Instruments in the Ensemble

  • Belltingo, gankogui, struck with a straight wooden stick.
  • Rattleaxatse, a gourd covered with a net of seeds, struck downward against thigh and upward against weak-hand palm; normally many rattles are played in unison.
  • High-pitched drumsadzida, kaganu, two upright drums of lower (1) and higher pitch (2) with slim dimensions, each having a single head of goat skin, struck with two sticks.
  • Response drumasivui, kidi, lower pitched than high-pitched drums and played with larger sticks but otherwise of the same barrel-shaped construction.
  • Lead drumagbivu and/or sogo, both with single heads but sogo is played with two straight sticks or one stick-one bare hand, while agbivu lays flat to the ground with its head propped on a low stand-like stool and is struck with knobbed sticks. When not playing the lead drum part, sogo may double the response drum part.

An Introduction to Yewevu

Note from David Locke: the text below is excerpted from the full article published on Music Theory Online.

The word “Yewe” names a religious system of the Ewe people of the Guinea Coast of West Africa. The word “vu” literally means “drum” but in this usage it inclusively subsumes such modes of expression as singing, dancing, instrumental music, dramatic presentation, and rhetoric. Yewevu, literally Yewe Drum, is the music of the Yewe religion.

Yewe may be compared to other religious systems of the Black Atlantic world such as Gorovodu or Vodou that are all subsumed in the catch-all classificatory category “traditional African religion” to distinguish them from Islam and Christianity. Little scholarly writing exists on Yewe but curious readers may consult the limited information that is available in secondary literature. Suffice to say here that Yewe affiliates to the natural forces of sky and ocean. Within the affairs of people, Yewe enforces ethical conduct, most notoriously by striking transgressors with deadly lightning bolts. Although presumably part of a centuries-old cultural continuum, Yewe itself is not “ancient” in the sense of being a static remnant of a by-gone era. The religion is vigorously “practiced” in the contemporary world.

In the local context, Yewe is shrouded with secrecy and mystery. Knowledge is withheld from those who have not joined a religious order. Practitioners of Yewe zealously guard their cultural heritage and resist sharing information with the uninitiated because congregants wish to maintain the efficacy of their religion against the contaminating impact of Islam, Christianity and modern Western civilization. They rightly worry that opening Yewe to the scrutiny of the wider world likely will have negative consequences on its integrity and may weaken the power of its spirit to act in the world. Furthermore, the deadly danger associated with Yewe is taken so seriously that even disbelievers and skeptics prefer not to risk misfortune by sharing information about Yewe. Many musical experts refuse to teach it. When I studied the music with Godwin Agbeli (1975-1977), we agreed that I would not seek deep knowledge of Yewe as a religious system. Frankly, I did not want the obligation and responsibility that such knowledge would entail. This paper divulges no secrets.

The spatial distinction between “inside the shrine” and “outside the shrine” helps characterize the nature of the music presented here. In Africa, the shrine compound is physically separated from the outside world with a system of fences, walls and buildings. Sacred objects and rituals are sequestered from the secular domain. Yet there are spectacular occasions when the general public gets to witness the music and dance of Yewe. These performance “festivals”, which often stretch over several days, demonstrate the vitality of the religion, capture the fancy of onlookers, and recruit new members. Played outside the shrine, the music presented here is openly heard by the general public during worship experiences. When I attended Yewe ceremonies in Eweland, I primarily was witness to its artistic aspect, i.e., Yewevu. In Ghana and the USA I have participated in performance troupes coached by Mr. Agbeli that theatrically presented staged versions of Yewevu. While respecting the power of the religion and the sincerity of its believers, Agbeli was a modern artist who believed that this beautiful heritage could and should be appreciated for its aesthetic force. As an ethnomusicologist, I believe that significant non-verbal information about Yewe as cultural practice is embedded in the “affective presence” of Yewevu. Statements from enculturated experts support this disciplinary axiom. For example, Mr. Agbeli compared a worshipper’s feeling of Yewe’s spiritual force to the listening experience of being artistically moved by hearing the relationship of the two high-pitched drum parts with the bell phrase in Item 4Afovu.

Although the discipline of ethnomusicology typically emphasizes the significance of local cultural context, this paper purposely de-emphasizes links between musical information and the religious practice of Yewe. In the realm of musical material, I cover neither the drummed invocations nor the vocal music that are crucial in the ritual setting. The musical information presented here is substantial nevertheless. This data not only can support in extenso transcription of actual performances but it also points both towards abstract musical tropes or archetypes that are found in many other idioms of Black music.

