Bamaya: Rhythm of the Dagomba from northen Ghana

Excerpt from the book Matrices of Time, J. Cagwin 2004

This article pertains to the rhythm of Bamaya, specifically the basic patterns for the Gungon drum, adapted for frame drum. These exercises are intended to explore the possibilities of utilizing a Mizhar , or other medium to large diameter frame drums, with rhythms from a music and culture not typically associated with these types of drums. The Gungon is a medium sized double skinned bass drum (45cm - 50cm approx.), that is slung across the body and played in a standing position. It is played with one curved drumstick in the center and one open hand along the top edge. The skins are fitted with gut string snares that create a buzzing sound, similar to a Moroccan Bendir.

The following is a brief synopsis the Dagomba people and their music by ethnomusicologist David Locke, Associate Professor of Music at Tufts University.

The Dagomba, or as they call themselves, Dagbamba, are an ethnic group based in the Northern Region of Ghana. The Dagomba have a rich, intricate musical and oral tradition that has allowed them to preserve their history and origins in the form of what can be referred to as “dance-drumming,” which is the focus of this site. Many of these dance-drumming compositions, including the majority of the ones presented here, tell the stories of important events or people in the history of the Dagomba. As is the case with many societies in Ghana and throughout Africa, music has an integral place in the ceremonies and day-to-day lives of the Dagomba, and it is through their music that they remind themselves of who they are and from whom and where they came.

The Dagomba inhabit a traditional kingdom known as Dagbon and speak a language called Dagbani or Dagbanli. As Professor Locke is fond of saying in class, “the Dagbamba speak Dagbanli in Dagbon.” Dagbani is part of the More-Dagbani subgroup of the Gur languages, a group that stretches across the Sahel from southeastern Mali to northwestern Nigeria. As of a census taken in the year 2000, there are about 656,000 Dagombas. Islam was introduced into Dagomba society towards the end of the 1700s, and while it has exerted a strong influence on their customs, they still retain many of their pre-Islamic beliefs; Islam can be seen in the way they practice their tradition and likewise their tradition is evident in the way they practice Islam.

Drumming and Drummers

The Dagomba have a variety of types of music and to discuss them all properly is beyond the scope of this site. Suffice it to say that while the drumming discussed here plays a major role in Dagbon, it is only a portion of the rich musical culture possessed by the Dagomba.

Music plays a central role in Dagbon. It is in musical form that Dagomba history has been preserved over the centuries. At events called sambanlunga, knowledgeable storytellers weave together intriguing narratives that can stretch from sundown to sunrise the following day and go deep into the history of Dagbon. At the more routine level, drumming is used to remind people of their familial connections. Dagombas can trace themselves back to important figures in their past and swell with pride upon hearing the praise-names of an important ancestor.

Dagomba drums are referred to as “talking drums,” a term attributed to drums across much of West Africa and the rest of the continent. The drums are not just making musical sound, but are speaking literal words. Dagbani is a tonal language, which makes it conducive to being played on drums. While not the only ones, the quintessential drums associated with Dagbon are the lunga and gungon (for detail about them, see lungaand gungon.)

Drummers enjoy a special status in Dagomba society. The story of how drumming began in Dagbon is another deep, intricate narrative that is not supposed to be discussed freely. Therefore, please recognize that the following story is a distilled version appropriate for this forum, and know that I put this here because I believe some context is helpful. According to the oral tradition, the first drummer was Bizung, a son of Naa Nyagsi whose mother died while he was young. As a motherless child, he had no choice but to wear torn clothing, was only given leftovers to eat, and was picked on by the other children of the household. His only solace in this miserable existence was the pleasure he found in banging on a calabash drum outside the family compound. Eventually, Naa Nyagsi offered Bizung the paramount chieftaincy but Bizung declined and asked only that he be allowed to play his music in peace. Naa Nyagsi appointed him as the court historian and the role of the drummer in Dagbon was created. All drummers today trace themselves back to Bizung, who they call “grandfather.” For a fuller version of this story, refer to Drum Damba.

Because Bizung was offered the paramount chieftaincy but declined, the drummers, or lunsi, consider themselves royalty, and have a hierarchical system of chieftaincy that parallels the royal one. Every chief in Dagbon has his own set of drummers. In the olden days, a chief would not walk or go anywhere without an entourage behind him, including drummers. When a chief is on the move, his drummers play to announce his presence and ancestry to those within earshot. The relationship between drummers and chiefs is reciprocal; drummers convey an air of power to the chiefs, and the drummers also receive prestige from their status as important figures in a chief’s court.

Drummers in Dagbon are first and foremost storytellers and keepers of history. In written literature, such musicians have been termed griot. While musicianship is also an important component of the drumming, a primary charge of the drummers is to preserve the history stories, which are stored in musical form. Drummers know and understand the relationships between the people who live in their towns, and know for example can look at a person and know who their parents and grandparents are. The most prized drummers are those whose hands are quick enough to make the music enjoyable and whose minds are capable of remembering large numbers of people and their extended family trees.

The clichéd saying that examining the past allows us to navigate the present and predict the future pertains to the role of drummers in Dagbon, who serve as advisors to chiefs and the general populace. It is their job to be aware of people who are behaving in ways outside of accepted social norms and through the use of talk, music and proverbs to remind that person of what proper behavior is, or remind them of the consequences of another person who behaved in a similar way. An example of this can be seen in Jenkuno (see <here>), in which the drum language talks about the eternal relationship of cats and mice. The drum language in Jenkuno refers to a mouse sneaking into a room where there is a cat that appears to be sleeping. The ambiguous ending implies that the cat eventually catches the mouse and eats it. This song was composed as a warning to a figure in a chief’s court who was using his control over access to the paramount chief as a way to extort money from people trying to visit him. Frustrated with the situation, people eventually tried to sneak around this man. The song chastises both the man, or “cat,” for trying to cheat people and the people, or “mice,” for violating traditional protocol. While the people for whom this was originally composed are no longer alive, the moral of the story is easily applicable to current situations.

Gungon with Lunga



The Exercises The following exercises are an adaptation of the Gungon rhythms of Bamaya for the frame drum, incorporating the technique from the previous lessons, as well as solkattu analysis. These exercises are a good warm-up routine to get your hands and pulse together, as they contain many "1-3" and double "3" combinations with syncopated phrasings. There are four principal rhythmic changes with variations on each one. The optimal tempo for Exercise 1. is approximately quarter note = 85 - 90 b.p.m.. The “Turnaround” bridges rhythm 1 to 2. At this point, from the third beat, the tempo increases. In the traditional style, Exercise 3. can increase to an extremely fast tempo. Exercise 1. is repeated several times, exploring the different variations, after which the "turnaround" occurs where the tempo increases and continues to Exercise 2., again with several repetitions. Exercise 3. is developed over many repetitions, including the variations, with the tempo gradually increasing. Before proceeding to Exercise 4. there is a stop/pause in the rhythm. The tempo for 4. reduces directly to dotted quarter note = 110 approx.