Testament: Dagbamba Society and Culture in the Twentieth Century
1. Preamble: Trees
You are about to go on
a long, slow journey. How far you will reach is in your hands, as
close as they may now be to your heart. The thousands of words
written here are words that at one time were not written or read.
They were not patterns of light and dark on a page or on a screen.
Written and read, these words have the material weight of their
medium. In a book held in your hands, these words would be
heavy. A screen on which they vibrated would also have its
weight. Unwritten, as they once were, they had no evident mass. They
could be described with a physical metaphor as held in memory and handed
from one person to another. Still, in that use, these words first
had only the weight of breath as they were spoken, mere vapor, carrying
sounds. These sounded words, conveyors of a heritage of cultural
issued an epitome of a library of unwritten volumes that circulate merely
by the vibrations of air on the delicate drum of the inner ear, bearing
only the weight and substance of expired souls, of age and time. The
words were conceived in drumming, communicated underfoot in the resounding
vibrations of the earth absorbing the reverberations of heavy drums and
the heavy cares of dancers.
The drums were formed from
resonating trees rooted strongly in the earth, trees able to pull water
upward, reaching for light, bearing fruit and flowers of regeneration,
branching widely, to leaves that change expired breath to life-sustaining
air, to leaves that let us hear the transpiring breezes of air in motion,
the voice of shade, a voice which was, in some places, an oracle.1 These same trees, had they germinated in
different soil, would have been amenable to the composition of paper, the
medium of written words, the material instrument of cultural dissemination
in the West. In our computer age, there are still cultivated people
who resist electronic media just because the idea of seeing words on paper
has seemed more fitting to them, as something that can be bound, something suitable to
be given as a gift, something whose weight represents the potential energy
of its ideas, something that in itself represents the potential transformation
of thought into substance. As with vibrations in the air, there is a
delicate physical component in the light emitted from a screen, but it is still probably a good idea to print these
words on paper, to give the new media’s luminescent electrons a
material form, something to hold in your hands in case your power or your
access is vulnerable to interruption. Even those who only
embrace the vibrating light of new media perceive a precipitate of sorts
and conceive of a gathering of words,
woven together, to be a book.
Such sentimental affinities
reflect the symbolism of seminal Western myth. In Ovid’s myth
of the metamorphosis of Daphne into a tree, the human Daphne was pursued
by Apollo — the god of the sun and light, god of culture, god of
music, god of poetry and prophecy, god of healing. Incapable of
conjoining her human destiny with the immortal god, Daphne was transformed
into a laurel tree.2 The laurel tree thus
stands as symbol of Apollo, symbol of the sublimation of human love into
human achievement, symbol of the origin and permanence of culture, of
purification and celebration, of the creative inspiration of the poets, as
in Rilke’s second “Sonnet to Orpheus”:3
Almost a girl it was and issued forth
from this concordant joy of song and lyre,
and . . .
she made herself a bed inside my ear.
And slept in me. And all things were her sleep. . . .
She slept the world.
Within the vast symbolism of trees, a tree is sacred not because of what
it is but because of what greater things it represents or points to, like
the tree of life or the tree of knowledge in Judeo-Christian religious
imagery.4 May I not start to prepare you for your journey
by posing this coherence, from the tree to the drum, to the resonance of
sound, to the sung and spoken word, to the written word on paper from the
The purpose of this
introduction is to let you know why this book is the way it is. I am
hoping to prepare you to enter the world of another culture, to perceive
it through a wealth and welter of detail, to feel within yourself how
culture helps human beings, to comprehend through human sympathy how a
group of sensitive people relate to this complex thing we call life, and
to understand why they respect and treasure their cultural heritage.
But the weight of a volume of written words on bound paper imparts an
unnatural aspect to the weight of a voice. Hold a heavy book and
lift it briefly, and then take your hand from under it to hold in your
palm the generative qualities retained by the words. Your hand will
rise. Let it rise until it shows you a horizon, far, blurred as if
by mist over water or by the atmosphere at twilight. Your open hand
is positioned to beckon, to receive. Cupped by your ear, it will
engender your hearing.5 Rilke’s first “Sonnet
There rose a tree. O pure
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. Yet even in the silence
new beginning, beckoning, change went on.