The Agbeli Arrangement

The musical material presented here is an arrangement of Yewevu that I learned from the late Godwin Agbeli during a period of study in Ghana from 1975-1977. A professional expert in Ewe performance arts, Agbeli developed this arrangement for several folkloric performance troupes that he coached. To learn Yewevu I took private music lessons, arranged recording sessions, and participated in rehearsals and performances. As a complement to these “once removed” versions of Yewevu, I also did participant-observation of in-context religious events on several occasions. In the early 1990s Agbeli taught this arrangement to the Agbekor Society, a study-group based in Boston that mounted several performances.

Agbeli’s arrangement is modeled on the style of Yewevu that he learned in the 1950s growing up in and around the town of Aflao at the border of Ghana and Togo. In the early 1970s Agbeli was a lead drummer in the Arts Council of Ghana Folkloric Company where he was influenced by the late Robert Ayitee, the group’s Artistic Director, the late C.K. Ganyo, the main choreographer, and the late Isaac Anaglo, the principal Ewe master drummer. Also in Agbeli’s professional network in Ghana at the time were two Ewe experts who have taught for many years in the USA whose versions of Yewevu likely had impact on this arrangement–Gideon Foli Alorwoyie (University of North Texas) and C.K. Ladzekpo (U.C. Berkeley).

Clearly, the music presented here is at some remove from the Yewe Drum as practiced in actual shrine settings. The links in “the authenticity chain,” so to speak, run as follows: local version Agbeli learned growing up in his village, other local and regional versions Agbeli learned as a member of his community, versions Agbeli learned as a professional drummer, versions arranged by Agbeli as a professional artistic director, version learned by Locke from Agbeli, and version Locke presents here. Despite this series of iterations, readers can be reassured that the material in this article remains quite faithful to the way Yewevu sounds in its ritual setting: the Yewevu presented here is not a Westernized creative composition. Yet, of course, my pedagogical ability, my skills in notation and analysis, and my ethnographic understanding of this paper’s readership have shaped the musical choices entailed in a scholarly manuscript. For example, this paper emphasizes what might be characterized as Yewevu in its “basic,” “fundamental,” or “idealized” state. The musical examples are not transcriptions of field recordings, but spring forth from my memory of the piece.

The sound recordings, which were played by me in a recording studio in the USA using multi-track software, enable readers to hear the notated music. They are not intended to precisely reenact the way Yewevu would actually performed by ritually adept culture-bearers in context of religious worship. Such music would be enriched with a vast array of topical and religious detail related to the specific occasion; the precise form of the lead drum part would be closely linked to dance, as well. The version presented here is authentic, however–authentic to the very real context of musical ethnography, musical analysis, music theory, and even music-making should the paper be used as the basis for performance.

The arrangement of Yewevu that I learned from Godwin Agbeli merges five separate Drums. In the actual practice of the Yewe religion each Drum would have its own performance occasion. Arranged for the concert stage, Yewevu becomes one long musical work in five movements. For the purposes of this paper each Drum will be referred to as an item of music and numbered according to its position in the sequence of the overall piece. Pragmatically, it is useful to be able to make quick reference to Drums by number rather than local names but the terminology also reflects my ideological point-of-view. Referring to the Drums as “items” is a conscious act that at once distances Yewevu from its original cultural context while at the same time moving it into a more “universal” world of “music-for-its-own-sake.” Readers should feel empowered to get close to the music rather than regarding it as inalienably foreign and Other. The labels, in other words, are an intentional act of modernization.

The Yewevu Repertory

The music of Yewe has many different items within it because in its original cultural setting different portions of the religious worship each have their own music. As mentioned above, in the local language an item of repertory is called “a Drum” (vu). The names of Drums often vary a bit according to factors of time, place, and person; Ewe culture tends towards decentralization and variability. The following names seem widely known. Husago, Item 1, is associated with the religious practice of Yewe due to its historical importance as the music played when the Ewe people began their exodus from central Togo to their current territory at the border of the nation-states of Ghana and Togo.Davu, Item 2a, is played for the religious order associated with Da, a spiritual force or “god” symbolized by the royal python snake. Sohu, Item 2b, is played for the religious order associated with So, a spiritual force symbolized by thunder. Adavu, Items 3a and 3b, which Agbeli translated as “a drum of seriousness,” is played during points within Yewe ceremonies when initiated members threaten to impress children into service of the religious order. Finally, Afovu, Item 4, which literally translates as “foot Drum” because of its distinctive kicking gesture in the dance, is played when members enjoy social dancing in an open space near the shrine compound.

