Master Drummers of Dagbon, Volumes 1 and 2
Group leader: Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai
Recording and Notes by: John M. Chernoff
Rounder Records 5016 (1984, 1992) and 5046 (1992)
Through the efforts of African-Americans in the
United States, the Caribbean and Latin America, Western popular music
is now predominantly an African musical idiom. As Westerners
become more aware of the variety of rhythmic resources in their own
African musical heritage, the rhythms of the African coastal and forest
cultures, which sent so many of their sons and daughters to the
Americas, have now become somewhat familiar to many up-to-date
music-lovers. The music of the savanna cultures is less familiar,
although the cultures of what are now Guinea, Mali and Senegal can
claim a profound role in the development of blues music.
The Dagbamba of northern Ghana share a number
of musical traits with other savanna cultures, but they have also
developed ensemble drumming to a high standard. Dagbamba music
blends the clarity of the music of the savanna cultures with the
driving power of the music of the forest cultures, and Dagbamba
drumming is a resource for refreshing our appreciation of African
music’s rhythmic diversity. This recording contains beats that we
can relate to. Some are rich in complexity; others exemplify the
strength of simple repetition. Some are beautiful for the way in
which the drums communicate with each other to build a fulfilling total
sound; others offer models of aesthetic command and improvisational
It would be difficult
to find an indigenous African culture without an impressive
musical tradition. Every African cultural group can look with
pride at its own distinctive types of music and dance. In a
relatively small country like Ghana, with a population of only about
fourteen million people, there are seventy different tribal groups, and
even a lifelong citizen can never hope to hear all the types of music
in the nation. The depth of many individual traditions is such
that there are many people who grow up and live their whole lives in
the center of their cultural area but never hear some particular types
of local music.
remember being overwhelmed by the diversity of African music at the end
of my first year in Ghana. I had spent all my time going around
to see and hear as much as I could, and I had spent time in several
cultural areas learning to play different instruments, but when I took
stock of what I had accomplished, I felt that I had made only a little
progress toward becoming familiar with what that country alone had to
offer. Within the individual traditions where I worked, I felt
that I had taken only a tiny step toward mastery of only a fraction of
what was there. I sat and fantasized about going to this town for
three months to learn, that town for four months, another town for six
months. It was a grim awakening when I calculated that I would
need several lifetimes before I could move to Togo, the Ivory Coast, or
Upper Volta, to say nothing of Nigeria, Mali, Guinea, Zaire, or any
place a map and a dart would send me.
“Drumming has no end,” one of my drumming masters told me, “and
to talk of drumming, you cannot talk of it and finish. As we are
drumming, every drumming has got its name, and again, every drumming
has got its dance. Every playing is different, and in drumming
everyone has got his hand. So no one can know everything about
drumming; everyone knows only to his extent. If you want to know
everything, what are you going to do and know it?” (African Rhythm and African Sensibility)
My solution to the problem of Africa’s abundance of musical riches
started with the realization that I would not be alone among Western
seekers of African music. I had only to go to the place where my
heart took me, to the place where my spirit would fit and
benefit. Others could follow their own luck. I returned to
northern Ghana and began work on my legacy, a tribute to the musicians
and the people of Dagbon, the traditional area of the Dagbamba
people. In collaboration with the master drummer featured on this
recording, Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai, I am preparing a book called A Drummer’s Testament.
The Dagbamba are not well known to the
Western world, and it has been one of my pleasures to think that my
work will introduce the Western world to the rich musical heritage of
Dagbon. The Dagbamba musical heritage is as diverse and complex
as that of any better-known culture, including Ashanti, Hausa or
Yoruba. On a continent where music generally has a significant
role in traditional institutions, Dagbamba music illustrates a further
elaboration of this tendency into the maintenance and validation of
historical and political information. Compared to the griots of
other savanna cultures, musicians who also preserve historical and
genealogical information, Dagbamba drummers are more organized and play
a more central role in the social hierarchy.
