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James Burns Discusses Music of Ghana’s Volta Region


For our program “Ghana: Celebration Sounds,” we talked with James Burns, professor of music at SUNY Binghamton. He has played and researched music from Ghana, Togo and Benin for the past 20 years, written an acclaimed book, Female Voices from an Ewe Dance-drumming Community in Ghana: Our Music Has Become A Divine Spirit, released the excellent CD Ewe Drumming From Ghana and produced a number of music videos for groups based in the Volta region of Ghana.

Morgan Greenstreet: In this program, we hear a lot of borborbor, what can you tell us about the history of borborbor in Ghana? It’s a relatively new, neo-traditional music right? When was it created?

James Burns: A lot of the research that’s been done on borborbor has been done by John Collins, a really well-known researcher who has lived in Ghana for most of his life and has been involved in a lot of really popular music in Ghana, both in terms of highlife music and touring theater groups. And he was really there in the pop music scene in the ’50s and ’60s, so he was there when a lot of these music styles like borborbor and kpanlogo were being developed. From what he writes, borborbor basically emerged out of older styles of recreational music like konkoma, which is something that was played throughout Ghana and is even played in Tamale up in the north. And a lot of these styles ultimately go back to an earlier style of music called gome or gumbe, it goes by various names and it’s found throughout the coastal West Africa as far up as Senegal and Mali all the way down to Cameroon. And it’s also found in the Caribbean in places like Haiti, Brazil, certainly Trinidad, Cuba, places like that. And it was a music of frame drums, so made using new technology of carpentry rather than the old carved style drums. Some of them included other melodic instruments like the guitar or sometimes brass instruments along with it and simple hand percussion. Sometimes it’s a saw blade and a scraper, sometimes somebody would be playing a time line, a little bell or something like that and then they’d sing songs on top of it. And it appears, at least in the case of borborbor, that these songs’ melodies originally came from the Presbyterian hymnal. or Christian music that had been introduced to Ghana. So they were hearing a lot of these melodies in church. And they began to add local lyrics to them. Of course they composed a lot of Ewe hymns using the Ewe language, but then they also created a lot of popular music songs that use those same melodies or slightly modified versions of those melodies. So it definitely has a lot of streams, if you will, that flowed into the origin of what we now think of as borborbor or akpese music. But it certainly included things like gumbe or gome and konkoma, early palm wine highlife music and especially military brass band music as well as the music that was being played at the church.

So, with all of those things kind of going on, by at least the ’50s, Collins notes that you began to hear these new borborbor bands coming out of Kpando, a town in the Northern Volta region. Kpando is commonly cited as the town where borborbor originated. But to make things more complicated there are basically two main styles of music that developed in Kpando from different groups who maybe took the same materials and then spun them in different directions. One of them had more, at least to my ears, of an influence of that military marching band type of music.

And that’s the type of music that got the name “borborbor.” And it had little side snare drums, a bunch of hand percussion, something like claves or bells and smaller frame drums, as well as one larger drum that kind of resembles a sogo [a common lead drum in the Volta region] but it’s an open bottom drum [unlike the sogo]. So that’s the accompaniment that they used for the songs that came out of those early groups. And then on the other side of town, another type of music developed called akpese, and akpese is based on another drum ensemble or drum orchestra, except that these drums are the kind they hold between their legs or they lift up in the air as they play them. So they use their heels to hold on to the base of the drum and then, by pushing up on their toes, they can lift the base of the drum off the ground, and that allows you to change the tonal contour of the drum so you can get tones when the drum is resting on the ground and you can get tones when the drum is in the air, and they’re different pitches.

