Great Grooves #1: Gahu

Interactive multitrack African drumming mixer.


Thanks for checking out the first installment of Great Grooves, a series of educational posts on West African drumming.

In this post, you will learn about — and listen to — Gahu (Gah-HOO), a recreational style of music of the Ewe (EH-way) people of Ghana, Togo and Benin that is popular around the world. Many posts, including this one, will also feature interactive African drumming multitrack mixers.


Gahu: Background and Instruments

According to Ewe Master Drummer Emmanuel Agbeli of Kopeyia, Ghana, Gahu is an adaptation of Kokosawa, an older African drum-and-dance style that originated with the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In his telling, the Ewe took Kokosawa and increased the tempo to more than double its original value, resulting in the much livelier Gahu. Because Gahu is social music, it has no inherent religious or spirituals connotations, nor is it reserved for a specific time of year or specific people in the community.

A traditional Gahu ensemble is comprised of six different instrument types (pictured below), each with a distinct construction, sound, and rhythmic character:

Gahu drumming in Kopeyia, Ghana

Master Drummer Ruben Agbeli (left) of Kopeyia, Ghana, leads a Gahu drumming group on boba.

  1. Gankogui (pronounced gahn-KOHG-way): two tone iron bell
    One of three “timekeeper” instruments, the gankogui’s fundamental pattern remains unaltered throughout the entire form of the piece. Traditionally, there is one gankogui in a Gahu ensemble, sometimes two.
  2. Axatse (pronounced ah-HAHT-say): African gourd shaker
    Also a timekeepr instrument. There can be between one and five axatse players in an ensemble, sometimes more.
  3. Boba drum (pronounced boh-BAH): lead/master drum
    By playing specific rhythmic cues, the boba player guides the entire ensemble, including the dancers, through the various sections that comprise the form of Gahu.
  4. Sogo drum (pronounced SOH-goh): low-pitched accompaniment drum
    One of two “response” drums, the sogo’s pattern can change in response to rhythmic cues played on the boba. Traditionally, there is one sogo in a Gahu ensemble.
  5. Kidi drum (pronounced KEE-dee): medium-pitched accompaniment drum
    One of two response drums, the kidi’s pattern can change in response to rhythmic cues played on the boba. Traditionally, there is one kidi in a Gahu ensemble.
  6. Kagan drum (pronounced kah-GAHN): high-pitched accompaniment drum
    Third timekeeper part. Traditionally, there is one kagan in a Gahu ensemble.

Form of Gahu

Because Gahu belongs to a folk tradition, varying renditions and interpretations abound, not merely among neighboring countries and regions, but even neighboring villages. The overall structure of the present-day arrangement of Gahu that one finds in Kopeyia, Ghana, begins with a short introduction of the much slower Kokosawa (a nod to Gahu’s roots) followed by the up-tempo main section that is, broadly speaking, what we might think of as a sort of rondo:


The main A section of Gahu — which is referred to in Ghana as “free movement” on account of the breezy, economical style that characterizes the dancers’ movements during this section — is almost always followed by a contrasting B section, which is known as “serious movement” due to the increased intensity of the dancers’ movements. Serious movement is almost always placed directly between free movement and one of the variation sections: C, D, E, F, G and H, respectively.

Watch: Ghana Video

Listen and Learn: Interactive Audio Mixer

Using the interactive multitrack drumming mixer below, listen closely to what all six ensemble parts sound like during the free movement A section of the present-day Kopeyia-style arrangement of Gahu. Tempo is moderate for purposes of teaching and learning. To practice along, use the mixer controls to change instrument levels and/or mute certain parts altogether. Mixer also features left-to-right panning on individual tracks. All instruments are played by Jeremy Cohen.

NOTE: Since the mixer uses Adobe Flash, it will not load on Apple mobile devices (iPhone and iPod). To play on iPad, Photon Flash Player is needed.

About ThisWorldMusic LLC

ThisWorldMusic partners with educational institutions and arts organizations to offer innovative, hands-on cultural learning experiences.

Each summer and winter our UMass-accredited Ghana Study Abroad program brings students and professionals from around the globe to study traditional West African music and dance at the world-renowned Dagbe Cultural Institute & Arts Centre in the village of Kopeyia, Ghana.