My wife Ingrid and I had been in Aburi, Ghana for just over a week when our host, Kwame Obeng, informed me that I’d be joining the royal drummers for a performance at the chief’s palace the following afternoon, in celebration of an important holy day.
It’s not as if I was unprepared. I’d first met Obeng three years earlier, when he came to Toronto to coach a drumming troupe made up of Ghanaian immigrants and a lone Westerner (myself). We became close: Obeng called me mi nua, or “my brother,” in Twi, the language of his ethnic group, the Akan. And when his visa expired after a year, he invited me to continue studying with him back home in Aburi, a small town nestled in the verdant Akuapem Hills. Two years later, I took him up on his invitation. And now it was time to show him what I could do. What happened next was a complete surprise to me. I would never find out if it was a surprise to Obeng.
The day of the performance, Obeng stationed me and his nephew, a young man named Kwame Antwi, at a pair of enormous, barrel-shaped bommaa drums standing side by side. Each bommaa was carved from a 5-foot length of hollowed-out tree trunk, and both were painted a lustrous black and wrapped in red velvet fastened with brass studs. Just in front of us and to our left, Obeng himself stood before a pair of massive, goblet-shaped atumpan drums with antelope-skin heads. Directly behind us, a quartet of young boys and middle-aged men played three smaller drums and an iron bell. They were the rhythm section, while the two Kwames and I formed the front line.
As the performance began, Kwame Antwi and I began bashing away at the thick cowhide heads with long, L-shaped sticks fashioned from tree branches. We made quite a pair: him long and lean and dark, me short and soft and very, very white. The raised platform at the opposite end of the courtyard gradually filled with chiefs and palace officials draped in togas and dresses, all in different colors: turquoise, scarlet, cobalt, maroon. There was very little chitchat. Instead, our audience listened in silence as we played the drums, and various notables got up to make speeches and offer prayers to their ancestors.
The rhythms played on the big bommaa drums consist of several sets of patterns that are executed in unison by both drummers, each one longer and more complicated than the last. At first, I was able to match Antwi stroke for stroke. But as we moved into the longer and more complex material, things went completely off the rails. Suddenly, Antwi seemed to be adding rhythms that I’d never heard before. I tried to keep up with him, to imitate his hand movements even if I couldn’t quite make out what he was playing.
But I couldn’t. Standing there in front of the assembled royals, the truth slowly dawned on me: The rhythms I was supposed to play in public in Aburi were not the same as the ones that Obeng had taught me in Toronto, and which he had repeated for Ingrid and me during a brief private lesson just the previous day. Instead, they included swathes of material that were radically different from anything he’d shown us thus far; so different that I couldn’t figure them out, let alone execute them, in the heat of the moment. But no one else seemed willing to admit it.
“Alex, what is wrong?” Antwi asked as the two of us sat down next to Ingrid during a break. “You played these yesterday, no problem.”
“The rhythms are different,” I said, still in shock at having totally blown my public debut.
“These rhythms are different. They aren’t the ones I played in Toronto. They aren’t the ones we played with Obeng in our lesson yesterday.”
“Of course they are the same,” said Antwi. “Only faster!”
That would be the standard line from our Ghanaian friends for the next several months: The rhythms are the same, only faster! But they weren’t. As our hosts continued to insist that they had taught me the correct rhythms, I flubbed performance after performance: at rituals, at funerals, sometimes for enormous crowds. I couldn’t stop performing—we’d traveled thousands of miles to learn this music, and our presence in the ensemble was a source of prestige for Obeng—but the chiefs and palace officials who knew fontomfrom best must surely have realized that I was perpetually botching it, even if they were unfailingly polite, saying only “woaye ade!” (“well done!”) after every attempt.
I had no choice but to soldier on at the drums. While I did, I also struggled to comprehend what was happening. Eventually I boiled it down to two choices: Either we had radically divergent ideas about what constituted musical sameness and difference, about what gave a piece of music its unique identity and aural signature; or Obeng was intentionally hiding the full rhythms from Ingrid and me for unknown reasons. Was it deception or mental disconnect?
Adapted from http://nautil.us/issue/30/identity/drums-lies-and-audiotape