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Religious Ideology of Asantes

 

                                                                ASANTE RELIGIOUS IDEOLOGY

In order to understand the role of Asante shrine music in healing, one must first have an understanding of basic Ashanti religious ideology.

Like people of Western religions, the Asantes believe in one all-powerful, all-knowing god who created all things . According to Ashanti beliefs, however, this god, known as Onyame, has withdrawn himself from the world and now has no direct contact with humans.

Just below Onyame in rank is a large group of lesser gods who have contact with both Onyame and man. These gods, known as abosom, are similar to humans in that they have a variety of interests and personalities. Unlike humans, however, the abosom have special knowledge and power in the spiritual realm, where they live . Along with their home in the spiritual world, abosom are usually associated with a physical place or object (such as a village or a river) which could be considered their earthly dwelling. Shrines are often built at locations near these abosom dwellings to provide a way for humans to contact the abosom.

The human medium who has connection with both the abosom and the physical world is the okomfo – the Ashanti traditional healer . An okomfo typically lives at or near a shrine dedicated to a particular obosom (singular of abosom) or group of abosom. Ceremonies are held regularly at these shrines, where an okomfo becomes possessed by an obosom and, acting as the obosom, consults with people about how to solve problems they are facing.

Traditionally, Asante people believe that many problems, whether spiritual, social, or physical, have spiritual roots. For example, if an Ashanti person fell sick unexpectedly, he or she would probably not attribute the illness to any type of biomedical problem. Rather, he or she would probably feel that the illness had a spiritual cause, like a curse from a relative or a punishment from the gods for misconduct . To the Ashanti, even financial problems, like bad luck in business, often have spiritual causes . Because of this belief, the Ashanti will often turn to the abosom, rather than a psychologist or medical doctor, for solutions to their problems .

With this basic background about Ashanti religious ideology, one can better understand the proceedings of a typical Ashanti shrine ceremony.

   THE SHRINE CEREMONY

There is some variability in how a shrine ceremony is carried out, but the following description of a typical shrine ceremony is derived from my field study in villages near Mampong.

At around ten in the morning on a healing day, the okomfo, shrine officials, shrine musicians, and some of the elders of the village gather at the shrine compound in preparation for the ceremony. The okomfo, shrine officials, and elders sit on wooden chairs and stools in the shade of a tree, while the musicians, usually about five male drummers and about seven female singers and rattle shakers, take their seats on wooden benches under a small structure built for shade (Plate 1). There, the musicians begin drumming and singing to announce that the okomfo will soon perform the healing ceremony.

Answering the call of the drums, villagers interested in consulting with the abosom enter the shrine compound, take a small wooden square with a number on it, and sit down to wait on wooden benches behind the musicians, who play periodically.

After most of the patients have entered the compound and taken their seats, the drummers and singers start to play again as the okomfo, dressed in a white robe, moves across the compound and sits down on a metal-studded wooden chair, facing the musicians. The musicians begin playing more vigorously, and, after a short time, the okomfo kicks off his sandals, signifying the obosom has entered into him. Once the okomfo is possessed, one or two shrine officials stand and escort him into a small building to change into a different costume, depending on which obosom has possessed him. After the okomfo is inside the building, the drums and rattles are silenced, and the women sing a short call and response song.

After a few minutes, the okomfo emerges from the building dressed in the clothing of the obosom by whom he is possessed. He is accompanied by shrine officials, one of whom carries a bowl of white talcum powder, which the okomfo periodically sprinkles on objects or on the ground in front of him. The okomfo and shrine officials gradually make their way across the compound to another small building, which acts as a consultation room, stopping along the way to pour a libation of alcohol on the ground to the obosom and to the ancestors of the okomfo.

Once the possessed okomfo and his linguist (who translates for patients when the obosom possessing the okomfo does not speak the local language) enter the consulting room and are seated, shrine officials signal to the patient who holds the first number to enter the room with the okomfo and linguist. There, the patient describes the nature of his or her problem, whether it be physical, social, or spiritual. Then the obosom, acting through the okomfo, tells the patient the remedy to his or her problem, which often entails using herbal medicines and/or sacrificing a patient’s animal or money to the obosom or to an evil spirit that is causing the problem. Once the okomfo has consulted with each of the patients at the shrine, the obosom leaves, and the okomfo emerges from the consulting room, usually exhausted.

After the ceremony, shrine officials and the okomfo help the patients follow the instructions given by the obosom (for example, sacrificing a chicken to the gods or taking an herbal remedy). After these instructions are followed, the spiritual cause underlying the person’s problem is considered removed, and therefore the illness itself will soon be alleviated as well.

THE ROLE OF SHRINE MUSIC

In discussing shrine music, this paper does not attempt to cover details of the mechanics of the musical production, nor does it attempt to discuss the lyrics of each of the shrine songs. Rather, my focus is on the purposes of shrine rhythms in a social and religious context, including the role of drumming in general within a shrine ceremony and a report of specific rhythms commonly played at shrines.

DRUMMING

There are three fundamental modes of drumming among the Asantes: signal mode, speech mode, and dance mode. Although the purpose of the dance mode of drumming is mostly recreational, the signal and speech modes are played strictly for communication. Unlike typical drumming in Western cultures, Asante drumming is often used as a means of communication.

The idea of using drums to communicate is best exemplified by the atumpan – the Ashanti “talking” drums. Atumpan come in pairs – one drum with a high tone and the other with a low tone. These two drums are played with “a steady flow of beats, often lacking in regularity or phrasing”to mimic the highs and lows of the local Twi language, which is a tonal language. Although many people of the younger generation can’t understand the words being played on the atumpan, much of the older generation can understand the drums as well as they can understand someone speaking to them.