And so that type of drumming, akpese drumming became really popular especially outside of Kpando as it began to spread to other parts of the Volta region. At some point in all of this evolution it appears that akpese drumming mixed with the kind of songs that came out of the original borborbor group. And so what’s now known as borborbor throughout at least the Volta region is now itself a mix of these two styles. And you almost never hear the original borborbor group drumming outside of Kpando. So that kind of snare marching style of drumming never really took off, whereas the style where you raise the drums and play those two-tone sounds really became popular. Most of the groups outside of Kpando adopted the akpese drumming even though they continued to call it borborbor. But you’ll hear both names used, especially among knowledgable drummers. But amongst the listening public it’s all just called borborbor.

I’ve noticed that depending on the group, there is a lot of variation in tempo. I was wondering if akpese used to be faster and borborbor slowed down over time?

Most groups have—and again there’s no hard and fast rules for any of this—but most groups have what we call in the south a vulolo-type music, which is a processional-type music. So sometimes they actually carry the drums through town and do the processional, but sometimes they just use that music at the beginning of the event as a kind of slower tempo introduction. They’ll tell that it allows them to get warmed up, or it allows older people to dance at a comfortable tempo. It also calls people to come out, that music has started. As you probably know, in Ghana they don’t really have set times for things to begin or end. They might come through town announcing “So and so passed and we’re doing the funeral. We’ll be playing the borborbor tomorrow afternoon.” So you’ll be waiting in the compound and you’ll hear the drums playing and it kind of gets going and then everyone starts to get dressed and come out. If you’re at the event itself, it’ll look like “Oh my gosh, no one turned up.” There’s only like 10 kids running around and a few adults. Then all of a sudden, 20 minutes later, everyone really comes out and the event really begins. So they usually have a slower introductory part; they go with certain songs, and in most cases the early part of the performance they’ll sing what they consider to be the older, classic, more traditional songs. A lot of these are songs they learned from another group or from the group that taught them the music or from a recording or something like that. They tend to be the main fixed songs, or the classic songs that everybody knows as borborbor songs. And then as the music begins to heat up and they move into what we could call the vutsotsoe, the main dance drumming section, then they’ll typically begin to sing newer songs and newer compositions. Then the music will speed up such that by the very end the music is going as fast as it has throughout the event.  So in recordings as well, they’ll typically try to imitate something like that. They may also try to do something with just bells and shaker accompaniment. In the south that’s called hatsatsa; those tend to be longer songs, so they’ll just focus on the singing and have some light bell and shaker accompaniment. Some borborbor groups also do things like that. One of the interesting things about borborbor as agadbza and other new neo-traditional styles of music is that they’ve incorporated some of the older performance practice styles that were used to play other types of music, but then they’ve also evolved in their own way so that almost every village and even within villages, districts have their own way of realizing agbadza or borborbor based on a specific combination of drumming and drum patterns and songs and ways of playing the music that they consider to be the way to do it. But again, if you go to another village down the road they may tell you “Oh no, we do it entirely different here: We do this instead of that, and we do an introduction like this.” So that’s kind of the interesting thing: You can recognize the common structures but in each place they’re realized a bit differently.

Borborbor is also recorded and released as commercial music—Is there kind of a feedback loop? Do these local community groups also check out recordings of Efo Senyo, Israel Mawuto and such and pick things up from those recordings?

Completely, yeah. That’s happened with both borborbor and agbadza. Because they’ve been recorded and their recordings have been disseminated so widely in the Volta region and also among Ewe migrant communities in Accra, Kwashieman and Kumasi, that they’ve also become a meta-language about the music. So everyone is familiar with these recordings by these groups like Efo Senyo and you’ll hear local groups picking up both drum language beats from these recordings, arrangements styles of the support drums or little fills or things that they do, as well as songs that they heard on the recording, so they add one or two of the more memorable ones to their repertoire of songs that they have. Certainly recordings as well as going to live performances. That’s how it was done in the past: A singer or drummer would go to a village and watch them playing agbadja or borborbor or some type of music and get some ideas for it, and they just have really good memories for it, they remember the lyrics for the songs, or the exact language of the drum pattern, and then they’d take it back to their own villages.

