UNT professor's work details language of African drums

Friday, July 5, 2013 - 20:10

DENTON, Texas (UNT) – A drum does more than make a sound. It can call your name or ask a question – and respond. In his new book, Agbadza: Songs, Drum Language of the Ewes, College of Music Professor Gideon Foli Alorwoyie explains the deeper meaning behind the music, lyrics and the language of the drums that the Ewes in Africa have developed for centuries.

The book will be released July 15, along with a CD of songs that can be regarded as one long work in 25 sections. The style of music traditional to the Ewe people from Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa is detailed in the book, along with a discussion of Agbadza musical instruments, song structure and drumming style.

Alorwoyie transcribed the 25 songs into Western notation and translated the lyrics into English. The book contains commentary by Alorwoyie about the content and context of the songs in regards to Agbadza tradition.

“These songs started as war songs, but they are much more now,” said Alorwoyie. “In olden days, you could sit around and ask questions through drumming and singing – and another person could drum and sing a response. It was like having a conversation.”

The tradition, which began in the 17th and 18th centuries, is still used today in wakes, memorial services and important events. Yet, the cultural significance is being lost as that region of the world moves toward modernization, Alorwoyie said.

He felt he needed to write this book not only for the interest of scholars and musicians around the world, but to help educate the younger generations in his native land.

“I had to listen carefully to the music to interpret it and go back and ask my uncles if that is what it meant,” Alorwoyie said. “I even had to get permission from them to interpret these words. It has not been done before, but they could see it was important to let people know what we’re playing and what it means.”

A high priest of the Yewe religion, Alorwoyie was deemed by the elders as one who would serve society as a natural born drummer. It’s also his calling to teach others about the powerful language of the drums in order that the tradition is kept alive, Alorwoyie said. Funding from UNT and the USA-Africa Artists Exchange Fund made this book possible.

“I want this to be my legacy,” Alorwoyie said of the book. “I want this to be an educational tool for people to keep hold of their culture and so that others can understand the meaning behind the music.”


About Gideon Foli Alorwoyie

High priest of the Yewe Cult, Alorwoyie is from Anlo-Afiadenyigba in the Volta Region of Ghana, West Africa, and is highly regarded as one of Ghana's foremost virtuosos of traditional music and dance. Discovered by Phillip Gbeho, then head of the Institute of Art and Culture in Ghana, at the 1961 Hogbetsotso and annual Anlo-traditional cultural festival, he was offered a position at the Institute of Art and Culture in 1964. From 1967-84, Alorwoyie worked in the Department of African Studies at the University of Ghana as chief master drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, touring the world extensively with the group. Alorwoyie is the founder and the Artistic Director of the Afrikania Cultural Troupe of Ghana, West Africa, member of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and member of the Council of Elders of Dance Africa Chicago. Alorwoyie has worked with notable scholars and composers such as David Locke, John Chernoff, and Steve Reich. He is the founder and artistic director of the Chicago-based African-American Unity Ensemble and a member of the advisory council of the African Music Caucus and Percussive Arts Society. He joined the College of Music faculty at UNT in 1996 as assistant professor of world percussion studies, and was promoted to full professor in 2011. He is the principal dancer/choreographer and director of the UNT African Percussion Ensemble.

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