Atumpan are used for communication in various social situations among the Ashanti, from conveying a message to a dancer in the middle of a dancing ring to calling the school children back to class after their break.

One very practical purpose of shrine drumming, in keeping with the communicative nature of Ashanti drumming, is to announce to everyone within hearing that there will soon be a healing ceremony at the shrine. When I asked a shrine official why drumming is included in the shrine ceremony, he replied that the sound of the drumming “goes very far from the town. If someone is living far, when he hears the noise, he knows something is going on at the shrine”.

Shrine drumming is not only played to communicate with people; it is also played to communicate with the gods. When I asked okomfo, musicians, and other villagers at the shrines about the purpose of music in the ceremonies, the almost-universal answer was that the music calls the obosom to possess the okomfo. Literature on the topic also clearly states that music is played in healing ceremonies to call the gods . Considering that abosom are believed to be human-like, and drums are used as a beckoning call for humans, it’s no surprise that drumming is also used to call abosom.

Although the inclusion of drumming in shrine ceremonies is preferred by the okomfo, it is not an indispensable part of the ceremony. Because of the difficulty and cost for the musicians to leave their farms to gather at the shrine, okomfo at most shrines include drumming on only some of the days that ceremonies are held. Some shrines cannot afford drums or the cost of hiring drummers at all and therefore almost never include drumming in their ceremonies. Where drums and/or drummers are not available, shrines will often use other means to call the gods, including ringing a small bell or tapping a rock rhythmically on the ground.

The question then arises: if drumming is not essential to the ceremony, why include it at all? When I discussed the matter with one particularly helpful okomfo, Nana Gyasi Obeng from the village of Penteng,  told me that the music helps the abosom to work hard. He also explained that the gods, like humans, have different tastes in music and will be more likely to come, and come with more strength, if they hear music they like .  “Each god has its own type of music, which interests him more or which is of his own taste”. Among the Asante “gods are supposed to be sensitive to the language of music and would come down to see ‘their children’ if they heard music they liked”. A correlation can be drawn between the purpose of shrine music and the purpose of music in the services of many Christian sects. In both situations music is not essential, but it helps create an environment where a deity (the obosom among the Ashanti and the Holy Ghost among Christians) is more likely to come and remain long enough to spread its good influence to the worshippers. Although drumming is not essential at the shrine, it is preferred because it creates an environment where abosom are more likely to come, and come with more strength.

Considering that drumming in healing ceremonies is preferred because good drumming can help the gods come with more strength, the questions may be asked: what constitutes “good” drumming, and what does it mean for an abosom to “come with more strength?”

If the drumming is not good, “[the gods] will come all right, but they will not… do more wonderful things” , meaning that the gods will not have as much power to identify the causes of patients’ problems. Although this is a somewhat circular explanation of what constitutes “good” drumming (i.e. if drumming is good, the results will be good; and if the results are good, the drumming must have been good), it is clear that “good” drumming is something that is felt and easily identified by observers, but it is not easily described. It is not uncommon, though, to have difficulty describing what exactly makes music “good.” For example, lovers of jazz may be able to recognize a good concert when they see it, but it would usually be very difficult for them to pin down exactly what made it “good.” Good jazz musicians would probably be described as having “good energy,” or playing “with soul.” Similarly, it’s hard to describe exactly what makes Asante shrine drumming considered “good.” Nevertheless, there is a clear distinction, recognized by almost all observers, between good and poor drumming. It could be said that when the shrine musicians are playing with “good energy,” or “with soul,” then the obosom will be more likely to come, and come with strength.

When the gods have more strength, they are better able to identify the cause of a patient’s problem. As a result, patients will come away from the shrine with their problems solved, and they will, in turn, tell other people to go to the shrine because the god there is a “very powerful god,” and the shrine will continue to increase in popularity . Therefore, the strength of a god could be determined by noting how many people are healed after visiting the shrine, or by observing the popularity of the shrine. If it is the case that effective healing is closely tied to the strength of a god, and the strength of a god is closely tied to the quality of the drumming, then there is a direct link between the quality of music at a shrine and an okomfo’s ability to heal patients .

 SHRINE RHYTHMS

Different social groups among the Asantes often have specific drum rhythms associated with them . The rhythms typically played by religious associations at shrines are known among the Ashanti as “okomfo twene,” which literally means “okomfo drums.”

IDENTIFICATION OF SHRINE RHYTHMS

The set of traditional okomfo twene rhythms is dynamic. There is not an exact number of rhythms, and there are not any specific rhythms that are set in stone as the only traditional rhythms of okomfo twene. The master drummer at the shrine in Penteng explained that a shrine drummer will often learn rhythms which have been proven through time to be effective in calling the gods from his predecessors. But a drummer may also create new rhythms, which, if they are found to be effective, can be added to the repertoire of his shrine. He then explained that, during festival periods, okomfo and shrine drummers often visit other shrines and listen to the drumming. If they like a new rhythm they hear, the visiting okomfo and drummers may adopt the new rhythm, thereby spreading it throughout the region.

Because of this open-set format of okomfo twene, the shrine drumming is,   “remarkably varied in style and in the number of pieces that are played” . Although there is a wide range of possible okomfo twene rhythms, there are, nevertheless, a few rhythms that have persisted through the years because of their effectiveness in calling the gods. These rhythms could be considered the traditional okomfo twene rhythms of the Asante.