Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations


I have been trying to get a handle on the traditional or folk styles of music in Ghana. This is to better understand the foundations on which popular styles like highlife and modern music are built, but also because music is so inseparable from the rest of culture it provides an opportunity for greater understanding of Ghana in general. Any attempt, especially by a foreigner, to quickly sum up or essentialize what has been called a “limitless field of study”[1], is bound to be suspect and lacking, but hopefully this provides an invitation to dive into the topic more deeply. I am also not expert and have a ton more to learn, so I’ll speak in very broad terms.

A key point here is that any appreciation and enjoyment of music is highly dependent on context and culture. Sitting around listening to sterile, anachronistic digital recordings of traditional music on your mp3 player or computer is never going to be the same experience as being there live, embedded and invested in the culture. So in order for the music to “play you”, you first need to get yourself in “tune”.

Africa, being the birthplace of civilization, is, by default, the birthplace of music. However, even in retrospect its history and evolution defy easy classifications and simple linear relationships. There is some clear distinction between the more stripped-down and melodic, solo-oriented music of North Africa with its emphasis on melisma (singing each syllable over an extended number of beats), and the poly-rhythmic, layering and call and response approach of sub-Saharan Africa.  The music of Ghana shares a bit of this gradient with the southern regions featuring more textured and complex poly-rhythms and a mix of chants and harmonized singing. In the North, the Arabic/Islamic influence is felt with more stringed instruments and melisma, but still built on a similar poly-rhythmic foundation.

Structure and Elements

The more or less definitive feature of most sub-Saharan music is the poly-rhythm or cross rhythm. (While this is a distinctive feature of sub-Saharan music, it is not without precedence in Western music, for example Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.) The term was proposed by a missionary living in Zambia in the early 1900s named Arthur Morris Jones. Jones also studied the Ewe tribe of Ghana and Togo and noticed that the rhythmic patterns played on difference instruments with different meters would regularly mesh or “cross”.  The official definition is “A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged”[2], but you can get a better understanding of the effect by playing around with it yourself: The layering of the patterns repeating every 8, 16 or even 24 beats are syncopated and interlocked which keeps the whole thing from sounding like a cacophony. Still, as the ethnomusicologists put it,

“Perception is a key factor. The music’s density of notes challenges the ear’s ability to form stable grouping configurations…In this musical style creative hearing is at a premium. While never losing its stable rhythmic foundation, the music’s clever and artful surface design facilitates perception from several perspectives, a dynamic musical phenomenon here labeled as “simultaneous multidimensionality”.[3]

Why make it so complex? One theory has it that it may help train the brain to deal with the complexities of life (!):

“In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, the technique of cross rhythm is a highly developed systematic interplay of varying rhythmic motions simulating the dynamics of contrasting moments or emotional stress phenomena likely to occur in actual human existence.As a preventive prescription for extreme uneasiness of mind or self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with impending or anticipated problems, these simulated stress phenomena or cross-rhythmic figures are embodied in the art of dance-drumming as mind-nurturing exercises to modify the expression of the inherent potential of the human thought in meeting the challenges of life. The premise is that by rightly instituting the mind in coping with these simulated emotional stress phenomena, intrepidity is achieved.”[4]


As far as instrumentation, there are a few uniquely Ghanaian creations and many that are borrowed and modified. In both cases the modern forms are the manifestations of a long history of experimentation and trial and error and do not represent a static history. Instruments are usually separated in categories according to how they produce sound. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the more iconic Ghanaian instruments:

  • Membraphones (drums) – Can be used to signal and carry messages, replicate speech, and provide the foundation for music and dance.
      • Djembe: Not originally from Ghana, but frequently seen and heard


      • Lunga/Lunna/Dondo/Talking Drum:

      • Gung-Gong:


      • Drum sets:

    akan kete Ewe

  • Idiophones (“sound like itself) – This includes things like rattles and bells, and tuned instruments like xylophones and thumb pianos
      • Balaphon:

      • Gangokoi Bells:


  • Chordonphones (stinged) – Usually used for soloing or in heterogeneous ensembles
      • Kora:

      • Bolon:

    • Gonjey: bons
  • Aerophones (wind) – Usually made from bamboo, wood, horn, tusk or clay and can be end-blown or played in traverse.
      • Antebene:

Create your own jam here:

Ritual and Celebration

Music is usually described as permeating the culture in Ghana and West Africa, but it’s more accurate to say that it overlaps categories of cultural expression that we would normally keep separated in the West [1]. For example, music, theatre, dance and other art forms as well as language and history are tightly integrated and not often regarded as wholly independent. Many festivals tell the stories of important historical events through music, dance, costumes and theatre, like the Bamaya dance of the Dagomba tribe in Tamale. This dance marks the end of a drought in the 19th century that was finally broken when the men dressed as women to ask the gods for help (apparently women get a quicker response!)[5]


There is music that is also born out of specific contexts and environments such as work songs, horn honk (!), warfare, hunting and even politics (see the atumpan in Ashanti culture[6]). Another, more northern tradition borrowed from Senegal and Mali is griot praise singing (also ‘jali’ or ‘gewel’). A griot is a professional royal musician who was born into a griot family or class and often attached to a specific chief or royal court. His primary role is to sing the praises of the chief and his family, but he would also serve as the keeper of the oral history and important folk stories of the past, not unlike the Homeric poets of the ancient Greeks.

Influence Locally and Abroad

Ghanaian traditional or folk music lays the rhythmic and stylistic foundations that are still used to create new songs and styles today. There are definitely some possible links between Africa music and American blues and jazz, i.e. pentatonic scale used in the donso ngoni harp could be seen as a precursor to the “blue notes” (slightly off key) used in modern blues tonality.  At the same time, it could be argued that West African guitar playing has been duly influenced by American blues to an equal or greater extent. It’s important not to put too much focus on the linearity and causality of the influence and instead see it as a continuing evolution and swapping of sounds and ideas. The history of most music is a mixing and melding where free appropriation from the past is not only permitted, but celebrated. In cultures everywhere, folk music can also be a force for social cohesion and cultural identity. Tradition and identity are passed down through the generations and music is both a conduit and a medium. From what I’ve seen in the North of Ghana, this passing of the torch to the next generation is alive and well, despite all the modern music that is available. Hopefully it continues for many more years.

References and recommendations:


Song of Legaa, Master Musician from Ghana – Kakraba Lobi, Valerie Naranjo, Barry Olsen

Music of the Dagomba from Ghana – Various Artists

Savannah Breeze – Antongo Zimba

Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways

Roots of Black Music in America – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways









One Reply to “Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations”

  1. Your blog is so professionally done you should be writing for National Geography or some journal of anthropology. Any of this research could be made into a documentary…keep up the learning and appreciation because it is important we learn more about our neighbors in Africa….oh and love to you

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