I love how in borborbor there’s all these inner systems to the music: The lead singer calling the songs, the bugle taking over and calling the songs, the lead drummer calling the rhythms that complement or go with the songs—

You’re right, there are all these layers that are kind of working together. Each group is a little different but the ones especially that have the bugle will have a section where the bugle is calling the song, maybe playing the melody one time all the way through, then there’s also sections where the bugle will play the drum language and then the drums will follow along with it, and they’ll use two tones on the bugle to imitate the two tones of the drum and of course the drumming itself is structured a lot like agbadza, where you have different drum language patterns, or variations and then you have transition patterns that they play while they’re waiting for a new conversation to come out. So there’s a lot going on at the same time and there are certain groups that will use a certain drum pattern to go with a certain song and sometimes the contours of the drumming go with the melodic contour of the song as well, so there can be a lot of different things going on at the same time.

Cool. Let’s talk about agbadza a bit. It seems to me that agbadza is most common in the southern Volta region, but can we start by talking about the classic Anlo-Afiadenyigba recording?

That was a seminal recording, I guess it was probably one of the first, at least that was released in Ghana, although there were certainly ethnomusicologists in the ’60s and ’70s in Ghana making field recordings of agbadza music. I’ve seen some from Jack Kilby and Jim Kedding and even David Locke made some in the mid ‘70s. But this recording was the first one that was made in Ghana and released in Ghana, for Ghanaians essentially. One of the most important things about it is that, at least for traditional music it was one of the first recordings that became popular as a recording that people bought. It is still bought and listened to today, it’s been one of those seminal recordings. It features two really famous people from Afiadenyigba, or the Anlo core area. The singer Agbovor was a singer in a number of haborbor [dance drumming societies], he was known as a hesino, which means a songwriter, a singer that has also composes their own songs. So in the context of haborbor music, he had a lot of groups that featured his singing or his compositions that would’ve been performed like the Dzigbordi Group from Dzodze [a group James works with regularly]. So he was well known not only for having a good voice, but for also being a composer and a kind of master singer. And then the other was the drummer Lavi, who’s playing the sogo, or lead drum on that recording. He was also an azaguno, which means he was a grand drummer in the region, someone that not only knew all the various styles of drumming but also composed their own drum language patterns and maybe even invented their own music accompaniment styles. They took one of the best singers of his generation and one of the best drummers of his generation and got them together for this recording, which is one of the reasons it’s had such staying power.

Agbadza conjures up a sentiment of traditional Ewe culture through the use of war themes, and themes of famous battles or leaders; it certainly brings about a reverence for the classic Ewe culture when you had hunters and warriors and had to fight against Dahomey or fight dangerous animals like leopards or buffalo. So when they hear it sung, there is a certain aesthetic for the way the singer’s voice should sound, and having a kind of depth and tone that is really highlighted in Agbovor’s voice and singing style. The sound of his voice tugs at the heartstrings.

And then, I spend a lot of my time hanging out with drummers and talking about what makes one drummer better than another or worse or what kinds of things they look for. From the drummer’s perspective, almost everyone that hears this record agrees that Lavi is an amazing drummer, with how he develops the drum language in that recording. As you probably know, when you play drum language you usually start with the kind of basic version of it that everyone recognizes and that allows the support drummers to know what kind of variation you’ve called and they can lock into it, and then once they lock into it, the drummer is meant to add style to it. That’s what we’d call improvisation. So they began improvising on the rhythmic contour of the language pattern while the support drums continue with a constant response. It’s in those sections that you really hear the creativity of the drummer and Lavi’s creativity really shines through on this recording. The drum itself sounds really nice, you can hear the sogo and the bass tones that it produces. So it’s just a great recording as well, in terms of the recording qualty, you can actually hear all the subtleties of the music. And then, what’s represented on the recording is now considered to be the standard, core repertoire of agbadza music. So you may know that a couple of years ago another drummer from Afiadenyiga, Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, and David Locke produced a study of agbadza songs and drum language and almost all of the songs and drum language they used are on the recording of Agbovor and Lavi. So you know, even years later people recognize that those songs and drum language were really the kind of seminal sound of Anlo Agbadza music.