An important and unique part of Dagbamba drummers’
repertoire is the performance of the drum history, when as many
as fifty to hundred drummers assemble to beat and sing selected parts
the history of Dagbon. The history lends meaning to the
proverbial praise-names which drummers bestow on chiefs and important
people, and these proverbs become the roots of popular dance
beats. Since many princes fail to obtain chieftaincy, many
Dagbamba commoners are the descendants of past chiefs, and they often
prefer to respect and remember their family’s line by dancing to the
name of a great forefather. Drummers also learn the genealogies
of their community, and at any public occasion, they respect their
neighbors by beating the praise-names of people’s forefathers.
Needless to say, drummers master a vast
amount of information relating to proverbial wisdom, oral tradition,
and family history. “Anyone who is going to learn drumming,” one
drummer told me, “always starts by praying.” However,
praise-drumming, the drum history, and praise-name dances are only a
part of the music of the area. There are types of drumming
connected with death and funerals, with the installation and activities
of chiefs, with various occupational groups, with festivals, and with
surviving pagan religious ceremonies. There are as well a number
of special dances done by various members of the community. These
dances--Takai, Baamaaya, Tora, Jera, and many others--are normally
performed at social occasions to enhance participation and
respect. Each such dance is composed as well of several different
types of drumming. Finally, Dagbamba drummers learn music from
other cultural groups so that strangers who are resident among them
will be able to dance and participate at social events, and many
Dagbamba have adopted several of these dances as their own. The
thirty-odd praise-name dances I learned to play did not even make a
dent in the repertoire of such dances; I also learned many beats that
were part of Takai, Baamaaya, Tora, and so on; and I learned how to
play dance beats for Mossi, Kotokoli, Hausa, Bassari, Dandawa, Kassena,
Mamprusi, Guruma, Yoruba, Gonja, Zambarima, and other people.
Besides all this drumming, the Dagbamba have young people’s groups
which use drums locally made of metal to resemble conga and trap
sets. The Dagbamba also have fiddlers and rattle-players.
They have people who play musical bows that resemble the Brazilian birimbao. They have flutes, guitars, Ashanti-style ntumpan drums, square frame-drums, and horns.
The traditional Dagbamba drum ensemble is composed of two
types of drums that hang from the shoulder and are beaten with a curved
stick. Lunga is a
tension drum shaped like an hourglass, with thin skins over each mouth
laced with leather strings. Westerners often call this type of
drum a “talking drum” because the drummer can change the pitch and
resonance of the drum by squeezing the strings. There are several
sizes of lunga in an ensemble to provide a supporting beat for solo
playing, and the lead often shifts among the drummers as if in a chorus
of singers. The pulsating overtones of the supporting drums also
sound something like humming because of the way the drummers work the
strings to modulate the voice of the drums. A large tomtom called
gungon serves as the bass
drum. It has a single snare made from a leather string along the
upper part of the face of the drum. The gungon drummer uses his
stick and his free hand along the edge of the drum to make a delectable
buzzing sound that sounds almost like rattles. Muting the bass
beat by turning the stick against the center of the gungon also adds to
the dynamics of the bass rhythms. Two gungons are used in a
typical ensemble: sometimes one gungon supports the other with a
responsive rhythm; sometimes they beat in synchrony or improvise
together in response to the talking drums. The peculiarities of
the sounds should not confuse a listener into thinking that there is
something wrong with the recording. Such blurred sound effects
are common in many African musical idioms.
The selections on this release were recorded
out of context for the purpose of allowing listeners to hear the music
of Dagbamba drumming first and foremost as music. In 1981 I
assembled a number of Dagbon’s finest singers and drummers and took
them to an open field on the outskirts of the town of Tamale. The
twenty beats on Master Drummers of Dagbon, volume 1
(Rounder Records 5016), are drawn from the sixty we recorded and add
seven to the thirteen originally released as a record, and sixteen
others are available on Master Drummers of Dagbon, volume 2
(Rounder Records 5046). There was no ululation, no crowd
excitement, and no flute, but the two sessions were magical.
There are heavy spiritual repercussions when masters of drumming
express themselves in a tradition of artistic genius. The singing
of the drums resembles the breathing of the wind, and when the sound of
the drumming dies, it moves away like exhaled breath. The bass
drums vibrate inside the earth. I have heard drumming in the
night in Dagbon and gone to search for it, but as I moved toward it, it
seemed to come from a different direction. It would not be until
the next day that I would learn that the drumming had come from a
village two or three miles away.
