Roving Sounds LogoDagomba Drumming in Tamale

Dagomba Drumming

For today’s post, we return to Ghana, but this time to the north – the town of Tamale, in what is known as the Kingdom of Dagbon.

After spending ten days in Burkina Faso, the tour returned south towards the coast, and Accra – on the way stopping at Tamale.

Tamale is the biggest city and capital of Ghana’s Northern Region, and appears vastly different from the tropical south of the country. The land here is dryer and less humid, and the population is predominantly Muslim, whereas you’ll find more Christians in the South.

This is probably due to the evangelical efforts of European missionaries being concentrated in the port towns of Cape Coast and Accra in the South, and the Muslim influence filtering down from the north of Africa, and the middle east via merchants.

Tamale was my last stop with the tour group, as my money was running short, and I decided to take some time to myself and explore the country. Knowing that its better to beg for forgiveness than ask permission, I purchased a second hand motorbike and planned to ride it down the center of Ghana, back to Accra, without specifically telling my family…

So the night recorded here was my last night with the tour group, and a little bit of a party.

The tour bus pulled into a Tamale after a 8 hour day on the road, which doesn’t sound that difficult, but is fairly nerve-racking, as speed restrictions and road markings are a little lax. At one point our bus moved onto the wrong side of the road to overtake another vehicle, forcing an oncoming motorcyclist off the road into a stationary donkey. The roads can be described as a little hectic.

After dinner and drinks, we were treated to a performance by a drum and dance group called the Tenani Cultural Group, who were curated by the Centre of National Culture in Tamale. This group specialized in music from the Kingdom of Dagbon, and was comprised of three drummers and a large number of singers/dancers.

Dagomba musicians are called Lunsi, and like the Griot’s of Mali, are part of a hereditary clan of musicians, whose job it is to preserve their culture’s oral and musical traditions.

They typically only play two different drums, the low fixed-pitched Gungon, and the higher pitched Lunga. Both are played with sticks and can be seen in the picture below.

The performer on the left is playing the Lunga and holding it under his arm, by squeezing the drum he tightens the drum head and raises the pitch. Many West African languages are tonal languages – that is, each word has a specific pitch or set of pitches associated with it. By manipulating the pitch of the Lunga, an expert performer can replicate the tones and sound of their language, thus giving it the name a Talking Drum.

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*Pictures Courtesy of Simon Fraser

In some of the recordings, the dancing singers wore rattles around their ankles, and played whistles in their mouths whilst dancing, which can clearly be seen in this picture.

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What Will We Hear?

The recording we’re discussing today is probably my favourite from the entire African trip, its a big call, but I think it best showcases the singing, drumming and atmosphere of all music I was lucky enough to see and hear whilst on holiday.

It begins with a call and response vocal line, sung by all the musicians and dancers, all harmonising effortlessly with each other. I find the sounds of these vocals to be so incredibly rich, and full of pride for their incredible culture – an effect that no amount of academic study could reproduce. The three drums enter this piece with a whole lot of conviction, setting up an incredible groove, which carries out the rest of the piece.

I remember leaving this performance feeling like a sad little white boy, envious of the the Dagomba people (from Dagbon) and of any person who feels this strong a connection to their culture, traditions and heritage.

I don’t know if it will ever be possible to do justice to the importance of music to a particular culture, nor if I could understand the sense of belonging that adherence to cultural practices that are hundreds of years old can create in a person, but it feels like a worthwhile pursuit.

Enough western self pity, enjoy this outrageously good track from the Tenani Cultural Group.

For the Music Nerds

  • I’m a real nerd, I like to try and sing along and harmonise with the singers…all my music nerds give it a go!
  • The two Gungon drums take the lead in this groove, featuring a large amount of improvisation and interplay, whilst the Lunsa opts for a simpler part. I find this interesting given the speaking quality of the talking drum, but this piece definitely seems to be played for dance.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Dagomba music and their people, you can check out this collection put together by the Smithsonian Institute’s Folkways program, and hang out for the part two of this post, coming soon!