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
released wood from lair and nesting place;
and it turned out that not from cunning and not
from fear were they so hushed within themselves,
but from harkening. Bellow and cry and roar
seemed little in their hearts. And where before
hardly a hut had been to take this in,
a covert out of darkest longing
with an entrance way whose timbers tremble, —
you built temples for them in their hearing.
Beyond the horizon, beyond the
sight of your beckoning hand, sits an elderly man who is a musician, a
drummer, a singer, a master of words. He has many names. His
name is Ibrahim. His name is “Father Drummer.” His
name is “What a human being refuses, God will take and make
well.” His name is “Wisdom has no end.” How a
person comes to have such names is another story among the stories in this
book, but he is one man among many like him. He speaks the words of
those he knows and has known. He speaks the words of those who gave
birth to him and have passed away. He represents them, and he is old
because he holds their words. He and his colleagues are all masters of
words, but they do not write. Their cultural knowledge has been sustained
for generations by unwritten words in memory;
it is communicated in public places by sound and movement, by singing, by
drumming, by dancing.
What a difference from the
strange means of communication you can hold in your hands, a heavy book you
would read, grasped firmly with closed hands! Extending from your
hands, the weight of such a book pulls on your arms and shoulders, fighting
your effort to elevate it, telling you that you cannot read it at a sitting,
alone, as you have read many other books, to divert an evening, or as a
quick snack to gobble up. These thousands of words were spoken by this
drummer, Ibrahim Father Drummer, and they were meant to be heavy, but they
were spoken and not written, and their unnatural weight in a book is perhaps
a tolerable attribute of compromise with that other medium of communication
that the drummer knows, or perhaps the hidden complementarity of the tree of
culture in polymorphous transformation.
If you could look beyond the
horizon and go toward the evening, you would be able to hear the
words. Where Father Drummer lives, in the evening, he sits outside his
house on a mat, leaning against the wall. When he or a fellow drummer
picks up a drum, he will first beat a prayer for walls: God should let
the wall be nice, that the elders may lean against the wall, and we the
children will thank God for that. After dinner, the air is mild, the
sky clear with stars. Beside Ibrahim are his friends, those he calls
his “sitting friends,” and they are talking. A few
children and young people from his area are there, and you would be able to
join them, as Ibrahim did when he was a child. If you were there, you
would be listening to the words you are about to read, with no need to hold
a heavy book or operate an electronic contraption. The conversation is
leisurely, because tomorrow, if you like and God agrees, you will all be
there again in that pleasant ambience. Over a period of time, the
drummer would gradually share his knowledge in many quiet
I was there, and I collected such
conversations and modeled this book from them, and I have brought them to
you. If you would sit with me and follow this model, you will read the
book patiently, chapter by chapter, and if you become tired holding it, put
it down. There is no need to rush. What you don’t read
today, you can read tomorrow. No one is forced to sit outside with the
elders of drumming. You go when you have the time or the appetite for
it. I sat with Ibrahim, my Father Drummer, and his friends, many of
whom I also call father or grandfather or brother, for several years of my
life, and I went back again and again because I found such satisfaction in
their presence. That satisfaction is a promise for you at the outset
of your journey into their world, a promise I make because I myself had
never imagined the type of experience I would have among them.
1. Vincent Scully, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods: Greek Sacred Architecture, rev. ed. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969), pp. 136-38; James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1940), p. 159; Homer, The Odyssey, translated
by Robert Fitzgerald (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Anchor, 1963), p. 257.
2. This preamble is a reflection of Norman O. Brown, “Daphne, or Metamorphosis,” in
and Religion, edited by Joseph Campbell (New York: E.P. Dutton,
1970), pp. 91-110.
3. Rainer Maria Rilke,
Orpheus, translated by M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton
Library, W. W. Norton, 1970), no. 2, p. 19.
4. Mircea Eliade,
Comparative Religion, translated by Rosemary Sheed (Cleveland and New
York: Meridian Books, World Publishing, 1967), pp. 265-330; G. van
der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and
Manifestation, translated by J. E. Turner (Gloucester, Mass.:
Peter Smith, 1967), I, 55-58.
5. This generative image is from Marcel Griaule,
Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas,
translated by Ralph Butler, Audrey I. Richards, and Beatrice Hook (London:
International African Institute and Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 64.
Sonnets to Orpheus,
no. 1, p. 17.