Most samplers present music recorded in actual
performance contexts to heighten a listener’s sense of participation in
the music. But because it is difficult for anyone to imagine the
actual setting of ethnic music, the ambient sound of a social event
often has little meaning for most people. The sheer variety of
music in Dagbon would make any sample selection somewhat specious, and
this release makes no claim to include representative types of Dagbamba
music or even the most important drumming from a Dagbamba
perspective. I have merely tried to give listeners music to
enjoy, and the choice from my field recordings was difficult enough
with that single criterion. The particular selections on this
release are meant to convey the genius of Dagbamba drumming.
Actually, it is the spectators who hear the ambient sound at a Dagbamba
musical event; the praise-name dances are danced individually inside a
dance circle, where the drummers surround a dancer to beat their
rhythms through his or her body so that, as the Dagbamba say, “the body
is enlightened.” The experience of dancing with drummers on all
sides is incredible, for the sound is more than quadraphonic:
those who seek the feeling of authentic participation may begin to
appreciate the technological prescience of the Dagbamba drummers by
using headphones at high volume.
The group leader of the ensemble was Alhaji Ibrahim
Abdulai, playing lundaa, the medium-voiced lunga featured on most
selections. The gungon leader was Fuseini Alhassan Jeblin.
Also featured on second gungon during the sessions were Mahamadu
Fusheni, Yisifu Alhassan and Abdulai Seidu. Other featured
drummers were Abukari Alhassan (all Dagbani singing and also playing
lundogu, the low-voiced lunga), Abubakari Wumbee (playing lundogu),
Adam Iddi (playing lumbila, the high-voiced lunga). Playing lunga
and singing on Hausa and Kotokoli songs were Yakubu Gomda (Gaabite
Zamaduniya and Lua on volume 1, and Madadaazie and Suberima Kpeeru on
volume 2), and other singers of Hausa and Kotokoli songs during the two
sessions included Napari Kanvili, Yinoussa Adam and Sayibu
Alhassan. Other lunga drummers on one or both sessions included
Issahaku Alhassan, Zakari Alhassan, Yakubu Alhassan, Alhassan Dogorli,
Yakubu Adam, Sogu Lun-Naa, Dokurgu Mahama, Mumuni Issaka Choggo,
Issahaku Mahama, Mumuni Alhassan and Baba Kalangu.
Master Drummers of Dagbon, volume 1
is a dance of Kotokoli origin which is beaten particularly when
Dagbamba display their horsemanship by making their horses dance.
Suberima Kpeeru on volume 2 also is noted as a good beat for horse
GAABITE ZAMANDUNIYA is one of several distinct
forms of this dance--Hausa, Kotokoli and Dagbamba. This version
is of Kotokoli origin but is the most common and currently popular
form; it is generally danced individually by women. “Zamanduniya”
is Hausa referring to people “sitting in the world,” and the meaning of
the drumming is that one must have patience to live in the world.
Zamanduniya was introduced to Dagbon several generations ago in the
early twentieth century. Formerly it was a dance of a type that
Dagbamba call Taachi. Taachi was the main form of social dancing
in the early- to mid-twentieth century before the dances based on
praise-names of Dagbamba chiefs became preeminent. Taachi refers
to praising and praise-names, and is a word similar to the Hausa
“taake.” Most of the Taachi dances have Hausa, Kotokoli or
Dandawa origins from which Dagbamba have modified or adopted the
rhythms. Some of them like Zamanduniya have different forms
identified with these various groups. Kondalia was also a Taachi
dance. In Taachi dances, the singing is often in both Hausa and
Dagbani, and occasionally in Kotokoli. The Hausa singing in
Dagbamba Taachi dances is not a pure Hausa; it displays Dagbani and
regional variations in pronunciation. Taachi dances in volume 2
include Gado, Madadaazie, Sikare, Suberima Kpeeru and Kasuan Kura.
