Salaka Perform Traditional Ghanaian Music

Salaka – Traditional Music from Accra, Ghana

Our first official Roving Sounds music post will be of Ghanaian drum and dance group, Salaka. Salaka are from Accra, Ghana and they perform traditional music from all over the West African region, specialising in many different instruments. What is important to note is that each nation within West Africa, and indeed each region within Ghana, will have distinct ethnic groups with their own cultural traditions, their own music and their own drums.

We had numerous opportunities to see Salaka perform throughout the tour, but the following recordings are drawn from a standout performance, given to the tour-group before the road-trip north, to Burkina Faso.

The group is comprised of around 8 drummers, and 8 dancers. The dancers have many incredible costumes, and move in a way I’ve never seen before.

More information about Salaka is available here.

Some Notes on this Music

Wherever possible, i think it is helpful to understand these West African recordings in terms of rhythmic layers, of which there are usually at least 3, and which can be compared to the conventions of western music.

Layer 1: Foundation of groove, immovable and repetitive, syncopated, and the reference point for all other parts, including dance. Most crucial for the groove. Similar to western drum kit and bass.

Layer 2: Enhancement of basic groove with further interlocking parts, add complexity, different from Layer 1 in pitch and tone, Second most crucial for groove. Similar to western guitar or piano.

Layer 3: The icing on the cake, the storytelling element (master drummer, soloist or vocals), little to no repetition, often the loudest part, Least crucial for groove. Similar to western horns or vocals.

Within Layer 3 lies the Master Drummer, who acts as the band leader, and directs the music in the following ways:

  • To play short musical cues, which indicate to the ensemble, and dancers, when to change section, groove, or dance move, when to speed up, when to slow down, and when to stop.
  • The master drummer takes improvised solos over the top of the groove, similar to the way in which a jazz horn would also solo over a rhythm section. These solos can often seem flashy and technically impressive, but are intended to tell a story.
  • The master drummer can initiate call and response phrases between the ensemble and the band, by playing another musical cue to the ensemble.
  • Lastly, and i find most interestingly, the master drummer can act as a sparring partner with an improvising dancer. In western culture, it seems typical for dancers to adapt their movements to the feeling and pulse of the music, however what i noticed in watching and filming some of these performances is that in this musical tradition, the adaptation goes both ways. Not only did an improvising dancer change their movements to match the music of the master drummer, but the master drummer would also change his/her musical phrases to match the movements of the dancer. This allowed for a really interesting sense of communication, give and take and much deeper integration between the dance and music of these traditional West African pieces.

So when you hear a recording of West African music, and find it hard to hear anything but noise, first ask yourself:

What is Layer 1? Where is the immovable, repetitive essence of the groove.

What is Layer 2? What is an added level of complexity, which thickens the sound. This can often be the hardest to differentiate, especially with many Layer 2 parts.

What is Layer 3? What floats above the groove telling the story

What is the Master Drummer doing at any given moment? Can you isolate his/her musical phrases? Are they cue-ing the band or soloing?

These layers help me keep everything separate in my head.

What Will We Hear?

This week we’ll hear Salaka perform two pieces, from two different regions.

Get ready for some generic track names, i didn’t manage to catch their real names in this occasion!

Salaka 4

The first we’ll hear is not from Ghana, but rather from one of the French speaking nations surrounding Ghana, such as Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

We can say this because of the drums used – Djembes and Dununs – which typically from one of the aforementioned countries, however at this point I can’t pinpoint a more specific region for the piece. The Djembes and Dununs work together to crete 3 rhythmic layers to this groove.

Layer 1 is the Dun Duns, are deep resonate sounding drums, that are usually played in a set of two or three (sometimes with the addition of a bell) and give the groove its propulsion and movement. They are played with sticks and often perform the more syncopated parts of a groove.

The Djembes make up Layer 2, and in this recording are played with a little more skill than your average street drummer. It is typical that 2-3 Djembes are played to form this layer.

Finally, the master drummer also plays a Djembe, rounding out Layer 3.

Salaka 3

This piece is a Ghanaian piece, and as a handily recorded spoken introduction indicates – is from the Volta Region of Ghana and comes from the traditions of the Ewe people (pronounced Ey-oh-way).

A feature of Ewe music is the extensive use of poly-rhythms, which are particularly evident in this 6/8 piece. Depending on which drum you hear, and at which time, it could seem to have a pulse of 4, 3, or 6.

