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Drumming for Dagomba Chiefs - Notes about a historic recording by David Locke

I first heard Dagomba dance-drumming as an undergraduate student at Wesleyan University in the early 1970s. Abraham Adzinyah, artist-in-residence, taught us the style he had picked up as a member of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble. When I went to Ghana for my doctoral field research (1975-1977) I took lessons with Mr. Adzinyah's teacher, the man known as "Iddrisu Dagomba." I also began studying with Abubakari Lunna, who has been my mentor in this tradition for more than thirty years now. Mr. Lunna has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which entitles him to be addressed as "Alhaji."

In 1985 the mission of my research trip was to compare Alhaji's drumming with other great Dagomba players. He urged me to record Adam and Abubakari-bila, the two drummers whose leading lunga playing is featured on this CD. According to Alhaji, they had been well trained in the lore of Dagomba history. Their playing always is based on the proverbs through which the genealogy of chiefs is recounted.

About a week prior to the recording session, Alhaji and I visited the two drummers at their home town of Yendi where the paramount chief of the Dagomba nation keeps his palace. By greeting them well in advance, I was showing proper respect to them and acknowledging the importance of protocol in Dagomba culture. As old friends of Mr. Lunna, the two great drummers agreed to record.

The other drummers on the session lived in Tamale, the main large city of the Dagombas. His late uncle, Fuseni Alhassan, was an obvious choice for leading gung-gong. Among Dagombas, Fuseni is a legend due to his unparalleled creative improvisation and acrobatic showmanship. I think of him as the Louis Armstrong of the gung-gong in the sense of being the artist who single handedly transformed the style on his instrument. Mr. Lunna, who almost always takes the lead musical role, was content to play the second gung-gong part. Other drummers who normally are "front line" players seemed happy to be part of the backing band, so to speak, on this all star session.

We recorded the session in the early morning behind the Cultural Center in Tamale. With just the brief discussion heard on track 1 of the CD, they played without interruption. The original master was recorded on a portable cassette deck but the result was pretty good! As recordist, I made one important decision: the mics were hand-held by young Dagomba men so that the musicians felt like they were playing human-to-human, rather than for the tape recorder. I asked the vocalist to stand in the middle, with the lead talking drummers on either side. As a result, the song lyrics and the lead lunga parts come through clearly on the recording.

Being a procrastinator, like most people, this recording sat on my shelf at home for too many years until Luke Wassermann urged me to share it widely through Earth CDs. I am grateful to Larry Millard for his willingness to pursue the project. Although there are other recordings of Dagomba music, this CD should stand out for the high standard of historical erudition of the leading lunga players. It also is one of the few extended recordings of Fuseni Alhassan who, in my view, is among the major musicians of the 20th century.

Rather than sampling the variety of Dagomba music, the recording affords listeners a chance to hear an extended session of dance-drumming. Although the sound of the ensemble is the uniform throughout the CD, the specific compositions and drumming phrases change from track to track. I am hopeful that musicians will discover this CD and find within it a rich resource of musical ideas. We all may take inspiration from knowing that in Africa, music is central to the social and political life of a community.

---David Locke

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