Traditional African entertainment makes use of a wide variety of musical instruments, all made out of materials found in nature. These instruments include drums, gongs, bells, harps, flutes and xylophones. In African culture music, dance and song go hand in hand and to separate them into distinct categories is virtually impossible. Music, dance and song is also an inherent part of each culture and is so much more than a mere form of entertainment, it is part of their lifeblood and is intrinsic to their way of life. Today, even though many Africans no longer live a traditional life but have fully adopted western cultures and western influences, they still retain an inherent love for music, dance and song.
Some traditional African dances that are still popular to this day include:
Agbaei, which is a flirtatious, social dance of the Krobo of Ghana. According to the oral history of the Krobo, the elders started the dance when they realised that the youth in their settlement were having trouble with the whole courtship process. They created the dance so that the young men and women of the village would have to participate in the dance and therefore learn some tips that would help them in real life situations.
Bamaaya means, “The river (or valley) is wet” and is the most popular dance of the Dagbamba people in Northern Ghana. These days it serves as a dance for a variety of social occasions such as festivals, national day celebrations and even funerals. It began, however, as a religious musical performance. The dance requires a great deal of fitness and flexibility as there is a lot of waist movement and twisting. When it first started it was a dance that only men could take part in, the women did the singing, praise shouting and encouraged the dancers. Now both sexes can take part in the dance.
Yeve is a Stone or Thunder God that falls from the sky during or after a rainstorm. The people who believe this belong to one of the most secretive and powerful cults in the South Eastern Ewe territories in West Africa. Yeve music has a unique structure that identifies it as separate from other Ewe music. Yeve music has a suite of seven to nine dance forms or movements and each movement is related to a specific phase of worship.
Kete is a dance form that is found in the royal courts of Akan communities. It is only performed if the chief’s status is such that he is entitled to be carried in a palanquin. The music is performed on state occasions and festivals. There are three parts to every performance: 1) drum music 2) pipe interludes 3) vocal counterpart of the pipe tunes. There are eight pieces to each performance. The pieces are identified by the name for the type of drumming and dancing done, by the commemorative name of the event or by a name that is indicative of the participants.
The most popular and well know traditional musical instrument is the djembe drum. The drum comes from West Africa where it plays an integral part in the areas musical traditions and culture. The drum is goblet shaped and covered with animal skin and is meant to be played with your bare hands. The Bamana people in Mali say that the name djembe comes from the saying “Anke dje, anke, be” which translates to “everyone gather together” and thus neatly defines the drum’s purpose.
The combination of the drum’s goblet shape, skin covering and density mean that it is capable of producing a wide range of tones, from a high sharp sound produced from a slap to the round full bass tone. In order to achieve the right sound it is important to focus or disperse your hand’s energy by positioning it in the correct place. Striking the drum with your fingers and palm towards the centre of the drum will produce the bass note, while striking the drum near the rim with the fleshy part of your palm will produce the tone and the slap.
The djembe drum is believed to contain three spirits: 1) the spirit of the tree from which it was made 2) the spirit of the animal from whom the skin cover came from and 3) the spirit of the instrument maker. Legend has it that the djembe drum and the tree that it was made from was a gift from a Djinn or malevolent Demigod. A djembe drum is properly crafted if it is made from a single piece of hollowed out tree called Dimba or Devil Wood. If it has been glued together from slat or segments then it is believed that the soul of the tree doesn’t reside there.
The djembe drum has gained in popularity worldwide since the late 20th century. Drum circles are especially popular as team building exercises for corporations or businesses. In order to get the complete experience, however, one needs the whole ensemble and not just the djembe drums. The entire cast includes bells, and dunun drums with individuals playing different parts that all intertwine to form a beautiful whole. There is usually a lead djembe drum player who plays rhythms and signals the beginning and end of a piece.
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by Sandy Cosser