A comparison of the music of the Landship of Barbados and the Asafo of Ghana
The Barbados Landship is the oldest social and cultural institution in Barbados, dating back to 1837. It has served to empower, entertain and educate the poor black masses of the island through serving as a savings scheme, seasonal and special event entertainment and a source of camaraderie and binding ties across communities, and has had and continues to have a significant influence on Barbadian cultural identity. Similarly, the Asafo clans of the Fante tribe of southern Ghana date back to pre-colonial times. These groups of “war-people” as the name translates not only had a social role, but also a political and martial role, with every able bodied person belonging to the Asafo of their father. In a country without a standing army, the Asafo were created to repel incursions of the Ashanti, the interior tribes who would raid Fante lands of the Cape Coast. As with Barbados the Fante region of Ghana was colonized by the British. Unlike Barbados this was after a period trade and collaboration with the British, including being allies against the Ashanti in several wars. The Asafo therefore enjoyed uninterrupted operation during their colonial experience.
An integral branch of the Landship is the music which accompanies the sailors’ maneuvers. Described as the “engine” of the Landship, the tuk band provides the foundation or drive for every aspect of a Landship performance, whether a parade drill worthy of the British navy or the scintillating rhythms of the indigenous maneuvers which caricature life aboard a sailing vessel.
The tuk band is a unique amalgamation of African and European culture which arguably could only have been produced in the cradle of Barbadian history. Most often found in its basic three member format of lead instrument – usually a penny whistle rather than the traditional fife – snare or kettle drum and bass drum, these traditional instruments of British military culture are used to produce melodies and rhythms far removed from those more familiar to the military establishment. A fourth instrument – the triangle, cowbell or steel rim – is sometimes added. Tuk itself has been defined as “a genre of fife and drum music found on the island of Barbados. While it exhibits a number of parallels with British military fife and drum music which may be attributable to the influence of the British army that was garrisoned on the island for over two hundred years, other influences have also played a part in the development of tuk, notably the musical heritage of the African-descended population”(Meredith 81).
This would indicate that the genre of tuk predates the Landship itself. It was the Barbadian slaves who, having been banned from creating or using their traditional drums, cunningly sought to use the colonial instruments, initially recreating the staid military meter and slowly incorporating the syncopated and complex rhythms of their traditional African beats. Indeed, variants of waltzes and marches are still performed as well as the high speed tuk rhythms. However, the marriage of tuk and the Landship have inextricably associated the two in the minds of Barbadians, and with the waning popularity of the Landship there can be genuine concern that should the institution die, the music may go with it.
Figure 1: Barbadian Tuk Band during the Kadooment Festival
The Asafo continue to use the traditional drums from which their Caribbean contemporaries were banned to this day. These included the djembes, the barrel drum, the dundun, the asafo drum and the Fante Fontomfrom set. There is no melodic instrument; the akyeremafo – the drummers of the Asafo – sing songs to encourage and raise morale in the warriors; for ceremonial purposes, such as the “enstoolment” or crowning of a new Asafo captain, when they would accompany the elaborate celebratory dances performed at the event; at the funeral of a member of the Asafo; and also during reenactments of past battles.
The music of the Asafo therefore does not carry the same entertainment function as that of the tuk band, since the group to which it is attached never needed to hide its true purpose behind a caricature of another culture. Where the Landship portrays a fictional life at sea, the Asafo is concerned with current and very real martial life, and any portrayals are full-dress reenactments of past victories with all the significance that implies. Neither is the musical component of an Asafo as integral as the tuk band is to the Landship.
Figure 2: One of the musicians of an Asafo. The drum pictured is also called an Asafo drum.
The actual rhythms of the two groups vary greatly as well. There are elements of calypso, African high-life and North American negro spirituals in tuk, fused into a complex rhythm with a lot of syncopation and showmanship. The bass drum keeps time while the kettle or snare is the main driver of the rhythm, and the source of tuk’s complexity. The penny whistle provides the melodies which are supported by the drummers and the triangle or rim provides another percussion accent. Even the waltz and march derived rhythms are far more complex than the original source.
The complexity of the Asafo rhythms comes from the larger number of musicians and types of instruments. There are seldom fewer than eight akyeremafo in an Asafo music unit and there can be more than twice that number, depending on the occasion. Cowbells, triangles, tamborines and many other instruments add to the sound, and keep the time while all of the drums, large and small, take turns in expressing varying rhythms. Melodies when required are sung in rousing chorus.
Figure 3: The drummers of the Korye Dance Theatre who perform for Asafo ceremonies as well as other cultural expositions.
The music of the two paramilitary groups is evidently as distinct as the purpose of the groups, and despite having the same colonizers their colonial experiences were different enough to have created very diverse musical genres on opposite shores of the Atlantic.
Sharon Meredith. “Barbadian tuk music: Colonial development and post-independence recontextualization.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 12.2 (2003): 81.
RBG Communiversity. Marc Imhotep Cray, M.D. 2008 <http://www.modernghana.com/GhanaHome/ashanti/fante.asp>
Online dictionary for the Twi language of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa.
Website of the DEKKMMA project.
Website of the Korye Dance Theatre. Aminu Adamu (Director). 2011
Modern Ghana.com. The MG Media Group. 2005-2012 <http://www.modernghana.com/GhanaHome/ashanti/fante.asp>