The Dagomba Dance-Drumming Collection at Tufts University

A Conversation with David Locke

Dance drumming image
09/14/2012 – Medford/Somerville, MA – The World Damba Festival concert in Distler Performance Hall on Friday, Sept, 14, 2012. The weekend-long festival celebrates the Damba Festival of the northern region of Ghana. (Matthew Modoono for Tufts University)

David Locke, professor of Music at Tufts University, talks with Choice about Dagomba Dance-Drumming, a digital collection of various drumming patterns with accompanying analyses and histories.

How would you describe the project to a perfect stranger?

David Locke is a professor in the Music Department, Tufts University. He has authored two online monographs [Dagomba Dance-Drumming and Agbadza], three books available through Pathway Book Service, and the chapter on music-cultures of Africa in the widely used textbook Worlds of Music. He helped create the Tufts-in-Ghana Foreign Study Program and is on the Africana Studies Program steering committee. He is the founder of the Agbekor Drum and Dance Society, a Boston-based ensemble specializing in teaching and performing traditional music and dance from Ghana, and the Samanyanga Mbira Club, a Boston-based group for the study of Shona mbira music.

The collection presents the drumming parts for many items of dance music of the Dagomba people of northern Ghana. On the site you can listen to the drumming phrases as played by a virtuosic Dagomba expert, see the drumming in staff notation, learn the meaning of all phrases in the local language, read an oral history about each piece, and study an analysis of the music by an American scholar. The drumming parts are presented individually so that the student can carefully imitate the expert’s way of playing. With the online mixer you can hear the parts played all together or isolate each part for careful study. For someone who is interested in learning this material but is unable to work with real people, the site enables a technologically mediated way to study Dagomba dance-drumming.

What is the intended audience of Dagomba Dance-Drumming? How do you envision undergraduates using the collection?

Anyone interested in music can gain value from the site, not only drummers or fans of African music. Because vocalizing the drumming parts using sounds that represent the actual drummed tones is a vital aspect of pedagogy—”playing the drum with your mouth”—the material can be learned by everyone. Students can listen to an expert’s voice and then copy the sound and the timing. The drum ensemble music can be performed in “beat box” style. Those more interested in the social, historical and cultural aspects of music can read the oral histories. Instead of relying on an outside expert to explain and translate, the site enables users to have a relationship with an African teacher (albeit through technological interaction).

How did the archive come to be? What was the process of acquiring the materials like?

Alhaji Abubakari Lunna, Dagomba dance-drumming expert and David’s teacher.

The online monograph is the outcome of my patient, thirty-year study of this African music tradition and my friendship and apprenticeship to a charismatic expert in his cultural heritage. Together Alhaji Abubakari Lunna and I evolved ways for effective insider-outsider communication. I discovered how to learn and Alhaji figured out how to teach. He came to trust my judgment and accepted my suggestion to record an essential version of the fundamental themes for each instrument in the multipart ensemble. I am a professor in the Music Department of Tufts University. Together with Alhaji Abubakari Lunna I recorded, documented, and analyzed a large body of information about the drumming and its cultural meaning and significance. During this long period of study, I published three books with audio supplements. Each book was devoted to only one item of repertory, with the idea of demonstrating the depth and scope that goes with just one piece. The Dagomba Dance-Drumming site, on the other hand, presents over thirty items of repertory; the idea here is to convey the scope of knowledge that Dagomba musicians possess.

Tell me about the development of the digital interface and its advantages and disadvantages. Are there any future developments/additions planned for Dagomba Dance-Drumming?

The first step was the long period of study with Alhaji Abubakari (1975-2005). All the material was performed, recorded, transcribed (both music and conversation), and analyzed. Then I worked with professional information technology staff to plan the interface. The advantages include: global access to everyone with Internet access, no charge for using the site, vicarious access to study with a great African cultural expert, and self-study at the user’s own pace of learning. Disadvantages include: limitations of online technology such as software incompatibility or server problems. Of course, studying with a real human being will always be better than a technologically mediated mode of study. At present, there are no planned additions to the site.

David [middle] on Ewe bell.

What specific piece would you suggest that online visitors to Dagomba Dance-Drumming begin their explorations with? Why?

I suggest starting with “Nantoo Nimdi” because the musical rhythms are likely to be familiar to many visitors. The parts are not too difficult. The History Story for this piece also is dramatic. Next, I would suggest the two pieces of Damba Festival music. The slower-paced processional section has a classically clear setting of the “three-in-the-time-of-two” temporal structure that is ubiquitous in Dagomba music (and most all music traditions in Africa). The faster-paced section has an enormously propulsive groove and a wonderful set of themes used as the basis of improvisation.

