Monday, August 22, 2011

A beginning: Steve's view

Joss posted last week about the origins of our project. My role in our efforts is as a biologist, which doesn't really say much about what I do or know. Saying that one is a biologist is a bit like saying one is a musician. There's a world of difference between being the piccolo player in a marching band and a concert pianist, and which one you really want working with you depends on whether you are heading to the Rose Bowl or Carnegie Hall.

More precisely, I am a conservation biologist. As a science, conservation biology is a synthetic discipline that combines all of the biological sciences -- ecology, genetics, natural history, physiology, and so on -- toward an understanding of the causes of the decline of biological diversity and of the strategies needed to protect it. My specific training has been as an ecologist specializing on mammals, and I trained as a graduate student in a lab that specialized on environmental reproductive physiology.

For the project we are undertaking, that sounds just about perfect, doesn't it. Truth be told, however, the mammals I have studied are rodents and the landscapes I have worked in are all in North and Central America. I have little to no professional experience with antelope, livestock, or Ghana.

So what am I really bringing to this project? Something more valuable than ready answers. I bring what all good scientists can bring when something new needs to be discovered: a method to asking the right questions and discovering the answers. My role in this project will be to discover the biological aspects of how we can implement a successful antelope breeding operation on Emmanuel Agbeli's farm in Kopeyia, Ghana, one that will help him preserve the Ewe people's musical traditions in the face of the decline in wild sources of antelope skins.

Josselyne, Emmanuel, and I are beginning a journey together, and this blog will let you travel along with us. A good part of my journey, especially before Joss and I depart for Ghana to join Emmanuel, is intellectual and interior. What do we need to know? What is already known? Has any of this been tried before, and if so, what happened? Are there parallels to what we are attempting and other potential captive-breeding projects, such as in zoos or wildlife rehabilitation centers? What kind of infrastructure is needed on the farm, and how easy would it be for any farmer or villager to replicate?

I love questions. Questions are the core of every project's beginning. Welcome to our journey of inquiry ... and ultimately, of discovery.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A beginning

To begin, an Ewe (pronounced, "eh-veh") proverb:

 De bia, agɔ bia gake agɔ mefoa detsi o
(you can’t substitute one thing for another and think you can get the same results)

Music, dance, and song are incredibly important aspects of Ghanaian culture.  In the Volta Region, as elsewhere in West Africa, drumming not only provides musical texture - drums speak.  Ewe is a tonal language, and many instruments (and rhythmic patterns) literally emulate the spoken tones to the point where a proverb or statement can be understood by the listener.

Ewe drums, for the most part, are headed with the thick skins of local antelope.  During my last trip to Ghana I had intended to buy some replacement skins for the drums I use at the college where I teach.  My teacher, Emmanuel Agbeli, explained to me that we might not be able to procure the skins at all, and if we did, they would be incredibly expensive compared to what I had paid years before.  We did find some skins hours away and they were, indeed, very costly.  Why was this?

Over the years these antelope have been over-harvested for food (bush meat).  Hunters are having to travel further and further to find them, and often fail.   As Emmanuel and I spoke about the issue, he expressed his concern about this with a very startling statement: "I do not know the future of our music."

The skins are thick and have a distinct sound quality that gives them a melodic tone that can be manipulated with hand or stick, and that melodic tone is what enables a masterful player to emulate the speech patterns that bring so much meaning to Ewe music (I'll post some examples later on).   It is simply not possible to replace the heads with another material such as goat - they would not be able to create the same sounds.  Hence the proverb at the beginning of this post - "You can't substitute one thing for another and get the same results."

This blog is the record of the attempt of myself, Steve Trombulak (my partner and a biologist at Middlebury College) and Emmanuel Agbeli, master drummer of Kopeyia, Ghana, to create a sustainable population of antelope in his village.

Steve and I will leave for Ghana on December 9th.  It is our hope to raise awareness and funds to support this work - in part, reciprocity for the beautiful gift of music and dance that have enriched our lives for many years.