Drums, Lies, and Audiotape

My wife Ingrid and I had been in Aburi, Ghana for just over a week when our host, Kwame Obeng, informed me that I’d be joining the royal drummers for a performance at the chief’s palace the following afternoon, in celebration of an important holy day.

It’s not as if I was unprepared. I’d first met Obeng three years earlier, when he came to Toronto to coach a drumming troupe made up of Ghanaian immigrants and a lone Westerner (myself). We became close: Obeng called me mi nua, or “my brother,” in Twi, the language of his ethnic group, the Akan. And when his visa expired after a year, he invited me to continue studying with him back home in Aburi, a small town nestled in the verdant Akuapem Hills. Two years later, I took him up on his invitation. And now it was time to show him what I could do. What happened next was a complete surprise to me. I would never find out if it was a surprise to Obeng.

The day of the performance, Obeng stationed me and his nephew, a young man named Kwame Antwi, at a pair of enormous, barrel-shaped bommaa drums standing side by side. Each bommaa was carved from a 5-foot length of hollowed-out tree trunk, and both were painted a lustrous black and wrapped in red velvet fastened with brass studs. Just in front of us and to our left, Obeng himself stood before a pair of massive, goblet-shaped atumpan drums with antelope-skin heads. Directly behind us, a quartet of young boys and middle-aged men played three smaller drums and an iron bell. They were the rhythm section, while the two Kwames and I formed the front line.

I had no choice but to soldier on at the drums. While I did, I also struggled to comprehend what was happening.

As the performance began, Kwame Antwi and I began bashing away at the thick cowhide heads with long, L-shaped sticks fashioned from tree branches. We made quite a pair: him long and lean and dark, me short and soft and very, very white. The raised platform at the opposite end of the courtyard gradually filled with chiefs and palace officials draped in togas and dresses, all in different colors: turquoise, scarlet, cobalt, maroon. There was very little chitchat. Instead, our audience listened in silence as we played the drums, and various notables got up to make speeches and offer prayers to their ancestors.

The rhythms played on the big bommaa drums consist of several sets of patterns that are executed in unison by both drummers, each one longer and more complicated than the last. At first, I was able to match Antwi stroke for stroke. But as we moved into the longer and more complex material, things went completely off the rails. Suddenly, Antwi seemed to be adding rhythms that I’d never heard before. I tried to keep up with him, to imitate his hand

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