You Can't Eat an Elephant All at Once


Ensemble, Death, and Mentorship in Ghana

By Andy Teirstein

 Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham


On a hill along the gold coast of Ghana lies a sprawling shantytown, the Arts Council of Accra. Here artisans are busy carving figurines, weaving cloth, and stretching skins across drum frames. We are seated in a shack, listening to the playing of Ba-ere Yotera, master of the gyil, a wood-slatted instrument (the grandmother of the marimba) whose name means, “to surround.” Ba-ere is a revered mentor to one of our team, Valerie Naranjo (faculty, Steinhardt). The rapid music pours around us, emanating from Ba-ere’s two hands in multifaceted conversation; through the forest of patterns simple melodies tickle our ears. Low tones rattle fiercely, their vibration amplified by calabash gourds that hang beneath the gyil. As we relax into these unfolding sound layers, it seems as though there are many interweaving voices singing, and I become aware of the magic trick: the invocation, by a single person, of an ensemble.

There are parallels here to Western classical music, such as the polyphonic patterning of a Bach fugue or the string quartet genre, described by Goethe at its inception as a musical conversation. But the classical Western composer stands apart from the community and works at a distance from the anonymous folk music of his/her people, from a kind of artistic podium. Here in Ghana the composer/musician is an essential part of the traditional community, a spiritual healer, and often a dancer. As Valerie puts it, “In the West, we often don’t move, don’t sing, don’t know our stories.”

 bA-ERE yOTERA, mASTER OF THE GYIL Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

In Ghana, the relationship of the individual artist to the traditional community is fluid. Where does the artist’s voice blend with the communal voice; where is it strengthened or distinguished? Over the next week, the Translucent Borders team would engage in a series of encounters with Ghanaian artists whose expertise is defined by this relationship.    

Maybe the Dead Can Dance

The next day we find ourselves speaking with a man whose father was buried inside of a drum. We are at the Dagbe Center, an institute of dance and music directed by the Agbelli family, renowned teachers of Ewe and other tribal performing arts. There is a gravesite at the entrance to Dagbe, with handles welded into a cement cover. In our exploration of cultural encounter, Translucent Borders now finds itself at the border of life and death, a recurring focus of the Ghanaian arts. We’re told by Nani Agbelli that the handles are for the purpose of opening the grave on special occasions. His father, Godwin Agbelli is buried here, inside of a large drum, in honor of his musical importance to the community. Early in her studies, as Valerie relates, “Godwin said, ‘Come and see me in Ghana.’ I said, ‘I will do that,’ and he said, ‘I’m expecting you.’” For years, Godwin was her mentor in Ewe drumming.

At the times when the grave is opened, the community approaches it with song and dance. This is a way of continuing the work that the deceased himself was involved with. Valerie describes the role of the musical leader in the Lobi/Brifo and Dagara traditions in this way:

Each locality, more or less, has a master musician. And that person is somewhere halfway between an artist and a doctor. He, and I say “he” because up til the last few years there haven’t been many women, but that artist is always on call if there’s a funeral. He’s the first one they call, because he has to go to the front of the house and announce the death of a person…They can tell by the style that he’s playing whether the person is a man, a woman, an elder or a young person. So when you hear that music you know that someone has passed. It’s that person’s responsibility to train young ones, and it’s that person’s responsibility to make sure that the art is not defiled.

A central concept is music as sound vibration, a force that is essential to life, healing and for deep connection among those present, including the dead. At Godwin Agbelli’s initial interment, special community members were brought in who knew how to manipulate a dead body. The ceremony, which lasted three days and nights, involved Agbelli’s periodic repositioning. His son Nani describes it as follows:

We open [the grave] up, pour libations, pray, reconnect with him, and then put it back and seal it. We chose drumming pose, dancing pose, family pose…So they would do one pose, and they will leave it there for people to come and see for about 30 minutes, and then everybody will leave, and the people will go again and close all the doors and put him in another pose, and then everybody will come again…That’s why we have the handles, so we can have easy access to opening the grave.

Nani Agbeli describes the grave opening
Video by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Through it all, there is singing, drumming, and dancing. The deceased individual, wrapped in sound, is a continuing part of the community. Later we learn that funerals are sought-after musical events. We’re told that you can take a taxi around town and look for one, and that there are funeral postings on telephone poles, the way Westerners might advertise a rock concert. Valerie has been to many of them, and describes them as follows:

Music is the fabric from which the funeral is hewn. Except when a very young child dies because they’re closer to the world from the beyond so they apparently don’t need all of this sound vibration energy to send them off. But for adults, even young adults and certainly elders, the sound vibration is what sends the energy of the person from this place to the next.

I’m reminded of a stand of Aspen trees in Colorado. The individual trees die after 80 years or so, but the root systems, connecting all the trees underground, are the oldest living organisms; they’ve been alive for many thousands of years.

Apprenticeship on Steroids

The way that the arts are integrated into community life involves a mentorship system, which often runs through a family, what Valerie calls “apprenticeship on steroids.” She says, “It’s a perfect university. You have room and board, you have master teachers and they look out for your welfare.”

Valerie has made over twenty visits to Ghana. When I ask her what draws her back, what compels her to break her busy schedule in New York (her regular longstanding gigs include Saturday Night Live and The Lion King), she says, “every person brings onto the stage or into a studio–every artist brings their entire life with them, whether we like it or not. I feel very very fortunate to have something that drives me down the road.”  She grew up with a Native American mom, on “the south side of the tracks” in Colorado.  

