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Musicking in Anomabu

The word “musicking,” the archaic gerund of the verb “to music,” was resurrected by Christopher Small as the key concept in his 1998 book Musicking–The Meanings of Performing and Listening. By it he means to divert our attention away from thinking about music as an object (“a piece of music”) and towards considering it instead as an action rich in interpretive potential. Small’s most developed definition of the word is:

Members of a certain social group at a particular point in their history are using sounds that have been brought into certain kinds of relationships with one another as the focus for a ceremony in which the values–which is to say, the concepts of what constitute right relationships–of that group are explored, affirmed, and celebrated. (p.183)

Users of this site are encouraged to contemplate the sounds they encounter here not as musical art but rather as the sonic byproducts of members of a community performing their deep values and shared identity.

I would characterize the musicking I witnessed in Anomabu as being deeply integrated into community life, i.e., performed as an integral component of lifecycle, community-wide, and religious events. Music making seems to me to be woven into many of these events to encourage the participatory involvement–usually through dancing–of all present, whether or not they are part of the performing group itself. Live, functionally integrated music making in this community was, as far as I could tell at the time of my research, a totally non-commercial activity. While there may be some form of payment made by an event’s sponsor to a participating music group, members of such groups in no way depend on such income for their livelihood (especially since payment for such services is most typically made in the form of food and locally-made palmwine or gin [apothishie] consumed by the performers during the event itself). Interestingly, the only professional music activity I witnessed was in the form of “sound system” entrepreneurs who could be hired by a sponsor–say, for a wake–to set up a PA system and play over it pre-recorded commercial cassettes. My sense is that, especially for devout Christian families, this sort of deejay-ed musical presence is preferable to contracting a local group that might carry with it and their instruments “heathen” associations. I deduce this from the two or three events at which I heard such sound systems in operation–commercial recordings of Ghanaian gospel and dance band music constituted the playbill on these occasions.

Although I have no way of comparing current musicking in Anomabu to that of times past, I must confess that I was surprised by the degree to which live, distinctively local and non-commercial music making thrived in this one community during the period of my research. With radio, cassettes, television, and greater mobility making it possible for the contemporary Ghanaian to have access to many other worlds of music and lifestyles, why should a town such as Anomabu still have such an enduring and vibrant music scene that exhibits little or no acquiescence to the popular cultural forms that are so aggressively distributed throughout the world today?

One explanation that I can propose is that, due to the relatively impoverished conditions of most Anomabu residents, the town is simply not inundated with the agents of mass communication–radios, TVs, and cassette machines. There are radios, TVs and cassette machines in Anomabu, and I would be very surprised if anyone in the town has not been exposed to them and the sorts of commercialized forms of musical expression that get transmitted over them. But economic conditions work against most residents spending excessive amounts of time soundtracking their lives with mediated music. Residents must dedicate most of their wakeful hours carrying out subsistence activities (fishing, mending nets, repairing boats, cleaning and drying fish). If they have cash, there are numerous other more pressing drains on their resources–feeding and clothing themselves, fulfilling clan obligations such as contributing to funeral expenses or school tuitions of its members–that leave little in the way of cash to purchase and maintain playback equipment and to buy phonograms. If local musicians wish to emulate the commercialized styles of music with which they have become familiar through their limited exposure to the mass media, they will be very hard pressed to come up with the capital to purchase the equipment (instruments and sound systems) necessary to pursue such dreams of professionalism. Such conditions appear to be conducive to the perpetuation of traditional music making for they necessitate the cooperative effort of many community members in providing the variety of musical forms needed to animate the town’s daily and ceremonial life without requiring much in the way of an infrastructure involving cash flow.

All of the music making in Anomabu that I witnessed was performed by non-professional musicians. As far as I could ascertain no one was labeled or identified by the community as being a musician by profession, even though several performers were acknowledged by peers and the community at large as being more musically knowledgeable and versatile than others. The knowledge necessary to perform any given genre of Fante music competently is transmitted orally, passed on incidentally and indirectly through exposure to performance in its social context and through the criticisms the more experienced performers direct toward an emerging musician in the course of performance. No indigenous musical notation of either a prescriptive or descriptive nature, or of indigenous or foreign origin, exists to my knowledge.

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