Layer 1 for this groove in this piece comes from the Gankoqui Bells, which are two metal bells, one high pitch and one low pitch, which perform what is commonly known as as 12/8 clave.


The pattern of the bells is matched by a shaker called an Axatse, which is made from a dried and hollowed gourd (large fruit), draped in a net of beads which beat the sides, and is played by striking the knee and an elevated hand. The Axatse enhances the rhythm of the Gankoqui bells by filling the gaps left in the pattern with up strokes, and completing the core of this groove.


I believe that Layer 2 is comprised of 2-3 drums, however it is a little difficult to hear in this recording. The first drum is known as Kaganu, and is quite small, covered in antelope skin, and the highest pitched drum heard in this piece. It alternates between two pitches, and to me it sounds like its a bouncy ball, ricocheting off two different tones.

I can also hear a low bass tone, which strikes only a few times per bar, sometimes on beats 2 and 3 – coming from a massive drum approximately 130cm tall called an Atsimevu.

And lastly, i think i can hear another middle part in the groove beneath the master drummer – which doesn’t seem to be quite as regular or consistent as the kaganu. This would be a medium sized drum called a Kidi…if its actually there…i might be crazy. Leave me a comment and let me know if you can hear it too – or is it just a mess of drums.

Layer 3, in this piece is the master drummer playing i believe a Sogo drum. There are some cue-ing phrases being played, however I’m yet to identify exactly what they are. Its also likely that if we had video we could see the dance that goes with it, and how the dancers are interacting with the master drummer.

The three drums, Kaganu, Kidi and Sogo are all from the same family of drums, and are made in the same way – just in different sizes to give different tones.

Ewe Set

In both pieces you’re going to hear lots of incredible singing.

This is something that really stands out to me in these West African recordings, are the beautifully harmonised group vocals, which are sung by everyone who knows it. There aren’t any judgements of talent or ability, just inclusion, and it definitely lends to the community atmosphere of the music, and creates an undeniably cool sound.

In a later post, I’ll be delving deeper into the cultural and social function of this great West African music, but for now, lets just hear some of it right?



Piece 1: Salaka 4

I was fortunate to capture the vocal intro to this song, which is an incredible group call and response phrase – however i didn’t manage to catch it on video – so the video lurches from logo into video around the 1:06 mark. Also please forgive my turning of the camera at one point…rookie move.

If you’d prefer to just listen to the audio, that is attached available here, however i strongly urge you to watch the video – the dancing is out of this world, and you get a better understanding for the relationship between drumming and dance, and how the music works. Without the video, it feels as if you’re only getting half of the performance.

Sadly no one-on-one drum and dance improvisation here, but an incredible choreographed routine nonetheless.

Piece 2: Salaka 3

For the Music Nerds


  • When apprentice drummers in the West African tradition are learning how to improvise, they are taught the same way that jazz students do – by first learning common solo phrases, or licks, and then developing their rhythmic vocabulary through the introduction of more phrases.
  • Also similar to the jazz tradition, is that great West African drummers become known for their own personal interpretation on rhythm – how early or late in relation to the beat they place their notes, and how they feel their swung 8th notes.

Salaka 4

  • Pay particular attention to the master drummers cue-ing phrases, which are communicate to all the musicians and dancers, that they groove and dance will change (or stop). The same phrase is used every time, and in my crappy western notated version of it would look something like this. Salaka-4-Cue-Notation

(If you’re too distracted by the dancing to listen out, it happens at 1:57, 2:10, 2:19, and see how the dancers change!)

  • Try and focus on the low Dununs and how the sit within the groove – if you’re finding it hard to hear them, you can see and hear them really clearly after the stop at 2:40. Such an incredible groove.

Salaka 3

  • Listen for the high pitched Kaganu near the beginning of Salaka 3 – i’m pretty sure its phrasing in dotted crotchets beginning on the second triplet. If you’re into a challenge, try and tap your foot with the bell pattern dotted crotchet, and clap the start of the Kaganu phrase.

Get Involved/h3>

  • Salaka 3: Can you hear the medium pitch Kidi drum too? Or is it just me going crazy?
  • Salaka 3: Can someone work out what the master drummers cues to stop, speed up etc are and leave a comment? Bonus Roving Sounds brownie points if you can!

If you like what you’re hearing, you can purchase the band leader Tuza Afutu’s cd here – otherwise subscribe to Roving Sounds in the sidebar for regular updates!