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Pressing patrons with proverbs: Talking drums at the Tamale markets1

by Paul Neeley and Abdullai Seidu

Reprinted from Notes on Anthropology and Intercultural Community Work 17:32–43
© 1995 Summer Institute of Linguistics


Anyone who goes to the Tamale markets in late afternoon, on a market day, will hear and see drummers, either playing solo or in groups. They direct their drumming to certain people, who may ignore them, listen to them with pleasure, or act slightly annoyed. The people may or may not give a small gift to the drummer. The aim of this article is to provide some initial insight into this type of social interaction in the areas of performance practice, linguistics, and ethnomusicology.

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The Dagbamba drumming under study2 is used as a speech surrogate, that is, the tones and rhythms of speech are replicated through the tones and rhythms of different drums. Therefore, the two drums used can be referred to as "talking drums." The Dagbamba drums used in a market context are the hourglass-shaped variable tension drum known as lunga and the double-headed cylindrical drum with a snare called gungon. An ensemble is divided into a lead lunga and supporting drums, which include the gungon and any other lunga used. The Dagbamba people make use of a wide number of musical instruments which serve as speech surrogates, including other types of drums, chordophones, aerophones, and idiophones.

"In Dagbon the drummers, Lunsi, are the court historians and musicians, chroniclers of the past and recorders of the present" (Oppong 1973:54). The drums can "speak" different genres, including lengthy histories and genealogies.3 In the context of a market in Dagbon, the material spoken by drums consists of short proverbs. Each proverb is used as an appellation, or praise name, for a particular individual. The family members of such an individual are often also addressed by this name by drummers--as the glory of a prominent person extends to his family, so does the use of his drum name.

Though most frequently associated with Dagbamba chiefs, proverbial drum names also exist for chief butchers, drummers, and others. Anyone, even a "commoner," who wants such a drum name can have one; he gives a favorite proverb to a drummer he knows, who then arranges the tonal-rhythmic contour of the proverb to be played on the drum. A person may want a drum appellation to glorify his name in the memory of his descendants. Such an appellation brings both benefits and responsibilities: the patron receives public recognition but is expected to pay for it.

The drummed proverbs are used in many different social contexts, from birth to death. Besides markets scattered throughout Dagbon (held every six days), other contexts where the drummed proverbs will likely be heard include weddings, festivals, "outdoorings" (or naming ceremonies) of week-old children, and funerals. The drum proverbs frequently accompany dance at these occasions (but not at market). In general, drummers will come and play wherever potential patrons are likely to congregate.

For the Dagbamba drummer, it takes equal parts of "what you know" and "who you know" to be successful. The drummer must not only memorize the drum patterns and verbal bases for many proverbs, he must also be able to use them correctly to get his tips, or "dash." This expertise depends on his recognition of many people in his area of Dagbon. People's faces and who they are related to must be memorized just as much as the tonal-rhythmic patterns and underlying texts.

When a drummer recognizes someone as belonging to a certain family that has an important person with a drum name, he will "press" the person with the drum name for a dash. The name may be associated with the person being pressed, or for someone in their family such as a great-grandfather who was a chief.

At the two large markets in Tamale, the solo drummer (or drum ensemble) waits by intersections and main footpaths going into the markets, where he will be likely to see the majority of people entering or leaving. In some cases, the drummers also enter the market to actively search for patrons.

At the market, the pressing is done in an overt situation of commerce, but it may or may not be financially successful. If a patron has little or no money with him but does not want his poverty to be publicly known, he can reach into his empty pocket and pass a closed fist to the drummer, who will take "nothing" into his own hand and put it into his own pocket. If a patron will not or cannot pay the dash, it is not considered bad by the drummer. "When pressing, a drummer can only try." The usual dash given is between five and 100 cedis (about 15 cents). A drummer can make up to 2,000 cedis in one very good day through pressing patrons at the market.

At other social occasions such as a festival or wedding, the initial pressing is done as an invitation for the patron to leave his or her seat to dance. The pressing is done both through singing and through words drummed on the lead lunga. At such dances, other people present shower the dancer with gifts of cash, often sticking coins and paper money to the dancer's sweaty forehead. However, the money is all given to the drummers for providing the inspiration for the dancer. In this manner, the dash is often given to the drummers not by the person being pressed, but by others waiting their turn to be called out to dance. At these occasions, a drummer is guaranteed to have some income.

A full ensemble, which includes up to two gungon drummers and six lunga drummers and a singer (or even more drummers on special occasions), is necessary to perform at dance occasions. At the market, drummers may go individually or in a group of two to six men. An individual drummer keeps all dash collected. However, drummers may choose to go in a group because each of them may recognize different potential patrons, thereby increasing the total base from which to draw profits that day. Economics and aesthetics are intertwined; a larger ensemble with fuller sound has to split profit more ways but is likely to recognize more patrons.

At the market, the proverbs can be drummed by a solo lunga, by two lunga, or by a full ensemble with gungon. Members of an ensemble will often be related to each other. A praise singer will normally be present in all of these arrangements, that is, a solo drummer will also be a praise singer. When two or more drummers participate, one can play lead lunga while the others sing and/or play support drums.

Besides drummers who reside in Tamale, other drummers will bicycle into Tamale on market day from villages as far as 15 or 20 miles away. They are usually seen at the market from 4-6 P.M. During farming season, the number of drummers playing on market day will decrease.

Boys in a drumming family are taught from age five upwards. They gradually learn the repertoire of common dances and drum proverbs. By going to press people at the market and other places, young drummers grow up learning to associate the drum patterns, verbal proverbs, and particular faces and families.

As Abdullai expresses it in idiomatic Ghanaian English, "If you see someone you know, you go press them. If it sweets them [makes them happy], then they go dash you [tip you]." The drumming is not "art for art's sake" but is performed to give glory to individuals who then give money to the musicians. People often enjoy being reminded of an important person in their family, or of their own importance. At a dance, all attention is being given to the music and everyone is happy to hear their drum name. At the market, however, sometimes people seem to feel that being pressed is a bit of an imposition, and will ignore the drummers, act annoyed, or say they do not have any money. Patrons may be busy or in a hurry and not want to give the few minutes necessary to being pressed, or at least not to do it every week. But for the most part, the pressing of patrons at the market is enjoyed by all who take part and by all who listen.

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