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Adowa – the quintessential Asantidome dance and music form

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Adowa – the quintessential Asantidome dance and music form

It is a truism that needs be said that wherever ten or more Asantidome
people meet somewhere far away from their home villages, one of the first
things they will discuss will be how to form an Adowa group. They will only
need two or three drums, a pair of local castanets and the inevitable bugle
(which the oldies mispronounced “dondo”) and they are in business – serious
adowa business. They do not even have to compose any songs. There is a large
array of classic adowa songs to pick from.

The Asantedome are the Asantes occupying the middle parts of the Ashanti
Region as distinct from the southern or western Asantis many of whom are
also known as Akyems. Nothing is as Asantidome as adowa. Perhaps what comes
nearest to that is abenkwan fufu but that is eaten by other ethnic groups in
Ghana too so it is not exclusively Asantidome. But Adowa is! Take adowa away
from the consciousness of an Asantidome person, and he ceases to be his real
self. Several years of living in Europe has only increased my love for that
music not least because of my longing to get back to my own roots. Some
people may say Antoa Nsuo nyamaa is also very Asanti. But Antoa nsuo nyamaa
is not practised by the Asantidome. It is not that they are more enlightened
than the Western Asantis. It is just that “nyamaa” has really never been a
strong part of Asantidome culture. But adowa has been! And it is always
going to be.
Nobody exactly knows when adowa started but one account places its origins
in Jachie, a village on the Bosomtwe Lake, sometime in the late 40s.

One thing that is certain in the development of this music form is the
enormous work done by the late Pramso citizen, Francis Kusi, who, almost
singlehandedly transformed the music to the popular thing that we know
today. When the history of adowa is written, Kusi’s name will be embossed in
golden letters across every page! He is the Godfather of adowa – a genius of
the genre, if ever there was one. He fused the original music form, kete,
with other forms to produce the modern sound of adowa and brought it to
national prominence. Kusi composed several popular songs that have become
adowa classics.

It is reported that when Nkrumah once visited Jachie, the President was so
bitten by the rhythm of the adowa at the welcoming ceremony that he joined
in the dancing. Kusi’s group then became known as Osagyefo’s adowa Group.
The maestro that he was, Kusi was always extending the frontiers of the
music form that he popularised. There was a time in the 70s when he even
introduced an electric bass guitar into the performance but that experiment
was a failure. At a time when such groups were just loose organisations of
revellers, Kusi was already choreographing adowa dance into a delightful
spectacle for the eyes. The ebullient Kusi was everywhere.

That was why at school, we nicknamed him “Oxygen” but we never missed any of
his shows when he came with his dancing girls to perform for us at a
boarding school for boys starved of the sight of girls. From Jachie, adowa
spread to nearby villages like Pramso, Saakodi, Wiemso, then to places like
Bekwai (playing a laid back slower type of adowa than the Jachie style), and
all Asantidome speaking towns and as far away as Ivory Coast and Burkina
Faso (where they still call it kete).

Adowa is not the only folk music of the Asantidome. There are others. All
these more traditional forms of music have strong strains of the Ewe
influence on Asantidome culture (a topic that deserves its own article).
Unfortunately, the elderly who can perform some of these are dying off and
even the very elderly who sang asafo songs in Twi at the funerals of royalty
and revered elders (even if these men could not ordinarily speak Twi) can
hardly be found these days. The western Asantis, the Akyems, have different
dance and music forms many of which may be older and more complex than
adowa. One may contend, arguably, that Akyem culture, on the whole, looks
more ancient and purer than Asantidome culture perhaps because the latter
have migrated further away from the Asanti fountainhead than the former.

My Akyem friends use to tease me that it is this watering down of the
Asanti culture that has produced such loose and easy form of music like
Adowa. I think they may be right but that does not prevent me from hitting
back at them that their kete involves such strenuous gyrations of the waist
that a male dancer cannot prevent his member from violently jerking up and
down for which reason we call them “atopadwe”

A traditional ADOWA group consists of a pair of castanets, container
rattles, small drums (kyensee), supporting drum (dondo), and a master drum
(Atumpan) but many bands now use between two and four drums. The castanets
go ”kor kor kor, kor kor kor”, in triple beat in almost all borborbor music.
The smaller drums basically just keep the rhythm going. It is the bass drum
that provides the distinctive adowa sound. That is why the master drummer
must be good. In a typical adowa number, the lead singer may start alone or
with the accompaniment of the castanets. The drums and the chorus follow
after some singing. The interchange between lead singer and chorus go on for
some time through different songs. Then the bugler blows his first two
notes, usually drawing out the second one as long as possible (pa paaaaaa)
whereupon the dancing girls will bend down (it is not called adowa for
nothing) adding some more styles to their movements. The master drummer will
raise his act sometimes following the melody of the horn, at other times
inter-lacing rhythmically with it. The bugler ends his long solo on a note
that cues the lead singer to take up the singing again at the same time as
the dancing girls will rise up, their white handkerchiefs fluttering in the
air. I have seen a group use black and red handkerchiefs. That is ugly. It
is an abomination that will be sternly frowned upon by the adowa
aficionados. Anything other than white handkerchiefs detracts from the
purity of the dance.

