A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana

Transatlantic beans

Another taster typed on my phone and posted while the internet gods are in a good mood. True to its name it brings you a snack straight from the streets of Bamako… or Lagos… or Accra… or even Salvador de Bahia:

Akara: the snack that conquered the Atlantic world

These little morsels made from black-eyed beans have travelled all over West Africa and beyond, to Brazil, where they are especially well known in Bahia.

And it’s not just the food that has traveled. Its name as well has come along. Said to originate in Yoruba, where the bean fritters are called àkàrá, they are called by the name akara in Ghana, Togo, Mali, Senegal, The Gambia… and as acarajé in Brazil.

So feasting on this snack in land-locked Bamako, hundreds of kilometres from the Atlantic, connects me with food stalls across the Atlantic world.

The moving red eye

Emotions are not universal. They are expressed in cultural scripts reflected in language, sometimes over wide areas, but drawing on very diverse sources. The metaphors used to describe feelings often can focus on particular body parts as the locus of an emotion. In the Kwa language Ewe of Ghana, some emotional expression – those roughly corresponding to jealousy, envy and covetousness – are built on the image of a red/and or moving eye. Here some examples:

Examples for emotions expressed with ‘eye’ in Ewe (Ameka 2002: 28)

What is special about these expressions is that they feature a specialised and conventionalised use of the term ‘eye’. Ameka distinguishes a psychological and a physical use of eyes. Only the former features in the expression of emotions. It is recognisably different from the physical, body part, eye, which can occur in the plural – after all, we tend to have two eyes. The expressions of negative feelings in the example above can never be used in the plural. There are more differences between ‘ordinary’ and ’emotional’ uses of the word ‘eye’ in Ewe. Read Felix Ameka’s article to which I link below.

But I must go away now and research the origins and exact meaning of the Bambara phrase n sinamuso nyɛ fin ‘ the black eye of my co-wife’. I only know it from the textile design that is named after is, for instance for a wax like the one below. If I remember correctly, the black eye stands for the co-wife’s anger, provoked by her rival wearing such a beautiful wax. When wearing a wrapper bearing the design, the emotion is not evoked through language, but delicately and indirectly through talking fabrics. After all, communicating through speech only would be so limiting!

Wax of the type “N sinamuso nyɛ fin

Here the link to Felix Ameka’s article:

Ameka, Felix K. 2002. Cultural scripting of body parts for emotions: On ‘jealousy’ and related emotions in Ewe. Pragmatics and Cognition 10(1):

Snap me one!

Languages are often boxed in in our thinking, with items belonging to one language, and with language being tacitly understood as spoken and written forms of expression only. Gesture and sign language research questions both these premises, by looking at how manual and bodily gestures are used in communication. Research on gesture, probably because it is also interested in the question of how and to what extent speech and gestures are aligned, has looked at the speech of bi- and multilinguals, taking language out of its box so to speak. What speakers do when they speak and gesture in languages that have different expressive possibilities provides insight into how integrated or separated these languages are for them.

In multilingual West Africa it makes a lot of sense to look at how people use their linguistic resources to communicate regardless of their association with one language, and how these resources can be fluid and changeable vs. associated with more conventionalised registers that can be named. Gestures are a prime example of communicative devices that can be independent of particular languages but are often shared in particular cultural spaces. An example of such a gesture, which will be familiar to many West African readers of this blog, is the “snap and point” gesture used for spatial recall and other functions described in this blog post by Chelsea Krajcik. Check out the video to see these gestures being produced.

Another example of culturally shared conventions for gesture has been documented by James Essegbey and Sotaro Kita. They report on a taboo respected all across Ghana that forbids pointing with the left hand. This practice has led to particular constraints that are widely respected, irrespective of spoken language. When people want to point to the left, they often need to contort their body or use both hands in gesturing, as this is not seen as offensive.

Examples of using the right hand or both hand when pointing left (from Kita & Essegbey 2001: 84)

Do you have examples of regionally distributed gestures? Leave a comment below the line if you do, it would be great to discover more of them together!

Read more on the left hand pointing taboo in Ghana here:

Kita, Sotaro & James Essegbey. 2001. Pointing left in Ghana. How a taboo on the use of the left hand influences gestural practice. Gesture 1:1: 73-95

Are you there?

Although they are not contained in most descriptive grammars, greetings are highly prominent in everyday interactions across West Africa. Much more than the mumbled answer ‘Not too bad, thanks’ to the question ‘How are you?’ or the two word sequences that are used in many European languages, greetings in West Africa are elaborate rituals that take time, are savoured, and structure every single encounter.

This video by Coleman Donaldson gives you a vivid idea of the importance of greetings in the Mande world, and also shows some greetings in Bambara straight from the capital of Mali, Bamako. As in the example from Ewe, a Gbe language of Ghana, below, greetings are realised in relatively fixed sequences that form part of a larger cultural script for visits, encounters, leave-taking, etc.

Example for a greeting exchange in Ewe (Ameka 2009: 136)

In this greeting, the interlocutors know each other. If they don’t, it is part and parcel of many greeting routines to find out the family name of the interlocutor. In fact, in Baïnounk languages, this is reflected in language to the extent that the word for ‘family name’, guram, contains the root ram ‘greet’. And knowing this name, which gives information on their clan or lineage, is essential in order to establish how to relate to strangers, as it gives information on their social status, their likely place or area of residence, and which language(s) they might speak. Greeting unknown people tends to involve additional evidence gathering, until both parties have established how they are related to each other.

But even people who know each other and see each other on a daily basis will take care to greet. It is common to pay visits to neighbours with the sole purpose of greeting them. You might think that this is changing in cities, but in places where there is less dense face-to-face interaction with people one might see again, virtual networks are maintained via phone calls, texts, or social media and complement direct exchanges in village-like local neighbourhoods. In Gubëeher, spoken in the village Djibonker in Casamance, a greeting question is Umoona? ‘Are you there?’ Far more than stating the obvious, greeting, then, is an immediate affirmation of existence.

Read more on access rituals in West Africa in this paper by Felix Ameka:

Ameka, Felix K. (2009): Access rituals in West African communities: an ethnopragmatic perspective. In Gunter Senft, Ellen B. Basso (Eds.): Ritual communication. Oxford: Berg, pp. 127–151.