Sharing Burdens Through Dance and Music


By Wendy Perron

The Arts Council, or, a Village of the Arts

On the first full day, we got a glimpse of the vitality of the arts community in Accra. We visited two musicians at the national arts council, a vast collection of shacks where people make things, sell things, perform, and live. We were guided by our NYU colleague, percussionist Valerie Naranjo, who had been to Ghana many times to study with master musicians; she seemed to know about half of the thousand or so crafts, people and performers there. Valerie’s gyil teacher, Ba’ere Yotere, welcomed us into his tiny hut, slipped on a ceremonial vest, and played for us. He chose two compositions of his own and one he learned from his grandfather. Suddenly in this little shack the music was as intense and grand as any solo concert at Carnegie Hall.

From left: Andy Teirstein, Valerie Narajo, and Cari Ann Shim Sham Photo by Wendy Perron

From left: Andy Teirstein, Valerie Narajo, and Cari Ann Shim Sham
Photo by Wendy Perron

Then we went to see Chief Eric Abayaa and his Tanga Kabire Cultural Group, which consisted of several drummers, a kologo player (stringed instrument), and two dancers: his wife, Juliana Atanga, and another woman named Talata Akila. They started dancing low-key, each flipping two horsetails this way and that—a simple, almost-nothing dance. Talata’s torso absorbed the beat in such a sharp yet subtle way and her face radiated such beatific involvement that I was transfixed. As she got deeper into it and lower to the ground (she’s wearing a green top in this video; Eric is in blue), I could glean that she was improvising on a traditional dance. It was the zooka from Bolgatanga.

Video by Andy Teirstein

Talata and Juliana wore casual clothes and the horsetails are common household items, so it seemed like they just broke into dancing while we happened to be there. It wasn’t a “performance” for them; it was just something they do. Eric on drums and the kologo player, Atamina David, did not stay in one place. They were moving, creating spatial conversations with the women, goading them on. Children gathered ’round, some of them watching, others not. After the performance was over, some of the boys swarmed around the drums.

How Women Are Treated

In our lunch meeting with Akosua Anyidoho, director of NYU Accra, she mentioned the lack of widowhood rights, which is part of the larger struggle for gender equity. In some parts of Ghana, when a woman’s husband dies, her life is ruled by his brothers—or his sisters. Even when the husband is alive, the youngest wife has to cook for her husband’s brothers, and she must serve them all before she can eat. Also, many women still do not have as much access to education as men. Although Ghana was one of the first African countries to ratify the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Ghana’s 1992 constitution specifies fundamental rights for women, discriminatory practices persist, partly because of long held superstitions.

It was therefore with a certain joy that we encountered Della Hayes and her Women of Color Band. Della and five young women practice in a tiny shed on a dirt road so rocky that we had to park the car at a small church about a quarter mile away. Della, with a strong jazzy voice, sang and shook gourds as the five young women played, occasionally adding their voices. Their distinctive sound seemed to me a combination of American jazz and the Nigerian “high life” of King Sunny Ade. (After all, “highlife” originated in Ghana decades before Sunny Ade.) At one point Eunice, the keyboard player, left her instrument and drifted to the center space to dance. Della told us that she encourages them to be versatile, which means a lot when it comes to women. From what I observed elsewhere, men have more freedom to shuttle back and forth between music and dance than women.

From left: Abigail, Eunice, Ruth, Eva Photo by Wendy Perron

From left: Abigail, Eunice, Ruth, Eva
Photo by Wendy Perron

The band’s last song was a rallying cry for women: “We want freedom! We want independence! We want money!”

Afterwards, we all started talking, but then I asked Andy and Sulley to step outside so that we three American women could speak to the young Ghanaian women with greater intimacy. They were each quite open with us about the hardships of trying to be a musician in a society that sometimes cruelly suppresses women. Abigail, the guitarist, told us that when she came home late after playing music, her husband made her and their baby sleep outside. Ruth, the trumpet player, said her powerful uncle tried to stop her from playing. The only positive story came from the drummer (I think her name was Eva), whose husband objected to her playing music at first, but eventually came around. Valerie and Cari Ann gave them encouragement from their own experiences, while fully acknowledging how difficult it must be for them. Although I wish we’d had more time to hear their stories, we quickly developed a kind of sisterhood of cross-cultural trust.

After the two men rejoined us, Andy pulled out his harmonica and we all jammed together (me whacking an empty water bottle on a broken drum) on the porch. So much energy and so much fun! Definitely crossing the border between us and them.

The Melding of Public and Private, Past and Present

Dancing often adorns public events, from welcoming visiting dignitaries (see this clip of Obama’s visit in 2009  to funerals. So perhaps it’s not surprising that when we arrived at the National Theater building to watch a rehearsal of the National Dance Company of Ghana, the company had been called away to appear at a state event. Luckily, Nii Tete Yartey, the young director of the company, returned quickly to speak with us, and we were impressed by his eloquence. He said things like, “We don’t look back, but we carry our past with us into the future.”

