From 1980 until 1983 I lived in the West African nation of Togo. Togo is a tiny place with about 40 different ethnic groups. I lived in the southern half of the country in a town called Kougnohou, which translates exactly as “Death is Better.” It was the biggest town for a people called the Akebou. I don’t know how many Akebou there are, but there weren’t too many back in 1980. They were squeezed between larger groups like the Ewe, Twi, Akposso and Ana people. The Akebou have their own distinct language, but many of their other customs were part of the larger fabric of the region, heavily influenced by the larger and better known Ashanti (or Twi) people.
For a time in Africa I actually started to enjoy going to funerals. A typical funeral involved several consecutive nights of eating, drinking, and visiting, finally culminating in a long night of drumming, singing and dancing. Funerals often took place long after the body was buried. It sometimes takes a couple of years for a family to save enough money to celebrate a loved one's life with sufficient gusto. When important people died the ceremony could include visitors from all the surrounding villages. They all expect to eat and drink. And the dancing becomes a sort of competition.
When I was there men generally danced with men, and women with women. Both bent at the waist and pounded their feet powerfully on the ground. I remember one old woman who literally made the ground shake so that I could feel it 15 or 20 feet away. Usually two or three people would dance at one time, walking towards the center of the circle, linking up visually, and then bursting simultaneously into a powerful dance that would last about 20 seconds. If they were good, people would let them know.
The women would keep their upper bodies gently bent in what looked almost like a curtsy, raising their shoulders and elbows while their feet stamped rhythmically. Men would crouch with their elbows back and snap their backs and shoulders up and down. At the end they would jerk into a pose that said “Top that!” If they were good people would go crazy. It was all fueled by a local white lighting called petesi, or strong palm wine. (On rare occasions, fueled by same, I entered the circle myself. The roar of the crowd was even more intoxicating than the local gin. I was like one of the folks on American Idol who make a spectacle of themselves before millions. I can't dance, you know I wish I could!)
There could be hundreds of people at any given celebration. There were six or eight serious musicians, but nobody sat idle. Everyone was given sticks of “pamprankou,” a light wood from raffia plants to tap to a beat that went “tap tap tap-tap, tap tap tap-tap.” (Children, learn to write music!) The serious musicians were mostly drummers who beat out rhythms I could barely begin to understand.
But the backbone of that beat was done by a singer playing a sort of double cow-bell called the gong-gong. And often the beat on the gong-gong was one you know-- the Bo Diddley beat: shave and a haircut. Or more precisely in this instance:
“shave-haircut: two bits; shave-haircut: two bits.”
I used to hear the funerals but didn't think I'd be welcome. The drums and voices would carry for miles. Once my neighbors were having a funeral and I actually dreamed that Bo Diddley was performing at a private party next door. I woke up a little disappointed.
Years later, “Back in the USA,” I saw a documentary about how African traditions survived in the United States. The documentary showed a kid in South Carolina playing a simple stringed instrument similar to what I had seen kids in Togo make.
The announcer was one of those serious public television types. He said, without irony or recognition, “the instrument is called a ‘diddley bow.’”
I about fell from my couch.
If you ever get the chance, go see Chuck Berry at Blueberry Hill. And if you get a bigger chance, go to West Africa. You’ll see and hear a lot that you know and love.
(For ambiance, at least, this is the best I can find right now. No Bo Diddley beat-- the gong-gong is playing a flat beat, and the dance is different. But it gives you something of the feel.)
This is getting closer. The dance looks like a "kinder, gentler" version of the Akebou dance, without the snapping, stamping intensity. But still not the beat I'm looking for on the gong-gong. Ah well. The wonders of youtube are many, but tonight I'm not finding it.