What makes Dagomba dance drumming unique?

In terms of cultural geography in West Africa the Dagomba are at a boundary between the musical styles of the grassland savannah and the forest and coastal region. Their instruments resemble those found in other savannah cultures (Mande, Mossi, Hausa) but the musical structure often is similar to the richly polyrhythmic styles of the peoples to the south of Dagombaland (Ashanti, Gã, Ewe). Dagomba dance drumming has compelling themes that are like “hooks” in global pop music. The tradition can be appreciated simply as terrific music but it also has immediate links to Dagomba culture. Notably, all the drumming phrases have meaning in the local language, Dagbani. Each piece is linked to an historical personage from Dagomba history. Alhaji Abubakari’s answer to the question, “What does this piece mean?” invariably was a long and fascinating story drawn from a grand epic narrative of Dagomba history.

David Locke on the lunga.

How would you characterize the relationship between the transient nature of the rhythms and the rhythms’ inextricability from “the grand epic narrative of Dagomba history”? Could this be compared to other forms of oral history?

The music itself has qualities that are dynamic, personal, and flexible while at the same time being grounded in an embodied knowledge of the past. The drums play preset phrases that give sound to remembered texts that are carefully passed along in formal lessons between teacher-elders and student-apprentices. But the detailed musical nuances given to these texts by inventive, talented, and skilled players enable the texts to come to live in fresh, exciting form. This whole cultural pattern is found in many parts of the world: memory is aided by aesthetic refinement; listeners remember the past more effectively and with more vivid sensory detail when the historical knowledge is put within an expressively moving artistic format.

What attracted you to Dagomba dance drumming and to the task of preserving it?

The part in the music played by the gung-gong drum was particularly attractive to me because it allows scope for improvisation. The construction of the instrument enables the drummer to create a self-sufficient musical part that has a back-and-forth between the loud booming sounds from the drum’s center and quieter buzzing sounds from the drum’s edge. Compared to other types of drumming from Ghana, this drum rewards time spent alone, practicing. I also simply loved the sound of the whole ensemble, with the melodic tension drums blending with the resonant bass drum. Further, I formed a close personal relationship with Alhaji Abubakari Lunna, which inspired me to become involved in the social group of which he was a part, his own personal family, and the cultural heritage he embodied. I don’t think my work is “preservation” in an antiquarian sense. I think of it as documentation that contributes to continuity and creativity.

How does the issue of cultural appropriation impact this site?

Alhaji Abubakari with gung-gong.

Alhaji Abubakari was very aware of the challenges and risks of sharing his knowledge with outsiders through this mediated format. He was concerned that his fellow Dagombas might accuse him of “selling his culture.” He knew that some of his students might take what he taught them and use it in new ways that he could not control. For many years whenever I asked to record him, he would render the music at the highest level of virtuosity, a level that only a lifelong cultural expert could hope to attain. We outsiders can aspire to learn the “essentialized” versions of his music presented on the site but that can open the path to misuse and misrepresentation. As the producer and author of the site, I tried to present the material in such detail and depth that a visitor would likely treat it with respect. In my view, it is possible for music to be shared and learned across boundaries of culture. Just as Western art music (WAM) has spread around the globe, so can other of humanity’s remarkable creations be “spaces” for experiencing our similarities and differences. Negative relations among different peoples (“races”) are a global problem. Race certainly remains a particular problem in the USA. I regard the “triple D” (Dagomba dance-drumming) as a positive contribution towards intercultural and interracial relations.

Does the presence of the collection reflect a particular mission of Tufts University?

David dancing during a Tufts event.

Tufts University as a whole and its Music Department in particular accord great value to a global perspective. Western civilization, naturally, is the bedrock upon which the university is grounded but ways of life and the accomplishments of all peoples are valued. The Music Department offers a robust curriculum in Western fine art and popular musics, as well as unusually deep opportunities to study certain music-cultures of what I term WEFT, that is, “world, ethnic, folk, and traditional” music. Tufts also values scholarship that has practical value. The Dagomba Dance-Drumming online monograph offers pedagogical musical function (you can use it to learn to play) as well as making a contribution to scholarship. Furthermore, Tufts students worked with me in doing the research: the History Stories were elicited in interviews conducted by me and my students; on the site visitors can listen to performances by students. We show that cultural outsiders can indeed learn—to some extent, anyway—to play this music.

Explore the Dagomba Dance-Drumming at

This interview was conducted by Anna Denton. She is an editorial intern at Choice and a student at Wesleyan University.