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Opinions of Thursday, 13 January 2011

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Borborbor – the quintessential Ewedome dance and music form

It is a truism that needs be said that wherever ten or more Ewedome people meet somewhere far away from their home villages, one of the first things they will discuss will be how to form a borborbor group. They will only need two or three drums, a pair of local castanets and the inevitable bugle (which the oldies mispronounced “boglo”) and they are in business – serious borborbor business. They do not even have to compose any songs. There is a large array of classic borborbor songs to pick from.

The Ewedome are the Ewes occupying the middle parts of the Volta Region as distinct from the southern or coastal Ewes many of whom are also known as Anlos. Nothing is as Ewedome as borborbor. Perhaps what comes nearest to that is agbeli fufu but that is eaten by other ethnic groups in Ghana too so it is not exclusively Ewedome. But Borborbor is! Take borborbor away from the consciousness of an Ewedome person, and he ceases to be his real self. Several years of living in Europe has only increased my love for that music not least because of my longing to get back to my own roots. Some people may say Trokosi is also very Ewe. But Trokosi is not practised by the Ewedome. It is not that they are more enlightened than the coastal Ewes. It is just that “tro” has really never been a strong part of Ewedome culture. But borborbor has been! And it is always going to be.

Nobody exactly knows when borborbor started but one account places its origins in Wusuta, a village on the Volta Lake, sometime in the late 40s. One thing that is certain in the development of this music form is the enormous work done by the late Kpando citizen, Francis Nuatro, who, almost singlehandedly transformed the music to the popular thing that we know today. When the history of borborbor is written, Nuatro’s name will be embossed in golden letters across every page! He is the Godfather of borborbor – a genius of the genre, if ever there was one. He fused the original music form, Konkoma, with other forms to produce the modern sound of borborbor and brought it to national prominence. Nuatro composed several popular songs that have become borborbor classics. It is reported that when Nkrumah once visited Kpando, the President was so bitten by the rhythm of the borborbor at the welcoming ceremony that he joined in the dancing. Nuatro’s group then became known as Osagyefo’s Borborbor Group. The maestro that he was, Nuatro was always extending the frontiers of the music form that he popularised. There was a time in the 70s when he even introduced an electric bass guitar into the performance but that experiment was a failure. At a time when such groups were just loose organisations of revellers, Nuatro was already choreographing borborbor dance into a delightful spectacle for the eyes. The ebullient Nuatro was everywhere. That was why at school, we nicknamed him “Oxygen” but we never missed any of his shows when he came with his dancing girls to perform for us at a boarding school for boys starved of the sight of girls. From Kpando, borborbor spread to nearby villages like Anfoega (Abra yiboe nye ye), Sovie, Alavanyo, then to places like Hohoe (playing a laid back slower type of borborbor than the Kpando style), and all Ewedome speaking towns and as far away as Togo and Benin (where they still call it akpesse).

Borborbor is not the only folk music of the Ewedome. There are others like gbolo, adevu, akaye (sung mostly by women) and asafo songs. All these more traditional forms of music have strong strains of the Akan influence on Ewedome culture (a topic that deserves its own article). Unfortunately, the elderly who can perform some of these are dying off and even the very elderly who sang asafo songs in Twi at the funerals of royalty and revered elders (even if these men could not ordinarily speak Twi) can hardly be found these days. The southern Ewes, the Anlos, have different dance and music forms many of which may be older and more complex than borborbor. One may contend, arguably, that Anlo culture, on the whole, looks more ancient and purer than Ewedome culture perhaps because the latter have migrated further away from the Ewe fountainhead than the former. My Anlo friends use to tease me that it is this watering down of the Ewe culture that has produced such loose and easy form of music like borborbor. I think they may be right but that does not prevent me from hitting back at them that their agbadza involves such strenuous gyrations of the waist that a male dancer cannot prevent his member from violently jerking up and down for which reason we call them “Davadedziawo”.

A traditional Borborbor group consists of a pair of castanets, container rattles, small drums (vuvi), supporting drum (asivu), and a master drum (vuga) but many bands now use between two and four drums. The castanets go ”kor kor kor, kor kor kor”, in triple beat in almost all borborbor music. The smaller drums basically just keep the rhythm going. It is the bass drum that provides the distinctive borborbor sound. That is why the master drummer must be good. In a typical borborbor number, the lead singer may start alone or with the accompaniment of the castanets. The drums and the chorus follow after some singing. The interchange between lead singer and chorus go on for some time through different songs. Then the bugler blows his first two notes, usually drawing out the second one as long as possible (pa paaaaaa) whereupon the dancing girls will bend down (it is not called borborbor for nothing) adding some more styles to their movements. The master drummer will raise his act sometimes following the melody of the horn, at other times inter-lacing rhythmically with it. The bugler ends his long solo on a note that cues the lead singer to take up the singing again at the same time as the dancing girls will rise up, their white handkerchiefs fluttering in the air. I have seen a group use black and red handkerchiefs. That is ugly. It is an abomination that will be sternly frowned upon by the borborbor aficionados. Anything other than white handkerchiefs detracts from the purity of the dance.