I was always fascinated as a kid, probably because of my mother, with, you would say in Spanish, ‘famosos desconocidos,’ famous unknowns. In other words, people who drive the culture in a community, those who spur others on, and who are really brilliant, and who are satisfied right there where they are.  

For these “famosos desconocidos,” there seems to be an awareness of belonging to a tradition, rather than controlling it or siphoning from it. This is apparent in Ghana, where the disciplined cultivation of the arts is a shared practice. One day I am visited by one of the elder dance masters of the Ghana National Dance Company, Abubakari Merigha. Like most of the performing artists we met, Merigha is both a dancer and a musician, playing the ganje, a bowed string instrument that he crafted himself. A lively character, Merigha appears for my interview in full costume, an hour early, and asks me to call him “Ya-Ya.” He tells me:

Whatever you inherit, you take good care of it. Whatever you have–you are a music director and a teacher–you have to take care of your profession. That is your skill. This is my instrument, it is my skill, it is what I have, I take good care of it.  You see the discipline I brought it from home. My father was very very strict.  How you concentrate on the music, you play the instrument with attention and focus.

 Abubakari Merigha(YAYA) AND aNDY tEIRSTEIN Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Abubakari Merigha(YAYA) AND aNDY tEIRSTEIN
Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Learning from the Dwarves

Another of Valerie’s mentors is Sulley Imoro, a dancer and drummer who, one day, gives us a lesson involving a calabash gourd song. For assistance, he brings his 12-year-old daughter Ayishetu. When we ask where the song came from, Ayishetu responds that it was “learned from the dwarves.” Apparently, much of the indigenous music was taught to hunters in the forest by the kontombe, or dwarves, who also taught the craft of instrument-building. They are looked upon as the keepers of beauty, balance and good, which doesn’t mean they don’t get a little mischievous sometimes, like all spiritual tricksters. The kontombe are neither people, animals nor angels, and are invisible. They seem to provide a way for an individual to ascribe his/her own generative musical energy to a folk source.

After one of Ya-Ya’s songs, I try to get a sense of the point where the individual and the folk source touch, apart from the explanation of the kontombe. First, I ask Ya-Ya to tell me what the song meant.

The world is a market.  It’s a house, but is not your home.  Everyone is going through to buy something and get something and go home...Your final home is when you are dead and put inside the casket. That’s your home, forever, ever, ever, ever. It means that in this world you should be patient. You should listen to the world. You should tolerate the world…That’s why we have all these things to harmonize your mind and your self. And that’s why the music plays. I always play this one for rich people, because they don’t want to listen anymore. So I play this to tell them to be more patient. It’s like elephant meat. You cannot swallow the elephant all at once. You have to cut the portion that you can eat. The whole elephant is too big for you alone to eat. So you cut your piece and go home.

 Abubakari Merigha(YAYA) AND aNDY tEIRSTEIN Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Abubakari Merigha(YAYA) AND aNDY tEIRSTEIN
Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

When I ask Ya-Ya if he wrote the song, if he created it, he answers by telling me that the instrument is like a dictionary for him, that without it, he can only observe things, “but with it…” (he makes a gesture of his hand exploding at his forehead). “I learn that song by knowing the instrument,” he says, “and my environment tells me that also. Where I live and what I see and my job.” I ask about the words, specifically. Do they come from the Koran? He says that it is an Islamic song from the Koran and the Bible, and that 99 percent of the words we speak are already in those two texts. And he says that his parents played it a little differently.

Now I see different views and explorations. So what my parents play might be different from what I see. So that is how the music keeps on building us all into this land. Some of the songs I took from my brother.  Some of the songs I myself–I look at the whole circumstance, and what is going on around me, around the space, and I have to do it. So I combine these two things at the same time.

Sound Vibration

Toward the end of our visit in Accra, Sulley Imoro brings his Mbamgba Cultural Troupe to perform for us. They include Ba-ere’s gyil playing amidst the drum ensemble. The troupe presents dances from various traditions. There are 67 distinct tribal groups in Ghana, many with mutually unintelligible languages, with different instruments, dances and songs.



It is fascinating to hear the gyil now in this context, as one instrument among many. As I listen, I am reminded of Valerie’s description of the gyil as a healing instrument, that it vibrates in a similar way to water, of which humans and animals are 70 percent comprised.  According to her, people are balanced by the sound of the instrument. “It makes them feel at peace and at ease.  I’ve seen this over and over.” Apparently it was used long ago to diagnose and heal psychological illness. This was accomplished by having the imbalanced person dance, during which the gyil player would change the music to fit the particular needs of the dancer, allowing him or her to “dance out the imbalance.”

At one point in Sulley’s performance he begins to involve those of us who are nearby. It is a transcendent experience to observe our colleague Wendy Perron, recently injured in a way that incapacitated her right foot, leap into the ensemble and execute a series of single-footed pirouettes. The stereotypical image pops into my mind of a cripple at a faith ceremony throwing away the crutches and jumping for joy, “I’m healed!” But this is Ghana, a place where, in the presence of so much communal music and dance, you feel welcome to participate, to throw away caution and allow a hidden, signature impulse to emerge.