(and NAKOHI-WAA) are related to occupational groups, though anyone can
dance them. Dikala is for blacksmiths, but it is also common at
funeral houses during the first phases of funeral observances, when it
is danced by the deceased’s grandchildren.
the Yoruba Dance on this recording is one of several which Dagbamba
drummers played for the Yorubas who formerly resided among them;
nowadays many Dagbamba dance it either because they have friends or
in-laws who are Yorubas or they just like it for themselves.
is a prototypical Highlife beat which has evolved into Simpa, the young
people’s music played on Western-style trap and conga drums made of
metal by local blacksmiths. Gumbe was introduced to the Dagbamba
in the early twentieth century by Kotokoli people from Togo, who still
use square frame-drums to beat it. Traditional drummers such as
those on this recording also use their instruments to beat Gumbe when
DAKOLI N-NYE BIA is a series of proverbs. The
first proverb is: a bachelor is a child, and a married man is
senior. Some other proverbs in the song are: the one who
has someone to hold him will eat, the one without someone should sit
down; the one who says there is no God should look at his front and his
back. Dakoli N-nye Bia is beaten as an introduction to the
drum history. It is one of the first types of drumming taught to
a child who is learning.
LUA is a Dagbamba dance for women and
young girls. When it is danced, the women form an oval: one
will enter and dance her style, then she is picked up by three women at
one end of the oval, lifted and thrown to the other end, where she
lands on the beat.
KURUGU KPAA is a praise-name for Dakpema
Sungna, a former market chief of Tamale. Like Zhim Taai Kurugu,
it refers to the strength of its namesake. “Kurugu kpaa” means an
iron spike, which termites cannot eat.
TORA is a Dagbamba
dance for women. An account of its origin is occasionally sung in
the drum history, where it is linked to the paramount chief of Yendi,
Naa Yenzoo, a dating that would make it about four hundred years
old. The women form a line. One dances out in one
direction, another in an opposite direction, and they mark the accented
beat and spin and turn toward each other, knocking their bottoms at the
next accented beat. The Hausas also have Tora.
ZAMANDUNIYA is a Hausa form of Zamanduniya common in Taachi
dances. The chorus sings, “Hankuri,” which means patience.
Hankuri Zamanduniya is typically the form of Zamanduniya used in
praising, while Gaabite Zamanduniya is mainly a women’s dance
beat. A Dagbamba form of Zamanduniya is called Ayiko.
is a circle dance for men. The dancers are gorgeously
costumed. Jera seems to be a dance of strength and rootedness to
the earth, and it appears to be an old dance, for its drummers beat an
archaic form of the gungon. Today Jera is generally danced at
funerals. Only several villages have Jera groups.
is a popular women’s dance, and Dagbamba children also dance a special
dance they call Anakulyera to the beat of Amajiro.
means the dance of the first-born son, the zuu. It dates from the
early eighteenth century, when it was first beaten for the chief of the
village of Tong, Tonglana Yaamusa, first-born son of the paramount
chief of Yendi, Naa Sigli. It is also known as Dogu.
is the butcher’s dance. Arm movements indicate whether the
dancer’s place in the butcher’s line comes from the mother or father.
ZHERI is a praise-name of an early nineteenth century chief of
Savelugu, Savelugu-Naa Ziblim, who was a son of the paramount chief of
Yendi, Naa Andani Jengbarga. The name means: wind is
blowing clay pots; calabashes should not be proud.
KURUGU is a praise-name of Naa Alaasan, a paramount chief of Yendi in
the early twentieth century. “Zhim Taai Kurugu” (easily heard on
the gungon and supporting drums), “ka jengbarsi wolinje” means that
when blood touches iron, rats will try to eat it but will fail.
NUN DA NYULI
Nyagboli, Kondalia and Nun da nyuli are danced, with several other
dances, as a suite. An intricate dance of elegance and dignity,
Takai is danced in a large circle by men who spin in alternate
directions and knock sticks as they turn. Various forms of this
dance can be seen in other West African societies. It is easy for
Western listeners to get off-track in Takai itself: the chorus
beats the downbeat, and the lead drum is on the offbeat. The
other Takai beats are less tricky. Nyagboli is also part of Tora,
and it has been added into Baamaaya, another popular dance.
