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Aben is sounded by the chief's entourage, proceeding outdoors
Aben being sounded in a chief’s entourage

Fante, like all Akan languages, is tonal. The same phoneme delivered at different pitch levels will convey a different meaning. Spoken Fante also has a certain implied rhythm to it, the result of having long and short vowels as building blocks of words. Utterances in Fante, therefore, have somewhat of a musical quality to them. All Akan peoples have come to use select sound producing instruments to function as speech surrogates, instruments on which the rhythmic and tonal parameters of well known spoken phrases can be reproduced well enough for the knowledgeable listener to recognize the text. Such speech surrogate instruments are primarily associated with chiefs, and the texts produced on these instruments are usually praises and proverbs.

Two-pitch ivory side-blown horns called aben have long been associated with Akan chiefs. They function as speech surrogate instruments the sound of which can be clearly heard at some distance. Any chief in any procession is sure to have his aben specialist close by broadcasting praise texts. Aben can be quite plain in appearance or they can be ornamented with surface designs. Some aben, such as the one pictured on this page, have a built-on bell-like structure made from human mandibles that were taken from a vanquished foe on the battlefield long ago.

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