Oral Tradition and Community

Spent a most edifying evening this past Friday with my friend and colleague Anthony Douglass discussing Ewe music and history. He played me some amazing recordings he’d made years ago of his Ghanaian teacher singing traditional Ewe songs and decoding their various meanings, recordings mostly made on a series of Sunday afternoons at this man’s home. Good luck finding this stuff in a book.

And while you can probably guess that no two renditions of a given song were identical, the point here is that to make these recordings, Anthony first had to have the trust and goodwill of his mentor, just as I had to have Anthony’s. Friendship, in other words. That’s what is so amazing about the oral/aural transmission of culture: it requires, and therefore helps build and nurture, social bonds. If information resides solely with the people in the community, then community becomes primary.

Are there downsides to this arrangement? Of course. Utter dependence on a group for knowledge and survival is fraught with problems. What’s important to recognize is how different it is to live in a world where finding something out requires a real-time interaction with another human — as opposed to, say, reading it on a blog.

So in the spirit of the oral tradition, here’s a recording I made in Ghana in 2007 of my friend and teacher Yao-Bright Agbeli singing a beautiful rendition of a traditional borborbor (pronounced boh-BOH-boh) song. I can assure you the crickets are real:

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