You write about how agbadza is actually kind of not as stagnant as a traditional music, that it’s actually always developing and always changing like pop music does. Can you talk about that?

Yeah, that’s the other side of the coin, and that’s why I called my study of agbadza music “The Beard Can’t Tell Stories to the Eyelash.” Because there’s these two almost polar opposite strains in Ewe performance aesthetics: One is towards classicism, the way things were done before, or tradition if you will, and at the same time there’s also an excitement for new development. So those two streams are constantly pulling against each other. In Ewe there’s this great proverb, “The beard can’t tell stories to the eyelash because the eyelash was there long before the beard came out.” You grow eyelashes when you’re a baby and you may not grow a beard until you are 16 or 18 or something like that. But it’s the beard which grows thick and beautiful. So you know it kind of recognizes that there are things that were there before that we must acknowledge because they were there before but it’s really the thing that’s new that grows beautiful and lush and gets people excited and really keeps the tradition going. If they were still playing agbadza the way they were playing in the ’50s, I think a lot of people would’ve turned away from it, and gone to other types of popular music or electronic music or whatever. But the fact that agbadza has been able to be reinvented every generation, adding new sounds and new things to it has kept it going as an important musical style. If you go to a funeral today, at least the parts of Volta region I’ve been in, they’ll typically go through all of the styles, the history of agbadza you know within the performance. Like I was saying before with borborbor, they’ll typically open with the older agbadza music that’s in a slower tempo and allows elderly people a chance to come and dance and pays respect to the tradition and it will slowly begin to speed up such that once it really gets going, you’ll be dealing with new music and new songs and new drum language and that’s where it transitions to the newer styles of agbadza.

The style I learned in Dzodze is called ageshe, or they call it also reggae, because originally a lot of the drum language patterns that they developed came from reggae music, particularly Bob Marley. So again if you just think across the Caribbean and then the sort of pan-Atlantic African region, you could compare this with samba, and what’s going on with groups from Bahia that have been creating this samba reggae. They’re doing almost the same thing in Brazil; taking this old music samba that grandparents listened to and then they’re reinvigorating it with new sounds and also reggae music from Bob Marley. So it’s like in Brazil it comes out as samba reggae and in Ghana it comes out at agbadza reggae. I guess reggae’s really had a huge impact on music from the whole Atlantic area. But I think it’s interesting that again of all styles, they picked reggae music as the kind of moniker to describe new developments in agbadza, although they also had some patterns from what you’d call late ’70s disco soul kind of music. There’s that one song, “Shake shake shake your bottom” that they used to play on the drum language. But really, I think reggae has had the biggest influence.

That’s awesome. And you’ve done your own recordings of agbadza ageshe. Are there commercial releases?

Yeah there’s a couple of things. The CD that I did with the British Library and Topic Records, it’s focused on the music of the Dzigbordi haborbor. Haborbor groups like Dzigbordi specialize in their own music but they also have a period at the beginning of the performance, again this opening period where they run through a bunch of classic dances, like afa, agbadza, even a dance from the Yeve repertoire. They play each one of them for about 10 or 15 minutes. On the recording I released you can hear both the slow style of agbadza, which is called akpoka, and then the faster, modern style of agbadza, which is called ageshe. And then I’ve also released a recording just of agbadza music from a lot of the same musicians, these are people from the district of Apeyeme in Dzodze. So it’s the same core of musicians but now playing in the context of their district funeral ensemble, which is what they typically play agbadza in.  And this one was recorded in the way you would hear agbadza, at least at a funeral in Dzodze. In Dzodze, what they do is they typically start with a basic, I guess, introduction that plays Afa music that originally is a religious music that goes along with the divination system that underpins Ewe religious tradition. It’s called Afa. In Nigeria, where it originated among Yoruba speaking people, it’s called Ifa, but it’s essentially the same system of 256 different signs and each sign has its own proverb and songs and council and recommendations. So through time, Afa has come to inscribe a lot of the classic elements of Ewe tradition in terms of the proverbs and the images of religion that are just incorporated into the music and the texts that go with the various signs. Now they typically play it as an invocation to the ancestors or to the Earth. So a lot the performances typically start with Afa.