Kondalia is also danced individually by women; as noted above, it has
Hausa connections and was one of the Taachi dances. The drum
chorus in Kondalia is on the offbeat. Nun da nyuli was originally
part of an earlier form of Baamaaya called Tuubaankpili, and it is
beaten in Tora as well. It has only recently been added to Takai,
as have several other beats (such as Num Bie N-Kpan from volume
2). Much of the Takai beating is jocular: “Nun da nyuli”
means: the one who buys the yams (also buys the buttocks of the
woman who sells them).
Masteer Drummers of Dagbon, volume 2
along with Madadaazie, Sikare, Suberima Kpeeru and Kasuan Kura, is a
dance of a type that Dagbamba call Taachi. As noted above with
regard to Gaabiti Zamanduniya, Taachi was the main form of social
dancing in the early- to mid-twentieth century before the dances based
on praise-names of Dagbamba chiefs became preeminent.
is a praise name for a late-nineteenth century paramount chief of
Yendi, Naa Andani: promise with thorns. The name refers to
a situation in which trust has been betrayed.
or Zambarima dance, is beaten for Zambarima (or Zaberma) people from
northeastern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger.
KULNOLI is a
praise-name for the recently deceased paramount chief of Yendi, Naa
Mahamadu: the place where water is good will gather
DAMBA is the signature dance of the Damba
Festival which celebrates the birth of the Holy Prophet Mohammed.
The Damba Festival coincides with the Mauluud festival period in the
Islamic world. Damba is almost an obligatory dance for Dagbamba
chiefs, and it is one of the Dagbamba dances well-known to
GURINSI-WAA, or Gurunsi dance, is beaten for
mainly Kasena people from northern Ghana near Navrongo. The
Dagbamba refer to many people from the Upper Regions of Ghana with the
BAN NIRA YELGU is a praise-name for a former
chief of Karaga, Kari-Naa Alhassan: I will not know a person and
allow him to know me.
MADADAAZIE: a Taachi praise-name dance (see note for Gaabiti Zamanduniya).
SIKARE is a Taachi praise-name dance (see note for Gaabiti Zamanduniya).
KPEERU is a Taachi praise-name dance (see note for Gaabiti
Zamanduniya). Suberima Kpeeru is most often beaten these days
when Dagbamba horseriders approach a gathering and display their
NAYIG'-NAA ZAN BUNDAN' BINI is a praise-name for a
recent chief of Diari, Diarilana Mahama: the chief thief has
taken a rich man's thing and turned around to put it at the rich man's
sleeping place. The name refers to someone who tries something he
is not suited for.
WANGARSI-WAA, or Wangara dance, is beaten for
people of Mande origin, from Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso and
northwest into Mali, whom the Dagbamba refer to with the term Wangara.
or Mamprusi dance, is also known as Tohi-waa, or hunter's dance.
The Mamprusi are the northern neighbors of the Dagbamba and share a
NUM BIE N-KPAN is a praise-name for a
nineteenth-century chief of Savelugu, Savelugu-Naa Yakuba: the
one who has recovered from sickness does not want the one who is sick
to be cured. The name sometimes has another form: the one
who is recovered from sickness is the one who says the medicine is
KASUAN KURA is a Taachi praise-name dance (see note for Gaabiti Zamanduniya).
NIMDI is a praise-name for a mid-nineteenth century paramount chief of
Yendi, Naa Yakuba: meat poisoned by nantoo (anthrax). The
meaning is that whatever goes into the hands of the chief has become
John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).
Miller Chernoff and Alhaji Ibrahim Abdulai Father Drummer, with the
collaboration of Kissmal Ibrahim Hussein, Benjamin Danjuma Sunkari, Mustapha
Muhammad, Alhaji Mumuni Abdulai, and Daniel A. Wumbee. A Drummer’s Testament: Dagbamba Society and Culture in the Twentieth Century. <www.adrummerstestament.com>
Recorded by: John Miller Chernoff in Tamale, Ghana
Remastered at HeartSong Studios and Aircraft Communications, Pittsburgh, PA
Engineer: Henry Yoder
Photographs by: John Miller Chernoff
Rounder Records Design by Scott Billington
thanks to Eric Rucker, David Brent, Ken Bilby, Phil Schuyler, and Arnie
Gefsky. Acknowledgment is given to the following organizations
for support of the fieldtrip during which these recordings were
made: National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the
Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies and the Social
Science Research Council.