Ghana Drumming FAQ

Answers to frequently asked musical questions.
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How many instruments make up a typical ensemble?

Between 9 and 20. Although the lead drummer determines both the tempo and form of a given piece, it is the lively ostinato figure played on the gankogui (gahn-KOHG-way) a two tone iron bell, that provides the rhythmic core around which the 3 to 5 different support drum parts are built. Rounding out the ensemble is a section of between usually 1 to 15 rattles, called axatse (ah-HAHT-say), whose own ostinato rhythm mirrors that of the gankogui.

Is reading music involved?

Throughout Africa, drum music is transmitted as an oral tradition, and that is how we approach the material in our curriculum. This method of teaching has widespread appeal, attracting students who yearn to participate in school musical activities but feel daunted by the prospect of having to read music, or who otherwise do not fit the band or chorus mold. However, workshop participants will be given a selection of transcriptions for continued study at home.

Are there songs that accompany the drumming?

Yes. These styles of drumming encompass a rich catalogue of traditional songs, the highlights of which we cover in our curriculum.

Do students play with bare hands, with sticks, or both?

The styles we focus on are mainly played with sticks. This is especially good for children, as it avoids the injuries associated with bare-hand, or “palm” drumming. Playing with sticks also builds strength and coordination required for more common types of percussion instruments like snare drum, timpani and xylophone.

How difficult is African drumming to learn?

It varies. While the highly syncopated, polyrhythmic lead drum phrases are exceedingly difficult to master — and therefore best suited for high school students — the simplest shaker patterns can be learned by the average middle school student in a matter of minutes. The various support drum parts range from fairly simple to extremely complex, providing a wealth of rhythms that tailor to any level of learning.

What are drum ‘vocables?’

A vocalized way of notating pitch, timbre, melody, rhythm, dynamics, and the sequence of notes in a given drum phrase; also commonly referred to as the “drum language.” Teaching rhythmic patterns using onomatopoeic syllables helps hone listening and language skills, providing an invaluable tool for developing aural memory.

Can African drumming be applied to Western drum set?

Certainly. Fascinating drum set applications of African drum ensemble music abound. If there is sufficient interest, this can be addressed in the workshop.

Where in Africa is this music from?

From the Ewe (EH-vay) people of Ghana, a West African nation rich in music and dance. Some of the styles we focus on are Gahu (gah-HOO), a social genre, and Atsiagbekor (aht-CHAHG-beh-kohr), which recounts an important event in Ewe history.