This paper presents these five Drums as four items of instrumental music on the basis of their musical features and according to order in which they are played in the Agbeli arrangement of Yewevu (see Table 1). In Items 1, 3b and 4 the tacit beats are ternary. In Items 2a, 2b and 3a, on the other hand, the steady flow of tacit beats is quaternary. The time span of the bell phrase in items 1, 2a and 2b covers two beats. The time span of the bell phrase in Item 4 covers four beats. The bell phrases of Items 3a and 3b are different from all other Ewe Drums in that all strokes in the phrase have the same temporal value, that is, they are of the same duration. One could say that Item 3’s bell phrases have no pattern, although the undifferentiated flow of bell strokes do become grouped into a recurring set when heard in context of the other parts in the ensemble. The time span of Item 3b (Adavu) further differentiates it within Ewe music. Among the Drums of Ewe dance-drumming, the time span of Item 3b is highly unusual and very dramatically distinct–it is triple, that is, it covers three beats. In column D of Table 1 the bell phrase is described additively in terms of fast pulses. Although players do not actively count pulses, the composite texture of all parts sounded together gives sonic reality to the fast rate of temporal flow. In my view, performers of and listeners to this music experience this “linear” dimension of musical time. The bell phrases of Items 1, 3a and 3b are not used in other Ewe Drums, but the bell phrases of Items 2a, 2b and 4 are very common.

Item local name beat type-beats per bell cycle pulse rate bell phrase in fast pulses
1 Husago ternary-duple fast 3 + 1 + 2
2a Davu quaternary-duple moderate 3 + 3 + 2
2b Sogbadzi or Sohu quaternary-duple moderate 3 + 3 + 2
3a Adavu quaternary-duple moderate-fast 2 + 2
3b Adavu ternary-triple fast 3 + 3 + 3
4 Afovu ternary-quadruple fast 2 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 1

Table 1 Items of repertory classified musically

In terms of the closest equivalent time signatures and tempo markings of staff notation, we can say that the series of pieces begins at a brisk 6/8 (Item 1), then slows a bit to two pieces in 2/4 (Items 2a and 2b), then quickens slightly while staying in 2/4 (Item 3a) before radically changing to a fast 9/8 (Item 3b) and finally morphing from 9/8 to 12/8 while maintaining the same tempo (see Table 2).

Item Time Signature Metronome Marking
1 6/8 dotted quarter = approx. 160 bpm
2a 2/4 quarter = approx. 138 bpm
2b 2/4 quarter = approx. 138 bpm
3a 2/4 quarter = approx. 144 bpm
3b 9/8 dotted quarter = approx. 132 bpm
4 12/8 dotted quarter = approx. 132 bpm

Table 2 Items of repertory classified by time signature and metronome marking

Item 1 is Husago, a Drum accorded high prestige among Ewe people because they understand it to be the music that was performed by their ancestors on the night of their exodus from the walled city of Notsie and the tyranny of King Agokoli. In the context of Yewe worship, Husago pays homage to the heroes of the Ewe migration to their current homeland.

In cultural context, Items 2a and 2b are distinct from each other. Item 2a is Davu, music for Da, a religious practice symbolized by the python snake. The diasporic connection between the religious systems in Haiti and this region of West Africa seem clearly manifest in the names and zoomorphic divine entities of Da and Damballah. Because many people belong to both the Da and Yewe religious orders, Davu is performed during Yewe ceremonies. Item 2b is Sohu, a Drum played especially when a congregation of worshippers travels out from its home shrine to participate in a ceremony in another location. Rather than carrying the heavy agbivu drum, the more portable sogo is used for the lead drum part. In the arranged version of Yewevu that I learned from Agbeli, after the lead drum plays the ending cadence of Davu, it immediately launches Sohu into motion. The audience receives the two Drums as one musical movement separated by a very slight pause. As performance art this makes sense because, despite their cultural distinctiveness, these two Items use identical bell and rattle phrases, which means they share the same overall quaternary-duple temporal system. Many Drums have this musical structure.

The names Davu and Adavu (Items 2a and 3), while very similar, denote two different Drums. According to Agbeli, Item 3 is called Adavu, which he explained as “a drum of seriousness.” During his childhood, when this drumming was being played, members of his village shrine would chase after children, threatening to capture them for initiation and a life of service within the religious system of Yewe. This context of performance may explain the intensely strange mood of this piece.

Agbeli called this Item 4 Afovu, literally “foot Drum.” The name derives from the footwork of the dance, which entails a kicking gesture prior to a shift of weight from one foot to the other that often scuffs up a small cloud of sand. The torso and arms execute a contraction-expansion motion that can be regarded as being iconic of Ewe cultural identity. The context of performance is social dancing by members of the worship society in an open space outside the shrine. The choreographic form consists of short episodes of the “foot dance.” Waiting at the perimeter of plaza, dancers go into action when they hear the lead drummer raise a call-and-response dialog. Thus, the musical form of Item 4 is a chain of themes separated by transition passages.

The “o” in Afovu is pronounced like “aw.”

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