Nii-Tete also directs Noyam Dance Company, a small experimental group. When talking about making new work, he stressed that any new movement has to be compatible with their traditional aesthetic. Asked to give an example, he stood up and said, “We don’t do this.” He demonstrated a limp arabesque, focusing on his outstretched hand with the leg sagging behind–a perfect mockery of Western concert dance! Then he moved in a more full-body way, engaging spine and limbs equally, to show what might be compatible with their vocabulary.

Afterwards, in the corridor outside Nii-Tete’s office, Andy brought out his cricket violin, quite a unique instrument, and started playing. It caused a small sensation among the musicians who clustered around to hear and admire it. One man started dancing, shuffling on the beat toward Andy. Another man asked to try Andy’s fiddle himself.

Video by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Nii-Tete invited us to attend a TV show later that day, “Ghana’s Most Beautiful,” for which the National Dance Company had been hired to represent the dances of the 10 different regions of Ghana. Before the pageant began, each group was rooting loudly for its candidate. The yelling and cheering and jostling of signs reminded me of the American political conventions, but on a smaller scale. There was drumming, general merrymaking, and an ear-splitting whistle. One guy pranced around, wrapped in the poster of his region.

The fact that dance accompanied this pageant was striking to us. In the U.S. we sometimes see dance in TV commercials but not at public events. In Ghana, no public event would be complete without dancing and drumming. That is part of the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, who felt that pride in Ghana’s cultural heritage was essential to the country’s well-being.

As each of the 10 lovely contestants entered, she was accompanied by a small processional of dancers. When she spoke, it was clear she had been coached to say something uplifting about her region. Akosua of the Eastern Region proclaimed, “We are very peaceful and we give equal respect to everyone.” (Many Ghanaians speak Ewe or Twi or another language, but English is the national language.) Although each segment was brief, I could discern a few distinctive dance styles. For the Northern Region, the dancers swayed freely in striped flowing tops with ballooning trousers. For the Badu-Asante Region, they danced the Adowa, in which the hands make gentle circular motions, almost like Tai Chi. And for the Greater Accra region, they scooted forward energetically.

Elders Seated at Ghana's Most Beautiful TV Show Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

Elders Seated at Ghana's Most Beautiful TV Show
Photo by Cari Ann Shim Sham

The candidate for the Western Region surprised us by going beyond platitudes, saying, “Every woman has a right to choice.” As we experienced with Della and her group, Ghana seems to be in a moment of change in terms of gender equity. Another indication, which I learned about only after I got back to the U.S., is the new Ghanaian web series showcasing five women characters modeled on “Sex and the City.” It’s debatable whether this attempt at popular culture will have a liberating effect—or be a distraction. But the series, called “An African City,” does allow glimmers of independence amidst the privileged, gotta-get-your-man drama.

Crossing the Border Between Performance and Audience

One afternoon, Sulley Imoro and his Mbagba Cultural Troupe gave us a gorgeous, varied, complete performance out on the grass between Afia Beach Hotel and the ocean. Sulley must’ve changed into five different outfits for the different dances. (He explained later that getting into costume is part of his warm-up.) When he performs, Sulley’s theatrical instincts kick in, and he’s riveting to watch. He was fierce. We later learned that as a child he had danced with his father, a popular performer, and the duo was such a hit that people would follow them from village to village.

Mbagba’s dances were highly choreographed. Whereas Talata and Juliana of Eric Abayaa’s troupe had been loosely improvising, Sulley’s two women executed steps in precise unison. In the Togo Atsia dance, they glommed on to each other, with one sitting on the other’s thigh, still in unison. It was explained to us that this reflects values of community and support, and a sharing of burdens. (The sharing of burdens is something Akosua Anyidoho has written about in regard to the Nnwonkerc songs of the Akan women.)

The audience—Andy, Valerie, Cari Ann and I—were positioned about 15 yards away from their performance area. At a certain point, drums still going strong, Sulley ran over to us and pulled Cari Ann out from behind the video camera to dance with him. She’d spent a year in Accra and really has this idiom in her body—the looseness of the knees, the quick chest contractions, the opposition of upper and lower body. (She eats cassava mush with her fingers too, just like the Ghanaians!) Then the drummer named Ben pulled Andy in and they danced together. Ben was stomping, fast and powerful, and Andy kept up with him. Then someone pulled Valerie in and she too seemed to know the moves.

