the future of my people’s musical traditions

Published April 9, 2012 by EarthSpirit Community  on EarthSpirit Voices
Written by Steve Trombulak

This is a story about a spark of an idea, and an effort to fan it into a fire of positive change.

Last year, one of Josselyne’s teachers from Ghana, Emmanuel Agbeli, was visiting us in Vermont as part of a larger tour she had arranged for him throughout the eastern U.S. Emmanuel is from the Ewe (pronounced Eh-wey or Eh-vey) tribe that inhabits the Volta Region in southeastern Ghana and across the border into neighboring Togo. He is the director of the Dagbe Cultural and Arts Center in the village of Kopeyia, a center founded by his father, Godwin Agbeli. The center has been host to numerous students and scholars from colleges and universities in both the U.S. and Europe, who come to study the music, dance, song, and creative arts of the Ewe people. It was here that Joss began her in-depth study of Ewe music almost 20 years ago.

One evening over dinner, Joss recounted for me and reminded for Emmanuel a story: While in Ghana, she had asked Emmanuel about arranging for the purchase and shipping of antelope skins so that she could repair some of her ensemble’s drums, and he said that he wasn’t sure what he could provide, as the price and even availability of antelope skins had worsened dramatically in the last few years.

He had then gone on to say something that was deeply disturbing: “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

To understand his concern, one needs to understand something about the nature of those traditions.

First, as all of the readers of this blog are probably aware, much of African music has a strong emphasis on percussive rhythm. In the Volta Region of Ghana, music is dominated by drums, bells, and shakers, commonly played in ensembles that express both polyrhythmic (= instruments playing different rhythms at the same time) and polymetric (= instruments playing in different meters, such as 4/4 and 12/8, at the same time) characteristics.

Second, drums are headed by skins of various animals, including antelope, goat, and cow. However, the type of skin used is specific for a type of drum due to its timbre. If a drum is headed with a different type of skin, its sound changes, and it cannot fit in to the ensemble in its traditional way.

Third, the Ewe language is tonal. Similar to Mandarin Chinese, the inflected emphasis of how a word is spoken conveys meaning. Take, for example, the word “emmu.” The same letters in the same order can be used to mean either mosquito or water; it all depends on the inflection used when the word is pronounced.

All of these points come together in an overarching truth: The rhythmic musical traditions of the Ewe people involve drums that quite literally speak the Ewe language, each drum in the ensemble speaking a different sentence, and together telling a story that is part of the Ewe’s cultural heritage. Antelope skins are used because they are strong and, more importantly, they produce a variety of melodic tones. If the drums are not headed with antelope, then the drums cannot speak their parts, and if the drums cannot speak their parts, then the story cannot be told.

And the antelope are disappearing.

Through overhunting for food and habitat loss to accommodate increased agricultural production, antelope throughout West Africa, including Ghana, are in decline. Of the 20 species of antelope known to be part of Ghana’s native fauna, one (the red-fronted gazelle) has been eliminated from the region already, and all of the rest but for two are in decline.

It is no wonder that the price and availability of antelope hides has worsened in recent years. And it is no wonder that Emmanuel said, “I do not know what the future of my people’s musical traditions will be.”

It was then that Joss asked her next question, one that would launch the three of us on a journey that would move us between continents, among multiple cultures, and across disciplines as diverse as ethnomusicology, wildlife biology, and non-profit business management. “Well, if antelope populations are declining in the wild, would it be possible to raise them in captivity?”

Cue the quizzical stares in the direction of our house’s resident wildlife biologist. “Well,” I said, “I have no idea, but I can do some research and see what’s known about that kind of project.”

In fact, it turns out that captive breeding of antelope is a well-established practice. Numerous zoos around the world have successfully bred many different species of antelope, including those that would be of interest to the Ewe people, and a handful of wildlife rehabilitation centers in Africa had done the same. In fact, several years ago, the duikers (pronounced di-ker), a group of small antelope species native to Africa, were identified as a promising form of “micro-livestock,” species whose domestication might improve agricultural productivity and food availability.

In theory, then, developing a captive breeding program for antelope in Kopeyia might be a way to help retain Ewe musical traditions. We could capture a handful of antelope in the wild and use them to start a breeding colony in a facility where they could be fed and cared for. Their offspring could provide hides for the cultural center and meat for the local villagers in an on-going basis, all without putting undo pressure on the populations in the wild. All we would have to do is build the facility, find a way to get hunters to capture the initial animals for the colony and deliver them to us alive, hire staff to provide care and feeding for the animals, develop a protocol to ensure their health and promote their reproduction, and raise the funds to do it all on an on-going basis.

As Joss and I are so fond of saying when presented with an interesting idea, “Hey, how hard can it be?”





