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I Kept the Rhythm for Afa in Ghana

Ghana Music + Nightlife
by Allison Rosenblatt Mar 20, 2013

For a very brief period in my life in the spring of 2011, I lived in Klikor, Ghana. Don’t bother to look it up on Google maps, you won’t find it. I’ve tried multiple times and the only town name I can find that may be Klikor says “Kilkor.” This is probably a misspelling of the name seeing as it is located in the same place, in the southeast section of Ghana, right on the border of Togo. But the fact that the real name of my temporary home does not appear in the globally accepted database of geography only furthers my feeling of utter disbelief that that brief section of a life was mine.

Klikor was the hottest place I ever lived during my three and a half month stay in Ghana. Although I never knew the actual temperature, I remember sweat beading up on my eyelashes and blocking my vision. I had a time limit of about twenty minutes of being in direct sunlight before I would begin to feel light headed. When this happened, I’d stumble over to the man selling coconuts on the side of the road. He’d take out his machete, expertly file the coconut into a point, cut off the top, and hand it to me. The liquid would pour down my throat, the natural salts and sugars absorbing into my body. I’d have another twenty minutes.

It was difficult for me to live in Klikor.

Klikor is a town that was not made for me, nor was it altered for me. Some days I woke up and pulled water up from the well to wash my clothes. Other days I woke up when the sun had not yet risen and took shots of gin with traditional priests as they sang songs to their gods. Klikor is a town whose days were punctuated by drumming circles that could be heard from every house. It is a town of the Ewe people and everywhere I went, I saw young children run to the threshold of their houses and call out, “Yevu!” meaning “white person.”

I had come to study the drumming of the Ewe religion. Along the way, I was brought into dark rooms filled with skulls, animal pelts, candles, and bells. I was brought to diviners who looked into my eyes and told me things about my life that gave me chills. At ceremonies, I discovered that energy could truly be tangible.

One particular day, I awoke at an hour that I would have scoffed at were I in the United States. The first beads of sweat began to drip down my forehead as I watched the lizards crawl over the brick-colored dust. I walked through the town and passed the shy children, the leering men, and the smiling women that would call out good morning. I reached the shrine where I based my research and sat down with three drummers and a translator under a tree and began to jam. Now I was awake. A few hours later, my head was spinning with new rhythms.

As I left, my translator called out to return that evening at six o’clock. Out from under the shade of the tree, my body began its twenty-minute countdown. If I became too dehydrated and couldn’t find a coconut, I would have to buy water. Yet the brands of water sold in Klikor were not always approved by the government. Ghana was enduring a particularly severe outbreak of cholera that spring, so I had been strongly cautioned as to which water was safe to drink. But the more dehydrated I became, the more I found myself wanting to ignore the voice in the back of my head and let the cool water splash down my throat, regardless of whether or not it had the stamp of approval. I dreaded making these decisions, so I walked as quickly as possible back to my guesthouse.

It was difficult for me to live in Klikor. The hardships I had experienced so far in Ghana were heightened in this small town. There were more losses in translation, more people trying to exploit me for money, higher poverty, and higher temperatures. But at the end of each day I still went to sleep with a fatigued smile on my face because I was learning to play the most complex rhythms I had ever heard from some of the most generous people I had ever met. Each day was a challenge that brought about the most rewarding achievements. So while I dreamed of the day when I would return home, I never once took Klikor for granted.

I left for the shrine at a more relaxed pace now that sun’s angle was not so harsh and came upon a dirt clearing. Benches surrounded the clearing on three sides while the fourth had a line of chairs. In the corner of the clearing was a small structure of four posts holding up a thatched roof. There were objects in the center, but I was not able to get a good look because at that moment a woman came and took me by the arm. She led me into a small room where she dressed me in yards of beautiful, bright fabric. I left the room and found that drummers had begun to set up their instruments, tuning leather and fixing rattles. I realized excitedly that this would be a possession ceremony.

