University of North Texas

UNT Insider | August 2013 issue | Music professor details language of African drums

Subscribe  Unsubscribe

Music professor details language of African drums

From a UNT News Service press release

Gideon Foli Alorwoyie

Gideon Foli Alorwoyie

A drum does more than make a sound. It can call your name or ask a question -- and respond. In his new book, Agbadza: Songs, Drum Language of the Ewes, Gideon Foli Alorwoyie, professor of music, explains the deeper meaning behind the music, lyrics and the language of the drums that the Ewe people in Africa have developed for centuries.

His book, along with a CD of songs that can be regarded as one long work in 25 sections, details the style of music traditional to the Ewe people from Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa. It also discusses Agbadza musical instruments, song structure and drumming style.

Alorwoyie, who also is a principal dancer/choreographer and director of the African Percussion Ensemble at UNT, transcribed the 25 songs into Western notation and translated the lyrics into English. The book also contains commentary by Alorwoyie about the content and context of the songs in regards to Agbadza tradition.

"These songs started as war songs, but they are much more now," Alorwoyie says. "In olden days, you could sit around and ask questions through drumming and singing -- and another person could drum and sing a response. It was like having a conversation."

The tradition, which began in the 17th and 18th centuries, still is used today in wakes, memorial services and important events. Yet, the cultural significance is being lost as that region moves toward modernization, Alorwoyie says.

He felt he needed to write this book not only for the interest of scholars and musicians around the world, but to help educate the younger generations in his native land, he says.

"I had to listen carefully to the music to interpret it and go back and ask my uncles if that is what it meant," Alorwoyie says. "I even had to get permission from them to interpret these words. It has not been done before, but they could see it was important to let people know what we're playing and what it means."

A high priest of the Ewe religion, Alorwoyie was deemed by the elders as one who would serve society as a natural born drummer. It's also his calling to teach others about the powerful language of the drums to keep the tradition alive, Alorwoyie says. Funding from UNT and the USA-Africa Artists Exchange Fund made the book possible.

"I want this to be my legacy," Alorwoyie says of the book. "I want this to be an educational tool for people to keep hold of their culture and so that others can understand the meaning behind the music."

About Gideon Foli Alorwoyie

High priest of the Yewe Cult, Alorwoyie is from Anlo-Afiadenyigba in the Volta Region of Ghana, West Africa, and is highly regarded as one of Ghana's virtuosos of traditional music and dance. Alorwoyie was discovered by Phillip Gbeho, then head of the Institute of Art and Culture in Ghana, at the 1961 Hogbetsotso and annual Anlo-traditional cultural festival. He also:

  • Held a positon at the Institute of Art and Culture in 1964
  • From 1967-84, worked as chief master drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble in the Department of African Studies at the University of Ghana. He toured the world extensively with the group
  • Founded and served as artistic director of the Afrikania Cultural Troupe of Ghana in West Africa
  • Member of the Society for Ethnomusicology
  • Member of the Council of Elders of Dance Africa Chicago
  • Worked with notable scholars and composers such as David Locke, John Chernoff, and Steve Reich
  • Founded and serves as artistic director of the Chicago-based African-American Unity Ensemble and is a member of the advisory council of the African Music Caucus and Percussive Arts Society

Alorwoyie joined the College of Music faculty at UNT in 1996 as assistant professor of world percussion studies, and was promoted to full professor in 2011.

Margarita Venegas with UNT News Service can be reached at


Read other stories in this issue:

August 2013

About UNT Insider

The UNT Insider is brought to you by the Office of the President in conjunction with the Division of University Relations, Communications and Marketing. Please send any comments or suggestions to