A performance is often a medley of different songs whose themes do not even
have to conform to each other. This gives adowa singers the unique
capability of singing joyfully about the saddest things in life and dancing
happily to it too. You can start with a song praising God and segue into one
about romantic love following it up with the clearly profane adding the
patriotic moving through the vicissitudes of life and end with the mundane
issues of life. It can be such that in the public dances at the village
square you can find yourself in the awkward situation of singing about the
saving grace of God even as you are pressing your crotch against the
buttocks of the girl dancing in front of you in the circle. Oh yes, on
festive occasions, such is allowed. If only you do not overdo it, the girls
often do not complain. Everybody is happy. But the profanity does not end
there. The lecherous double entendre suggested by the last line of a popular
adowa classic is never lost to speakers of the language especially if that
line is sung by a girl. A similar suggestion is made by the first line in
another classic especially if it is a boy singing who, under his breath,
replaces the first word with another particular word.

Adowa is extremely easy to dance to. It is not like the intricate,
meaningful and regal moves of the borborbor, the suggestive gestures of
kpanlogo or the energetic dances of Northern Ghana. Everybody can dance
adowa – both young and the very old, as well as foreigners. It won’t matter
whether you are Ga, Nzema, Ewe, or Gonja. When the adowa rhythm catches you,
it will tell you which steps to take. After all, the basic adowa rhythm is
related to the rhythms of most of the other local music in Ghana and
cultural practices hardly develop in isolation. Adowa is really not the
“spectator event” that modern dance companies make it where they perform and
others watch. In the real world adowa, everybody is supposed to take part in
the singing and dancing. Our politicians, always with an eye on a vote
catcher, never fail to join in the dance. Nkrumah knew that – decades ago.
Adowa today is not only limited to Asantidome land. The adowa rhythm has
become the choice of church music that is accompanied by drums, at least
among all Asantis. And much of adowa music outside the church still deals
with religious concerns. Adowa is now almost all over the place. Go to any
major record shop in Ghana and you will see that not all those buying adowa
cds are Asantis. The records themselves are now the slick work of
professional studio engineers with the major performers credited on the
jackets. It’s a long way from the 45rpm singles of Kusi’s days. The
professional dance companies that have sprung up in Ghana in recent years
include adowa in their repertoires. This has involved a few changes and some
corner cuttings. The bugle has been the original instrument. But it is
difficult to blow and trumpets are now being used. Some groups even have two
wind instruments. The horn solos have become more varied. It is not uncommon
to hear popular highlife melodies being embedded into the solos.

The natural progression has been the “highlife adowa” and even “soul adowa”.
Thank goodness, we are yet to hear of “hip hop adowa”. It is rather hip hop
that has borrowed melodies from adowa. The Ivorian artist, Monsita , has a
hip hop rendition of “Yenkoda”. (Good hip hop in Asanti can be heard only in
Abidgan. As for the Ghanaian Asanti musicians, they are all singing in Twi –
Ayigbe Twi! Actually, the Ivorian Akans are also singing in Twi. The Ivorian
musician, Malouda, has a bouncy highlife track in Twi: Se wose wodo me a/
M’enka no wo w’ano/ Ye biribi na menhunu se wo do mi ampa/ Odo ye wu e…,
even though I am not very sure of what he expects his lover to do to prove
her love.) There are lots of adowa clips and other information on the
internet. Some of these have been of help to me in writing this piece. Check
out the music on youtube.

Malouda and his New Generation are still topping the adowa charts in Ghana
but I hear there are newer groups trying hard to knock them off the
pinnacle. And so, adowa lives on. And our love for it lives on too. As for
me I have given word in my holy village that when I die, they shall play
live adowa all night at my wake-keeping. They will supply enough drinks to
the boys so that they will play and play and play and the girls will dance
and dance and still dance a little more. And as they carry me to my final
resting place, the adowa drums shall follow me and when the earth has been
laid over my mortal remains, the girls will dance borborbor in a circle
around my grave. Then my soul will find eternal peace… ”

Satirical prose by

Joseph Sarkodie,

Accra, Ghana

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