More people began to fill in the clearing. When there was quite a crowd assembled, the master drummer pulled me over to his group and handed me the bell. “What!?” I exclaimed with wide eyes. He said something quickly in the language I had only just come to recognize and ushered me to a seat next to one of the drummers. I looked around frantically for my translator. I wasn’t ready to play the bell. The bell was the most important instrument in any drum ensemble because it kept the time for all of the drummers. If the bell player got off beat, everyone got off beat. I knew the rhythm they were about to play. It was a rhythm for Afa, the god who acts as the go between for the other gods. I knew the rhythm, knew the song they would sing. But I wasn’t ready to play it in front of a huge crowd of people. The noises of the crowd died down and it was too late to protest. The master drummer made eye contact with me and nodded. I began to play.

He brought his hand down again. Boom. It was like thunder right in front of me.

The syncopation of Ewe rhythms was always difficult for me to maintain unless I tapped my heel on the off beats. Even still, I struggled to find the perfect balance between concentrating and letting my hands do the work for me. Too much focus on the rhythm would cause a mistake. Too little focus would cause the beat to lag. A lot was at stake for me that night. If I faltered on the rhythm, the priests would smile to themselves at the yevu who tried her best. Just another white person coming to Africa acting like they know what they’re doing.

I closed my eyes and felt the bell’s rhythm emanating from my hands. I began to feel the groove and opened my eyes to see the master drummer smile and nod to the other drummers to come in. I began to feel the flow that pulsed from my heart to my hands to the bell to my ears. He let the drummers flesh out the music for a bit before his hands came pelting down on the stretched leather before him. Pursed lips and biceps flexed, he seemed to conjure up a new drop of sweat with every movement of his fingers. The overall rhythm reverberated through the crowd and the women began to sing.

Then the drummer signaled to me and all of us stopped playing while the singing continued to the beat of bamboo sticks. Afa had been invoked and now they were about to communicate with the next god, Gariba Moshi. The drummers tightened their instruments while the master drummer left the group to where two enormous drums were laying against the wall. He lifted one up and strung its strap around the back of his neck so the drum rested at his stomach. Then he returned to the group of drummers, this time standing in front. He brought his hand down once upon the leather and the tone was so deep, so profound, that I could have sworn I felt my ribs rattle.

Everyone stopped singing and he brought his hand down again. Boom. It was like thunder right in front of me. The mood around the crowd had suddenly changed. There was a note of seriousness in everyone’s gaze. The drummers slowly sped up their rhythm while the other percussionists joined in. The beat got faster and faster. It was then that I realized it was dark outside. Candles were lit at the sidelines, spreading flickering orange as the only light in the clearing. I looked around me and could barely see the faces of the people in the crowd, but I could feel their intensity.

Then, the priest rose from his chair and walked in the middle of the clearing, singing a prayer to Gariba Moshi. He began to dance agbadza, the traditional Ewe dance, and the women joined in. One woman took me by the arms and led me in the middle to do the dance. The entire crowd roared with cheers and calls of “Yevu!!” as they joined in. Then I heard a scream come from the opposite end of the clearing.

Feeling my heart thump to my throat, I saw a woman run out into the circle, eyes rolled up in their sockets, head dangling to the side, and knees wobbling beneath her weight. Gariba Moshi had just found his first vessel of communication. The woman screamed again and went around the circle slapping people’s hands in greeting. Sometimes she would throw herself upon someone hugging them while the people made X’s with their fingers on her skin to ward off bad spirits. She was coming closer and I could feel my breath tighten.

She stopped in front of me and leaned down. She stared right in my face and I knew I wasn’t looking into the eyes of this woman. There was nothing about her in her body anymore. After a few seconds her face turned up into a crazed smile. She brought her hand up and slapped it down onto mine, grasping it. She shook my arm wildly before spinning back into the circle, doing a dance that no one else knew.

Another woman two seats down from me started spinning in tight circles between all the people dancing. Then another. Then another. In the sea of the crowd, five people danced with the movements of the unearthly Ewe god. A wind picked up and momentarily cooled the sweat on my brow. I looked over at the master drummer who had his eyes closed and head tilted towards the sky, all the while pounding the thunderous beat on his drum. Spinning in circles, I thought of my previous life, of waking up, sitting in a classroom, studying in a library. I thought of rock and roll, skyscrapers, and fall foliage. I never would have imagined that I would make it to this place, at this time, with these people, singing our hearts out to a world I never knew was there. We kept dancing until the gods left.

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