So at a funeral in Dzodze, the group will come out, they’ll play Afa for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and then they’ll play a slower style of agbadza which they call akpoka, so this is where the thread of agbadza music becomes really interesting, or really hard to disentangle, because the difference between Afa drumming and akpoka is very hard to tell. In some areas they would akpoka the slow Afa music. And in some areas it has its own name. In some areas they call it atrikpui. So they have various names or titles for this music, but they’re all played with the sogo as the lead instrument instead of the atsimevu which is the lead drum in most drum musics. The sogo calls a drum language and the kidi [support drum] comes in response. To make it even more confusing, it’s very common for them to sing Afa songs in agbadza and to play drum language from Afa in agbadza. Some people will tell you that this drum language was originally from Afa and then another drummer will say, “No, no the drum language is originally from agbadza and then the people in Afa borrowed it.” There’s really just been a huge mixing of music between this older Afa sacred drumming and then agbadza music. And then agbadza itself has all these various styles: The kind of normal agbadza, the one that’s represented on the recording from the Anlo-Afiadenyigba is kind of a mid-tempo agbadza. Maybe around 120 BPM (beats per minute) or somewhere in that range. Whereas akpoka gets down to maybe 100 beats per minute or maybe 90 beats per minute even. And then ageshe is the kind of faster style, or ageshe reggae as they call it in Dzodze, can go up to 140, 150 BPM. So you know, really the main sonic difference is tempo but then the songs can be sung at almost any tempo, so you’ll hear songs from akpoka being sung at a fast tempo at ageshe and vice-versa. So there’s been a lot of mixing of that. The drum language tends to, because they were composed at a tempo, they tend to stay at that range. But I’ve heard akpoka drum language in ageshe, which is so much faster that it sounds almost like a completely different pattern. So you know there’s really no thick lines between what separates Afa, akpoka, and ageshe, other than the newness. Most people would associate the new songs and the new language with ageshe, because it seems more recent, more fresh and they associate the older songs with Afa or akpoka.

There’s also the whole idea of war, or themes or war or bravery. Which is, I guess a big part of it, or at least the appeal of the classic agbadza. I guess it goes back to this legendary history: they’ll tell you about when they had a warrior who was immune to bullets, or they tried to shoot him with bows and arrows and the arrows would bounce off, and they used witchcraft and all this sorcery to try and bring this person down. You’ll hear all these legendary tales of famous warriors or war leaders that are again incorporated into agbadza or akpoka songs, or ever proverbs from the Afa divination system that talk about war and bravery and things like that. There’s a lot of thematic overlap between them.

Awesome. What are the commercial routes for Ewe music? Where are these albums being recorded and marketed?

A lot of this is based on the study that we did that just came out with Oxford University Press on sustainable futures. It was about the sustainability of various musical styles throughout the world, and I was in charge of the Ghana project. We were looking at Ewe or southern Ewe drumming, specifically, and one of the areas we looked at is the influence of the media and the government, or lack thereof. So, in some areas in the world they have the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage that supports musical traditions like the Xi’an in China and things like that. As well, I believe as Yoruba Ifa divination—there are certain areas where UNESCO has designated music or art or culture as a kind of endangered cultural tradition and they get a lot of support from both UNESCO and the government to revive the art and teach it or whatever. But none of that has been done in Ghana yet, which is surprising given all of the substantial traditions that are going on there.

