the word “emmu.” The same letters in the same order can be used to mean either mosquito or water; it all depends on the inflection used when the word is pronounced.

All of these points come together in an overarching truth: The rhythmic musical traditions of the Ewe people involve drums that quite literally speak the Ewe language, each drum in the ensemble speaking a different sentence, and together telling a story that is part of the Ewe’s cultural heritage. Antelope skins are used because they are strong and, more importantly, they produce a variety of melodic tones. If the drums are not headed with antelope, then the drums cannot speak their parts, and if the drums cannot speak their parts, then the story cannot be told.

And the antelope are disappearing.

Through overhunting for food and habitat loss to accommodate increased agricultural production, antelope throughout West Africa, including Ghana, are in decline. Of the 20 species of antelope known to be part of Ghana’s native fauna, one (the red-fronted gazelle) has been eliminated from the region already, and all of the rest but for two are in decline.

It is no wonder that the price and availability of antelope hides has worsened in recent years. And it is no wonder that Emmanuel said, “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

It was then that Joss asked her next question, one that would launch the three of us on a journey that would move us between continents, among multiple cultures, and across disciplines as diverse as ethnomusicology, wildlife biology, and non-profit business management. “Well, if antelope populations are declining in the wild, would it be possible to raise them in captivity?”

Cue the quizzical stares in the direction of our house’s resident wildlife biologist. “Well,” I said, “I have no idea, but I can do some research and see what’s known about that kind of project.”

In fact, it turns out that captive breeding of antelope is a well-established practice. Numerous zoos around the world have successfully bred many different species of antelope, including those that would be of interest to the Ewe people, and a handful of wildlife rehabilitation centers in Africa had done the same. In fact, several years ago, the duikers (pronounced di-ker), a group of small antelope species native to Africa, were identified as a promising form of “micro-livestock,” species whose domestication might improve agricultural productivity and food availability.

In theory, then, developing a captive breeding program for antelope in Kopeyia might be a way to help retain Ewe musical traditions. We could capture a handful of antelope in the wild and use them to start a breeding colony in a facility where they could be fed and cared for. Their offspring could provide hides for the cultural center and meat for the local villagers in an on-going basis, all without putting undo pressure on the populations in the wild. All we would have to do is build the facility, find a way to get hunters to capture the initial animals for the colony and deliver them to us alive, hire staff to provide care and feeding for the animals, develop a protocol to ensure their health and promote their reproduction, and raise the funds to do it all on an on-going basis.

As Joss and I are so fond of saying when presented with an interesting idea, “Hey, how hard can it be?”

[Next: Bringing this project to life.]

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