Ghana 2015, Week Five: Kumasi Ewe Community, Ghana Dance Ensemble, and Nsuase Kete

 Emmanuel Attah Poku and Philip Owusu Agyemang: two best friends drumming and dancing together.

Emmanuel Attah Poku and Philip Owusu Agyemang: two best friends drumming and dancing together.

“With every sweetness, there is also bitterness,” an Ashanti chief recently explained to me, using the Twi proverb to reconcile the news that a fight broke out at an otherwise peaceful and celebratory drumming event. If the chief's proverb is true, then I would propose the reverse would also stand: “with every bitterness, there is also sweetness.” This saying aptly described my recent week in Kumasi, where two funerals offered chance reunions with long lost friends — not to mention, excellent drummers — one from the Volta Region and the other from Accra. 

On Tuesday, after another vigorous morning of rehearsing at the Cultural Centre, I ventured to a small “new site” town roughly half an hour southeast of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi’s premier university. Joined by seasoned Kete drummers Olai Gabriel, Stephan Opoku, Naa Kwame, Eric Owusu, and more, we traveled to play for a fellow drummer from Kumasi’s Roman Catholic Kete Group, who had recently lost a close family member. To my surprise, the deceased person carried an Ewe name, and the mourners were clad in black t-shirts, jeans, and baseball hats, a stark contrast from Kumasi’s lavish Kente and Adinkra. After entering the funeral grounds, passing through the customary greeting protocol, and sitting down with the Kete drummers, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Already feeling excited to meet this Ewe enclave deep inside Ashanti, I was shocked to turn around and my good friend Seth, one of Kumasi’s best Ewe drummers, whom I had lost contact with for over a year. Fortunately, this funeral gave me the chance to reconnect with him and his father, two of the the most gifted Ewe drummers in the Ashanti Region. 

On Thursday, another funeral offered a chance to meet my friend KB, one of the few drummers from the Accra’s Ghana Dance Ensemble who originally hails from the Ashanti Region. KB, unfortunately, lost his father, so many of Kumasi’s Kete drummers attended to show their support at the one-week observation, a day of mourning and remembrance exactly seven days after the passing. I had last seen KB at the Nketia Festschrift Book Launch at the University of Ghana, where he played Kete with the Ghana Dance Ensemble for the entrance of dignitaries including Prof. J.H. Kwabena Nketia. This week in Kumasi, I got the chance to see his hometown, meet his family, and of course, play Kete with him and his friends.

This week’s research focused on the Nsuase Kete Group, one of Kumasi’s most well-renowned and busiest drumming groups. An interview with senior drummer Stephan Osei Opoku offered insight into the group’s unique history, drawing members from both the Nsuase neighborhood of Adom and Kumasi’s Roman Catholic Church. Nsuase claimed responsibly for many developments in this often-labelled ‘traditional’ style of music, citing many examples including the addition of a second iron dawuro bell. Nsuase, not surprising for one of the region’s premier acts, has a long history of sending members abroad, with former drummers now based in the US and UK. On Saturday and Sunday, I joined the Nsuase Kete Group for “fieldwork,” “participant-observation,” or simply “a gig,” depending on your terminology. We accompanied a Kumasi chief to the small town of Sepaase, where we drummed all weekend for a highly enthusiastic crowd of people who just couldn’t seem to get enough time in the dancing ring!