The music industry is kind of two pronged: There’s the regular modern pop music industry centered originally on highlife and now on gospel music and hiplife and various types of modern hip-hop music or music from say Cote d’ Ivoire like coupé décalé, as well as imported musics from people like Michael Jackson and popular groups, Beyonce and stuff like that. A lot of those are kind of bootleg recordings that are made in Ghana. So you if go to a typical CD stall or music shop in Accra you’ll see probably 95 percent of it is modern pop music, but if you go to a place in the Volta region, in Ewe land, it’ll be almost half and half. You’ll find the typical Ghanian pop and imported pop including bootlegs of Bob Marley and Alpha Blondy and Lucky Dube. Half of the section will be local neotraditional musics. I would say most of it is probably borborbor-based, simply because the main recording studios in the Volta are at Ho. Although borborbor developed in Kpandu, Ho has become one of the main centers of borborbor music. Largely connected to the EP [Evangelical Presbyterian] church, which is headquartered there, and that’s where you start to hear a lot of the religious borborbor music. Borborbor music has now become the most common church music, at least among the Ewe EP churches. Something like borborbor/akpese drumming with church singing, but instead of talking about love they’re talking about Jesus or religious themes. There’s a lot of borborbor cassettes that are coming out among the big groups, Efo Senyo for example. And then you also begin to see Southern Ewe traditional music but again these tend to come from one studio or one producer who will often do several volumes. So you’ll find a lot by a producer named DJ Horse, who’s done about seven or eight volumes of agbadza music. You’ll find a recording of Afa music that makes the rounds quite a bit. And then you’ll find of course this Anlo-Afiadenyiga recording as well as some others. I think most people would agree that a lot of the recordings that are available now are not by some of the best groups that are there, with the exception of the one by Anlo-Afiadenyiga, most of the other recordings, the recordings are O.K. but the groups themselves are not very good. So you have this kind of problem where the main groups from all of the bigger villages of the Volta region that most people will tell you “Oh yeah, this is one of the best agbadza groups in the region,” they’ve never had a chance to record so what’s out there doesn’t really represent very well the variety or the depth of the music that you would hear in a village. So I’ve tried to take some steps to rectify it and over the last six or seven years I’ve been recording a lot of groups, mainly from the Dzodze-Denu-Aflao triangle and whether it be agbadza music or kinka or gazo or whichever music they tended to specialize in. So I’ve done a bunch of recordings and they’ve been producing them in Ghana in both cassette and CD forms and they’re actually getting pretty wide distribution now. One of the other problems with distribution is that its typically been done… a producer would go to a group and say, “Oh I hear you have a great agbadza group, I want you to come and record.” And then they’ll pay the group a flat fee, maybe $150 or something like that to come into the studio. And then once they have the master recording the producer will be able to sell and distribute those recordings however they like, without paying the group royalties. So a lot of groups still don’t want to record under those arrangements, and they’ll tell you “Oh yeah, we were approached by such and such producer and they said they were going to own the recording and distributing it, and we don’t wanna do it. Next thing you know we’ll be in Kumasi seeing our cassettes, meanwhile we’re all here without any money.” So I think it’s really hard for a group to get the capital to go in and make the recording. Then the other part of it is, even when you have the master recording, getting them duplicated also requires a lot of capital. You can’t just go in and buy one hundred cassettes. You have to buy one thousand at a time, or a pretty large number. So that also requires a substantial investment. Once you have recordings, you’re trying to account for the money and all of that, it gets really complicated.

One of the good things is that there’s a huge market for traditional recordings in the Volta region and if you go to any person’s home they’ll have on their shelf cassettes or CDs of pop music and a couple of borborbor releases and probably a couple of agbadza or kinka or something like that as well. And if you go to the market you’ll hear these being played at the cassette stalls or CD stalls and people will be buying them. So I think there is a pretty good market for it. Again it just shows you the persistence of traditional music and culture at least in the Volta region of Ghana.

Totally! Well, thanks so much, James.


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