Cari Ann Shim sHAM JOINING ONE OF THE mBAGBA DANCERS Photo by Wendy Perron

Photo by Wendy Perron

After a second round of this audience-participation segment, Andy jumped in on his own, and instead of trying to do Ghanaian dance, performed some classical mime, like pulling on an invisible rope. Seeing him veer so far from their traditions was an opening for me, so I twisted my way in on one foot (my right ankle had been injured), improvising in my own style.

The Border of Choreography and Improvisation

Although the Mbagba dancers carried out the choreography of each dance with their own personal flair, Sulley seemed to have more  freedom than the others to improvise. He leapt and spun and shuddered and got on all fours like a dog to undulate his back. In one passage he looked out at the audience and admonished us in his language—Dagbani— with a very urgent look on his face. (It turned out he was repeating his father’s directives, for example to really shake your hips in the Bamaya dance.)


Photo by wENDY pERRON

After my NYC-style, postmodern foray, Sulley launched into a mock adagio. He leaned way forward in a kind of arabesque ignoring the beat of the drum, possibly mimicking my little dance. As we had seen Nii-Tete do that morning, Sulley managed a pretty good parody of Western dance, which of course looked ridiculous in this context. In West African dance, torso, spine, and limbs all move together, propelled by the beat of the music. After a few measures, Sulley shook himself out of the adagio with a deep drop to the ground and a powerful pounce upward.

He was on a roll. Way over to our left, twice as far as the gap between the performers and us, three of the hotel staffers were watching. Suddenly Sulley took on the character of a crazed hunter. He zig-zagged over there, cornered one of them, and chased him into the performing area. He came back with a wild look and a fringe of grass in his teeth, as though he’d torn off part of the guy’s body. One animal hunting another. Their impromptu skit didn’t last long before the staff person ran back to his fellow workers. But it was great theater!


Photo by uNKNOWN

Making Music with the Body

We saw many examples of music emanating from the moving body. In the first dance, Sulley wore metal objects on his thumb and middle finger, perhaps a Ghanaian cousin of castanets, that make a clinking sound when the fingers touch.

We got a chance to feel the movement of music-making ourselves when Sulley gave the four of us (plus his daughter Ayishetu, a budding percussionist) a calabash lesson at the hotel. The calabash is traditionally played by women. The first sound was made by circling the right arm up and around and down to pound on the gourd with the bottom of the fist. You had to activate the whole upper body and feel the weight of the arm coming down. Other sounds were made by switching the gourd from one hand to the other, inviting a rhythmic sway in the upper body. It was during the swaying move that Sulley taught us a beautiful little song in Ewe. He would sing and we would follow, call-and-response fashion.

For another phrase Sulley punctuated the ending by leaning forward and nestling his chin in his hands—very sweet. We ate it up. At the end, we stood up while he demonstrated the last two beats: In the first, the woman holds the calabash like a shield at her jutting hip, then she puts it on her head, her body assuming a sassy accentuated S-curve. Sulley had no problem showing us how sexy a woman could be in these two positions.

A Musical Farewell

Sulley showed up at 6:30 our last morning, insisting on driving us to the airport. Before we got out of the car, he pulled out a little flute and played a melody, a special goodbye tune no doubt. Sadly, we were leaving Ghana, where there’s a song and dance for every occasion.


Photo by wENDY pERRON


I support Andy’s idea of Accra as a potential gathering site for groups of women’s music from various parts of the world. Here are some of the reasons:

• As I mentioned, Ghana is at a point of change for women. Scholars at the University of Ghana have written about the political, cultural, and economic discrimination against women. It would benefit the community of Accra and Ghana in many ways if NYU’s Global Institute for Advanced Study: Translucent Borders were to host an international consortium that values women. The different groups of women musicians from around the world would have a peaceful, fruitful cultural exchange.

• Accra is already an international city. As mentioned by Akosua Darkwah, another faculty member at NYU Accra, “Accra has been home to Sierra Leoneans, Nigerians, returnees from Brazil for more than a century” as well as to the Dutch, the Danish and the British.

• There is a role for men—men like Sulley who understand the hardships of women. In the book Female Song Tradition of the Akan of Ghana* author Kwasi Ampene writes that for each group, one man supports the group and serves as interface with the rest of society. In the case of Sulley, one example of his devotion to training women is this: A 13-year-old student of his was from a poor family, and her mother planned to give her away in marriage. Sulley took the girl under his wing and arranged for her to go to school instead.

• We would want to connect to the Centre of Gender Studies and Advocacy at the University of Ghana. Akosua Darkwah, who unfortunately was not in Accra during our visit, is a member that group. I see from the internet that this center is sponsoring its first international conference this October, 2016.

• The Afia Beach Hotel is a wonderful setting for a spiritual endeavor. At all times it connects you with the sound and sight of the ocean. They can offer a conference room and outdoor sites that are good for performances.

• If we have contingents from different countries, we could offer workshops in both movement and sound to the participants, with an aim to sharing traditions in music- and dance-making.