About this project
To begin, an Ewe (pronounced, "eh-veh") proverb:
De bia, agɔ bia gake agɔ mefoa detsi o
(you can’t substitute one thing for another and think you can get the same results)
Music, dance, and song are incredibly important aspects of Ghanaian culture. In the Volta Region, as elsewhere in West Africa, drumming not only provides musical texture - drums speak. Ewe is a tonal language, and many instruments (and rhythmic patterns) literally emulate the spoken tones to the point where a proverb or statement can be understood by the listener.
Ewe drums, for the most part, are headed with the thick skins of local antelope. During my last trip to Ghana I had intended to buy some replacement skins for the drums I use at the college where I teach. My teacher, Emmanuel Agbeli, explained to me that we might not be able to procure the skins at all, and if we did, they would be incredibly expensive compared to what I had paid years before. We did find some skins hours away and they were, indeed, very costly. Why was this?
Over the years these antelope have been over-harvested for food (bush meat). Hunters are having to travel further and further to find them, and often fail. As Emmanuel and I spoke about the issue, he expressed his concern about this with a very startling statement: "I do not know the future of our music."
The skins are thick and have a distinct sound quality that gives them a melodic tone that can be manipulated with hand or stick, and that melodic tone is what enables a masterful player to emulate the speech patterns that bring so much meaning to Ewe music. It is simply not possible to replace the heads with another material such as goat - they would not be able to create the same sounds. Hence the proverb at the beginning of this post - "You can't substitute one thing for another and get the same results."
This project is about conservation - but not only environmental, or about antelope. It's about conservation of tradition. My partner Steve Trombulak is a conservation biologist who also has a deep love and appreciation for Ghanaian music and culture, although his first trip to Ghana will be this December. He has met my friends and teachers, learned the rhythms, and danced the dances. He understands the root cause of the problem with sustainability that we are looking at in this situation, and brings his depth of knowledge and expertise in planning with him to this venture. With Steve's experience, we will not only help ensure a more dependable and sustainable population of antelope - we will ensure the continuation of music, dance, and song as only the Ewe can perform it.
Steve and I will leave for Ghana on December 9th. It is our hope to raise awareness and funds to support this work - in part, reciprocity for the beautiful gift of music and dance that have enriched our lives for many years. Thank you for looking, and for your contribution!
Our friend Kate asked a great question: "This looks like a great project. I have one question, though, that is not dealt with in the written description... What happens to the meat? Is there infrastructure for butchering and curing?
This is an important question and one that might even justify a small adjustment to the video if we have a chance. The answer is that yes, the idea is not just to provide skins but provide sustainable food and other things that come from antelope. Emmanuel's wife actually works through the market system, but I'm imagining that antelope would be locally consumed in the village, too, depending on their needs/preferences. Another important note is that every part of an animal is important and utilized in this culture - so it's not only the meat and skins that are valued. One thing we can do is make sure to film some of these things so that upon our return, everyone can see the various benefits of sustainable farming of this type.
$3,000 will not cover our expenses but will certainly help; anything over $3,000 will also be used for what is below.
We intend to use the money to help purchase the following:
1. Materials for the construction of the enclosure where the antelope will be kept in Kopeyia.
2. Costs for labor by local residents of Kopeyia
3. Initial feed for the antelope
4. The antelope themselves, which we hope to purchase from the market or from hunters willing to procure them for us from the bush
5. Any remaining funds will be used to reimburse travel or other related costs associated with the project.
Emmanuel Agbeli is the son of the late Godwin Agbeli, an accomplished Ewe master musician (and one of Director Michelle Kisliuk’s first teachers) who was responsible for the creation of the Dagbe Cultural Institute and Arts Center in Kopeyia, Ghana. Emmanuel grew up teaching in his father’s village, working with visiting artists and students, and developing internationally-renowned skills as a teacher and cultural ambassador. Agbeli has hosted many college and school groups in Kopeyia, including Tufts University, University of Austin, St. Michael's College, and Berklee College of Music.
In addition to our blog (link listed above), we will have a Facebook page. While internet is spotty in the region we'll be in, it is indeed there, so we'll do as many updates as we can! Until then, we will be letting you all know how preparation is going.
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- (32 days)