A tradition dating back at least to the seventeenth century amongst the Fante is for each town to have from two to seven warrior organizations called asafo (sa=war, fo=people) companies. In a given town, one’s membership in a particular asafo company is inherited through one’s father, i.e., patrilineally. Each company possesses a name that has local significance either in terms of its function in war, its position in the hierarchy of the state, or its members’ occupation or history. Companies are also known by number (a result of the British requiring such organizations to register with the colonial government)–e.g., Kyirem Co. No. 6 of Anomabu.
Asafo companies serve a number of political and social functions in their communities even though their primary historical function–as military units–is no longer relevant. Each company has a well-defined chain of command: a senior officer of the company, several heads of squads within a company, a chief scout, etc. All positions are inherited patrilineally. Other positions in a company include a flag bearer (flags being important emblems of a group’s identity), a drummer, priests, the group of elders, and a military policeman (who is responsible for keeping order during meetings).
The identity and spirit of each asafo company is embodied in its principle drum. Indeed, the Fante word for “drum” is often used synonymously with “company,” for when asked how many companies there are in town the reply is often “there are seven drums.” A considerable amount of specialized attention is directed towards such a drum, from its early stages of construction, during its ceremonial use, and even after it is retired from regular use. An understanding of this special treatment of a musical instrument must begin with the recognition that traditionally the Fante are animists who believe in spirits they call bosom, who inhabit natural objects such as trees, rocks, or ponds. An asafo company’s post or meeting place is structured around a mound of clay, believed to contain supernatural power, and a nearby tree that is considered an obosom. Also, some sort of structure is constructed at the post to house company property and ceremonial paraphernalia. Originally, such structures were simple huts. Since the colonial period they have in some instances grown into impressive cement edifices decorated with sculptures of lions, leopards, and other animals, or taken on the form of a warship or airplane. The primary obosom of an asafo group is
the company drum (asafokyen), which is made from an odum tree that itself is believed to be an obosom. Before felling the tree, the carver will offer a bottle of gin and eggs or a fowl to the obosom in the tree, saying “Odum tree, we need a new drum. We offer you drink, fowl and eggs. After we have taken you, help us, and come dwell in our drum.” The skin of a red deer is used for a drumhead. After construction is completed it is brought to the edge of town where the entire company meets it, offers more sacrifices, then parades it through town firing salvos from their guns until they reach the post storehouse where it is placed. Drums that are worn out are saved. The original drum of the company is held to be its most powerful obosom, and later asafokyen are called its officers. Sacrifices of eggs and fowls are often made to these drums. Thus, the asafokyen comes to represent the collective voice of the company and, along with the company’s flags, serves as a visual symbol of the group’s identity when it participates in community celebrations.
When I say the drum serves as the voice of the company, I am not speaking metaphorically. The language of the Fante people is a tonal one, and instruments such as drums can be used as speech surrogates to convey texts. There exist numerous tales of riots, not uncommonly leading to fatalities, between companies that were precipitated when, during a ceremonial procession, the drummer of one company hurled a drummed insult toward another company as they pass that company’s post. Such incidents were in part what led the British colonial authorities at the turn of the twentieth century to require all asafo companies to register with them.