The Agbekor dance is a war dance of the Ewe people of south-eastern Ghana, which often depicted scenes of battle. Now, it is often performed at cultural gatherings and to entertain tourists. The version on the A Level syllabus was recorded by Mustapha Tettey Addey, who plays the Atsimevu.
The structure of the piece is based around repetition to aid the choreography. The constant gankogui ostinato (a standard bell pattern in the region) keeps the pulse – this is known as the timeline. The sogo part uses a lot of repetition with some variation, while the atsimevu part becomes increasingly complex as the piece progresses.
The very beginning of the piece is monophonic, as the gankogui plays the timeline, but this is very brief, as the atsimevu enters halfway through bar 1, and the sogo in bar 3. From this point onwards, the piece uses a highly complex polyrhythmic texture.
At some points, such as bars 29-30, the atsimevu and gankogui play in rhythmic unison, and the last three notes of the piece are a very brief homorhythm.
Harmony, Tonality and Melody
Because of the relative and approximate nature of drum pieces, there is no real sense of harmony or tonality in the piece. There is also very little melody, although at least four different ‘pitches’ can be heard in the atsimevu part, while the two bells of the gankogui are tuned approximately an octave apart. The lower note of the gankogui is only used on the first beat of the 12 beat cycle, so that the beginning of each bar is clear to the dancers.
The gankogui is an iron instrument made up of two bells, tuned around an octave apart. It is played with a wooden stick, and its role is as a timekeeper.
The sogo is a wooden drum with two relative ‘pitches’ – De (a lower pitched, open stroke, played by striking the drum and then lifting the hand or stick immediately) and Ku (a higher pitched, closed stroke). It can be played with hands, sticks, or a combination of the two.
The atsimevu is the master drum. It is played using similar techniques to the sogo, but has a greater variety of possible sounds which can be produced, including by hitting the side of the drum (notated using crossed note heads on the score). The atsimevu is sometimes called a talking drum, as its sounds can mimic the inflections of speech.
Rhythm and Metre
The metre of the piece is 12/8, and the tempo is relatively fast. The rhythms are the most important part of this piece: the additive rhythm of the gankogui’s timeline (the beats of the bar are grouped as 2+3+2+2+3) gives a syncopated effect, and there are polyrhythms throughout. Crossrhythms are also used for effect, for example in bar 14.
Much of the rhythmic interest is in the atsimevu part, which includes triplets (bar 41), ties (bar 44), double dotting (bar 8), unusual accents (bar 14) and irregular rhythms (bar 38).
The sogo part uses rhythmic displacement at bar 3, and the atsimevu displaces in reaction to this at bar 14. The unusual bar divisions used at certain points of the piece (for example, in bar 35) creates metrical disruption, as it has a hemiola-like effect.