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Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 300-319

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My Mother Has A Television, Does Yours?

Transformation and Secularization in an Ewe Funeral Drum Tradition

Binghamton University
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This study addresses tradition and change within the funeral music and funeral culture in the town of Dzodze located in southeastern Ghana. Dzodze is located in the heart of the southern Ewe cultural area in Ghana, an area extending approximately east to west from the Volta Lake to Aflao on the Togo boarder, and north from the coast to Avenor and Hevi. Dzodze is an autonomous duko (city/state), located to the north of the Anlo, the largest duko in the region, with whom they share many cultural features.

In 1995, I was introduced to the Tagborlo family, an important family of drummers, singers, and dancers in Dzodze. I apprenticed with them as a drummer, joining them in playing at numerous funerals as well as ceremonies for the Yeve religious shrine for a period of nearly three years.1 It was with this family that I learned the music of Agbadza-Ageshe, an important genre of funeral music. As I began studying the vugbewo2 (drum language patterns) of the master drum, I was surprised to find that many of the phrases referred to things or events from contemporary life. Several of the <<i>vugbewo referred to really vulgar sexual rhymes/sayings, causing shock or embarrassment when I asked the meanings from the Western-educated Ewe who were assisting me with the translations. Looking at all of this, I [End Page 300] became interested in the ways in which Ewe drummers had modified the traditional drumming handed down to them from their forefathers.

With these questions in mind, I embarked upon a three-month period of fieldwork in Dzodze during the summer of 2003.3 I interviewed several members of the Tagborlo family as well as respected drummers and elders from several areas within Dzodze. My findings reveal new aspects of transformations that occur within a tradition that have not yet been given much attention by scholars. One article that has been useful as a starting place for my research concerns aspects of tradition and change in Yoruba culture. In a study of continuities and changes between Yoruba Fuji music and Oriki praise poetry, Karin Barber and Christopher Waterman (1995) provide a framework for looking at how globalization has influenced contemporary Fuji music by positing the traditional Oriki as a representation of "deep" Yoruba tradition. They propose that Yoruba artists have attempted to broaden their horizons and bring foreign influences into their work by transforming the meanings to suit local styles, all for the purpose of increasing their prestige as artists through the introduction of innovative stylistic devices. I have made some connections with their study, but have also tried to emphasize connections with African-American musical and cultural practices to demonstrate that while surface features like drum language texts may change through time, certain structural principles remain constant. Additionally, the Ewe have not transferred their music to Western instruments nor evolved neo-traditional music forms like Fuji, a genre that relies on the new sound created by using microphones to amplify or distort acoustic percussion for the production of new rhythmic patterns. Ewe music continues to use acoustic drums accompanied by a chorus of bells, shakers, and hand claps, and, while new vugbe are constantly being developed, the underlying rhythmical framework has remained the same.

This study begins by looking at the nature of change in Ewe society and how recent changes have affected the musical culture of Dzodze. The Tagborlo family is then introduced so that the reader can conceptualize the ways in which tradition is passed down and maintained as well as changed. Then it looks in detail at the evolution of Agbadza-Ageshe from earlier styles of Agbadza with the aim of setting the stage for specific developments brought by Kodzo Tagborlo in the Ageshe style of Agbadza. Finally, by looking at...


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pp. 300-319
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