"Drums, Lies, and Audiotape" by Daniel Hertzberg for Nautilus Art Print

Art Print

"Drums, Lies, and Audiotape" by Daniel Hertzberg for Nautilus

by Nautilus

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Illustration by by Daniel Hertzberg

My wife Ingrid and I had been in Aburi, Ghana for just over a week when our host, Kwame Obeng, informed me that I’d be joining the royal drummers for a performance at the chief’s palace the following afternoon, in celebration of an important holy day.

It’s not as if I was unprepared. I’d first met Obeng three years earlier, when he came to Toronto to coach a drumming troupe made up of Ghanaian immigrants and a lone Westerner (myself). We became close: Obeng called me mi nua, or “my brother,” in Twi, the language of his ethnic group, the Akan. And when his visa expired after a year, he invited me to continue studying with him back home in Aburi, a small town nestled in the verdant Akuapem Hills. Two years later, I took him up on his invitation. And now it was time to show him what I could do. What happened next was a complete surprise to me. I would never find out if it was a surprise to Obeng.

The day of the performance, Obeng stationed me and his nephew, a young man named Kwame Antwi, at a pair of enormous, barrel-shaped bommaa drums standing side by side. Each bommaa was carved from a 5-foot length of hollowed-out tree trunk, and both were painted a lustrous black and wrapped in red velvet fastened with brass studs. Just in front of us and to our left, Obeng himself stood before a pair of massive, goblet-shaped atumpan drums with antelope-skin heads. Directly behind us, a quartet of young boys and middle-aged men played three smaller drums and an iron bell. They were the rhythm section, while the two Kwames and I formed the front line.

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