The first installment in our Great Grooves series, Gahu (Gah-HOO) is a recreational style of music of the Ewe (EH-way) people of Ghana, Togo, and Benin, West Africa. Because Gahu belongs to a folk tradition, different renditions and interpretations abound, not merely between neighboring countries and regions, but even neighboring villages.
According to Ewe Master Drummer Emmanuel Agbeli of Kopeyia, Ghana, Gahu is an adaptation of kokosawa, an older West African drum and dance style that originated with the Yoruba people of neighboring Nigeria. The Ewe took kokosawa and increased the tempo to more than double its original value.
Traditional African Instruments
A traditional Gahu drumming ensemble is comprised of six different instrument types, each with a distinct construction, sound, and rhythmic character.
- gankogui (pronounced gahn-KOHG-way): two tone iron bell
One of three “timeline” instruments, its fundamental pattern remains the same throughout the entire form of the piece. Normally there is one gankogui in a Gahu ensemble, sometimes two.
- axatse (pronounced ah-HAHT-say): African gourd shaker
Also a timeline instrument. There can be between one and five axatse players in an ensemble, sometimes more.
- boba drum (pronounced boh-BAH): lead/master drum
By playing specific rhythmic cues, the boba player guides the entire ensemble, including the dancers and singers, through the various sections that comprise the form of Gahu.
- sogo drum (pronounced SOH-goh): low-pitched accompaniment drum
One of two “response” drums, its pattern can change in response to rhythmic cues played on the boba. Normally there is one sogo in an ensemble.
- kidi drum (pronounced KEE-dee): medium-pitched accompaniment drum
One of two response drums, its pattern can change in response to the boba. Normally there is one kidi in an ensemble.
- kagan drum (pronounced kah-GAHN): high-pitched accompaniment drum
Third timeline part. Normally there is one kagan in an ensemble.
Form of Gahu
The overall form of the present-day Agbeli arrangement of Gahu begins with a short introduction of the slower kokosawa (a nod to the past) followed by the up-tempo main section that is, broadly speaking, what we might think of as a rondo:
The main A section of Gahu, which in choreographic terms is referred to as “free movement” on account of the breezy, economical style that characterizes the dance movements. The B section, commonly known as “serious movement” due to the increased intensity of the dancing, is almost always placed between free movement and one of the variation sections: C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, respectively.
Listen to African Drumming: Interactive Audio Mixer
Use the Flash-based multitrack drumming mixer below to hear what all six ensemble parts sound like during the “free movement” A section of the present-day Agbeli family 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 parts played by Jeremy Cohen.
To hear more examples of multitracked African drumming, check out the following:
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my teachers, who shared knowledge and insight that cannot be transmitted, and therefore could never have been found, in any book: Emmanuel, Ruben, and Yao-Bright Agbeli (village of Kopeyia, Ghana), C.K. Ladzekpo (village of Anyako, Ghana, via the University of California Berkeley), Jerry Leake (New England Conservatory), David Locke (Tufts University), and countless others, born-in-the-tradition practitioners and Western artist-educators alike, who have helped clarify my thinking as well as deepen my love and appreciation for this tradition. Special thanks also to David Grogan and his team of programmers at Tufts for use of their Web-based audio mixer application.
ThisWorldMusic’s UMASS accredited Ghana Study Abroad program studies Gahu and other traditional West African styles of music and dance at the world renowned Dagbe Cultural Institute & Arts Centre in the scenic coastal village of Kopeyia.
TWM’s African drumming workshops in the U.S. present innovative approaches to implementing this traditional music in the classroom setting that respect the tradition while acknowledging the realities of cross-cultural education. The material presented comes from the Agbeli lineage in Kopeyia, Ghana, with certain aspects of the drum language adapted from C.K. Ladzekpo of Anyako. Pedagogical techniques specific to a classroom setting have been developed through experience teaching, playing and presenting.