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.