Fairy Tale

Published April 1, 2012 by EarthSpirit Community  on EarthSpirit Voices
Written by Morwen Two Feathers

Water Snake photo by Cherrie Corrie
(photo by Cherrie Corrie)

As soon as I am among the trees I feel at home. The patch of woods behind our house is just large and thick enough to shield me from all view of the surrounding houses. Only the distant sounds of children playing hint that I am not completely alone in the wilderness. I make the rounds, checking to see if any of my fairy houses are occupied. The good smell of clean dirt greets my nose as I carefully clear away the leaves and pine needles that have fallen onto the furniture I constructed of sticks and bark. The skunk cabbages whose tiny shoots I nibbled on just a few weeks ago have unfurled into broad stinky leaves as big as my head. I suspect the fairies are hiding there among the smelly plants, where they know I will not search. I continue my rounds, cleaning up the messes that Mother Nature has made, moving dead tree limbs off the path, brushing pine needles off the boulders, making my way back to the bramble-patch where I will reward myself with the raspberries that are probably ripe by now.

Like all children, I know the woods are alive. Not just the birds and squirrels and the myriad of insects that crawl and hop and fly in all their fascinating glory, but the woods itself. The trees have personalities, and the rocks appreciate tending. And most of all, there are the fairies. I never imagined them as pretty little girls with wings. By the time I ever saw any pictures like that I’d already had my own first-hand experience with fairies and I knew they aren’t like that. Not that I could tell you what they do look like. They are more of a feeling, really. Much older than those little sprites in the pictures, and a little scary even, because of how much they know everything. They know everything because they are part of everything.

The first time I felt the fairies was in this very same woods, but I’ve felt them lots of times since then. Sometimes you can even feel them in the city. It’s that feeling that happens when you are in certain places and you get a tingle that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Even if there aren’t any people around you just know someone is watching you. I know they can see what I do and it makes me a little more careful.

One time I was playing with my friends in the stream down at the end of the road. Just past the cul de sac there’s a gully where the creek cuts left to right, coming out of a culvert a little ways upstream and winding through mud and scrub into a field way down behind the houses. Across the stream the sandy bank rises steeply to forest. Now it’s summer and there’s hardly a trickle in the ditch, but back then it was spring, there was real flowing water thigh-high in places, and we were on an adventure to see how far downstream we could wade. I was holding my sneakers up high over my head as my bare feet picked my way from rock to rock, feeling the current caress my calves and knees. Behind me I could hear my friends chattering about school. I was in the lead, and was coming to the place that was as far as we had ever been. I looked up at the sun through the trees to see how much time we had, and that’s when I felt it. Between my thighs, the streaming water was suddenly solid, a long black sinuous shape sliding its entire length along my leg as it rode the current down. I gasped, and took a breath to scream when it turned aside into a marshy eddy on the side of the creek, lifted its head and looked right in my eyes. Everything stopped and the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Right then I knew that snake had a soul, just like me.

I could feel the fairies watching me. It was like every leaf and blade of grass and even the clouds were paying attention to see what I would do. I swallowed my scream because I didn’t want them to think I was afraid, or worse, mad at the snake. The moment stretched, my gaze locked with the being in the water. As my friends came splashing up behind me, the snake slid back into the water and disappeared downstream. Time started again. I didn’t tell them what happened, because you just don’t talk out loud about some things.

Sometimes when I am in bed at night, I get a feeling of falling straight up out of my bed and through the ceiling of my room, up past the trees and clouds and even the stars, all the way up into space, into the middle of the big Nothing. Then I see how huge the world is, and how tiny and insignificant I am compared to everything. It makes my stomach jump around just to think about it. When I was smaller I couldn’t make the feeling go away by myself and I had to go snuggle with my mom to make it stop. Now that I’m bigger, I can manage to stay in my bed if I remember to breathe. It’s not easy to breathe when your heart is pounding and your stomach wants to turn your whole body inside out, but it helps when I remind myself about the fairies. Even though they are older than old and part of the hugeness of everything, they notice me so I must mean something.

When I was a very little girl playing outside with my friends, I always thought they felt the fairies too, even though we never talked about it. I just assumed everyone knew they were there. But now we’re getting older and I’m not so sure. My friends don’t want to hang out in the woods anymore, and they would rather talk about boys than listen to birds. So I come to the woods by myself now, to sit on this rock and eat raspberries and listen to the voices of the trees in the wind. I don’t think the fairies are something to grow out of, in fact the older I get, the more important I realize they are. The fairies are the spirits of all there is, and when I listen to them I learn how to treat the world. If other people don’t understand that, then it’s even more urgent that I do. I know my friends think I’m a little weird, and my parents worry that I spend so much time by myself in the woods. But I don’t care. The raspberries are delicious, the chipmunks are amusing, and the trees tell me their secrets in long, whispering verses. And when I remember that snake looking me in the eye I know it is a part of me, just like everything else on this wild and boisterous planet. I feel the fairies smile when I think that. Popping another raspberry into my mouth, I smile back.

[This was originally published in Gaian Voices. Morwen Two Feathers grew up in the Connecticut River valley in Northern CT. Now she lives in the Assabet River watershed in Concord, MA, where she has been known to develop personal relationships with rocks and trees.]


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