A performance is often a medley of different songs whose themes do not even have to conform to each other. This gives borborbor singers the unique capability of singing joyfully about the saddest things in life and dancing happily to it too. You can start with a song praising God (Aseye ko matso nawo nye Mawu) [Look under my name in the comments section for translations of the Ewe] and segue into one about romantic love (Metsor nye lolo na wo), following it up with the clearly profane (Efoye fia safie nofe mu), adding the patriotic (Denyigba lolo akpe na wo), moving through the vicissitudes of life (Amegbetor deke menya etso me o), existential questions (Mozolawo mienye le afi) and end with the mundane issues of life (Nu nyui la ke). It can be such that in the public dances at the village square you can find yourself in the awkward situation of singing about the saving grace of God (Mawu fe amenuveve) even as you are pressing your crotch against the buttocks of the girl dancing in front of you in the circle. Oh yes, on festive occasions, such is allowed. If only you do not overdo it, the girls often do not complain. Everybody is happy. But the profanity does not end there. The lecherous double entendre suggested by the last line of a popular borborbor classic is never lost to speakers of the language: Wor nu nam loo, menye de ma ku hafi o, especially if that line is sung by a girl. A similar suggestion is made by the first line in another classic: Lolo vava de le menye, matsor na wo o, especially if it is a boy singing who, under his breath, replaces the first word with another particular word.

Borborbor is extremely easy to dance to. It is not like the intricate, meaningful and regal moves of the adowa, the suggestive gestures of kpanlogo or the energetic dances of Northern Ghana. Everybody can dance borborbor – both young and the very old, as well as foreigners. It won’t matter whether you are Ga, Nzema, Asante, or Gonja. When the borborbor rhythm catches you, it will tell you which steps to take. After all, the basic borborbor rhythm is related to the rhythms of most of the other local music in Ghana and cultural practices hardly develop in isolation. Borborbor is really not the “spectator event” that modern dance companies make it where they perform and others watch. In the real world borborbor, everybody is supposed to take part in the singing and dancing. Our politicians, always with an eye on a vote catcher, never fail to join in the dance. Nkrumah knew that – decades ago.

Borborbor today is not only limited to Ewedome land. The borborbor rhythm has become the choice of church music that is accompanied by drums, at least among all Ewes. And much of borborbor music outside the church still deals with religious concerns. Borborbor is now almost all over the place. Go to any major record shop in Ghana and you will see that not all those buying borborbor cds are Ewes. The records themselves are now the slick work of professional studio engineers with the major performers credited on the jackets. It’s a long way from the 45rpm singles of Nuatro’s days. The professional dance companies that have sprung up in Ghana in recent years include borborbor in their repertoires. This has involved a few changes and some corner cuttings. The bugle has been the original instrument. But it is difficult to blow and trumpets are now being used. Some groups even have two wind instruments. The horn solos have become more varied. It is not uncommon to hear popular highlife melodies being embedded into the solos. The natural progression has been the “highlife borborbor” and even “soul borborbor”. Thank goodness, we are yet to hear of “hip hop borborbor”. It is rather hip hop that has borrowed melodies from borborbor. The Togolese artist, Ali Jeez, has a hip hop rendition of Lolovava. (Good hip hop in Ewe can be heard only in Lomé. As for the Ghanaian Ewe musicians, they are all singing in Twi – Ayigbe Twi! Actually, the Togolese Ewes are also singing in Twi. The Togolese musician, Agboti Yao, has a bouncy highlife track in Twi: Se wose wodo me a/ M’enka no wo w’ano/ Ye biribi na menhunu se wo do mi ampa/ Odo ye wu e..., even though I am not very sure of what he expects his lover to do to prove her love.) There are lots of borborbor clips and other information on the internet. Some of these have been of help to me in writing this piece. Check out the music on youtube.

Efo Senyo and his New Generation are still topping the borborbor charts in Ghana but I hear there are newer groups trying hard to knock them off the pinnacle. And so, borborbor lives on. And our love for it lives on too. As for me I have given word in my holy village that when I die, they shall play live borborbor all night at my wake-keeping. They will supply enough drinks to the boys so that they will play and play and play and the girls will dance and dance and still dance a little more. And as they carry me to my final resting place, the borborbor drums shall follow me and when the earth has been laid over my mortal remains, the girls will dance borborbor in a circle around my grave. Then my soul will find eternal peace...

Gbesigbe ma ku la nye kple woe ayi
Ava do yodo nu la to
Afima lolo he de nyuie
Loloto va dom da a a a
Nuka nutie negblem di
Loloto va dom da aye aye aye
Hosiana, mega tsi dzi o o o o...

Kofi Amenyo (