Friday, April 22, 2011

Funeral Dirges from Ghana: Atenteben & Odurugya Flutes

Several posts back, I briefly mentioned a rendition of a traditional flute dirge played on the organ on a track from the African Brothers' album Tribute to D.K.  In light of that comment I thought that I would take some time here to discuss the genre of funeral dirges for flute.  Traditional flute music in Ghana is exceptionally beautiful, and dirges in particular are especially soulful and stirring.  I've selected three videos from youtube which feature different performances of flute dirges.  These performances occur in the context of funerals and mourning.

In the first two videos, dirges are played on the atenteben, a diatonic bamboo flute which was developed by composer/professor Dr. Ephraim Amu in the 1920/30s. The atenteben also appears in highlife music, from '70s bands Wulomei and Hedzoleh Soundz to modern groups like Hewale Sounds and the Pan-African Orchestra.

The third video features Nana Yaw Opoku Mensah, once a flautist in the court of the Asantehene, playing the traditional Akan odurugya flute.  In contrast to the atenteben, the odurugya is a notched flute with a deep bass tone, built from the inner cane of the bamboo stalk.  Like the Akan atumpan drums, flute dirges imitate the tonal contours of the Twi language.  In this way, flute dirges may be conceived of as a musical recitation of a spoken text.  Read more about the atenteben and odurugya in this short writing by Professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia  HERE.

"The flute is often used in songs of lamenting or grief. This piece is more of a recitation than a song, for the odurugya is a 'talking' instrument, which means that the Akan of antiquity developed a system of encoding their language into the range of sounds/tones the odurugya makes. One must be immeresed in the 'deep structures' of Akan society in order to learn the method of 'decoding' the flute language."

- kbee,

In conclusion, I offer a short recording of an odurugya dirge from Ephraim Amu's University of Ghana Chorus record.  Thank you to the individuals who posted these wonderful videos of traditional flute music from Ghana.

Flute Prelude - Dr. Ephraim Amu

Saturday, April 16, 2011

F. Kenya - The Power House (Essiebons, 1975)

The music of F. Kenya is (in my humble opinion) some of the most stunning Ghanaian highlife ever recorded, music with a unique sound characterized by deep Akan harmonies, sweet organs, and heartbreakingly beautiful vocals. The Power House, released on Essiebons in 1975, is Francis Kenya's first full length record. Like Kenya's other work, these songs are beautifully arranged, with rich musical textures that feature an interplay between interlocking guitar parts and organ lines. In addition, these songs are unique in that they are sung in Nzema (Kenya's own language) rather than the dominant Asante Twi (generally the language of highlife). The Nzema are an Akan ethnic group found on both sides of the Southern Ghana/Côte d'Ivoire border.  As in the context of other African countries, boundaries imposed by European colonizers frequently divided ethnically similar groups across arbitrary national borders.

F. Kenya - Mmamya Bie Mmamma

Below is a brief biography of F. Kenya from the back of this album:

Prof. John Collins of the University of Ghana, Legon shared a close relationship with F. Kenya, living in his home during the 1970s and travelling with Kenya's concert party troupe for some time. In addition, Collins recorded F. Kenya & his band at his Bokoor Studio.  Seven of these tracks may be found on the great compilations The Guitar and the Gun and Electric Highlife.