The birthing of ‘Adowa’; Lessons from our fathers

My love for dance stems from the fact that I personally do not know how to dance well and so anytime I see someone or a group of people performing this complex task that I find very difficult to do with ease, I sincerely doff my hat off for them. From time immemorial, dance has been used as a way of expressing people’s history, achievements, tragedy, happiness, sorrows, sarcasms, power and cultural display. Dance involves variation in movement according to time or rhythm. It is one of the interesting universal physical activities that thrives on flexibility and coordination, muscular and cardiovascular endurance. In Ghana, for instance, we have so many traditional dances, including kpalogo, kete, bamaya, borborbor, asafo, apatampa and agbadza. All these dances have their meanings and origins. Among all the traditional dances in the country, the one which is commonly performed at national events, particularly in the southern part of the country, is “Adowa”. During national events and celebrations such as the Independence Day, it is the adowa that is mostly performed to usher in dignitaries, including the president, ministers, and chiefs to the ceremonial grounds.

It will interest you to know how the dance came about. In this article, I shall take you on a reading tour to explore how adowa was started, its meaning and importance to our cultural heritage. Adowa is a popular traditional dance performed mostly by the Akan-speaking tribes in the country such as the Ashantis, Bonos, Akims, Akuapims, and the Kwahus. Adowa is believed to have originated from the imitation of the movements of a royal antelope. In the Akan language, particularly the Asante Twi dialect, the royal antelope is called “Adowa” while it is called “otwe” in Fante. The dance was named after this animal.

It must be noted that during the performance of adowa, every single movement of the performers has a message to tell. The message can be sorrowful, agonising, romantic, exciting, and/or sarcastic. It is a dance of meanings. According to oral history, adowa came about as a result of men imitating the movements of a royal antelope in the jungle. It is said that there was once a queen mother called Abrewa Tutuwa in the ancient Ashanti Kingdom who became seriously ill during her reign and that all medications used on her failed to heal her until a deity was consulted for direction. According to the story, the deity directed that a live royal antelope be captured and brought alive for the performance of some rituals in order to heal the dying queen mother. Some warriors were, therefore, tasked to go to the forest to hunt for a live royal antelope. However, after days of search without finding any royal antelope, the warriors decided to return home.

It is said that on their journey home, however, the warriors saw a royal antelope making some beautiful movements. The warriors, startled by the beautiful movements of the royal antelope, hid somewhere and also started imitating the movement of the antelope, thereby leading to the creation of the dance, adowa. It is said that when the warriors came home, they joyfully performed their newly learned movements to celebrate the health of their dying queen mother, while the elderly women also picked up the movement and perfected it into the modern-day “adowa.”

What adowa stands for
Speaking to the Daily Graphic in an interview, a lecturer at the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), Ms Margaret Delali Numekevor, said another oral account suggested that the inventors of the dance mimicked how antelopes celebrated their dead ones. She added that “it is believed that when an antelope dies, the remaining ones go round it to mourn it and that explains why adowa performers usually go round when performing the dance.” She explained that although adowa was originally a funeral dance, it had now become a social dance receiving overwhelming patronage at all kinds of social gatherings. Ms Numekevor, however, said although the dance was predominantly performed by the Ashantis, it could also be found among other Akan- speaking tribes.

She said adowa “is performed using mostly the whole torso, head, whole arm, foot and the hand. According to her, the expressive nature of the dance enabled the performers to easily communicate with their body movement. Ms Numekevor explained for instance that when a performer put the fourth finger in the mouth or the hands either at the back or on the stomach, it signified emotional pain, especially when the dance was being performed at a funeral. She said because the dance was originally meant for funerals, its costume “is usually black and white clothing” but other colours could be used in recent times because of its social status. “The occasion also determines the costume to put on,” she said.

Among the musical instruments used for the performance of adowa are a master drum, the talking drum (atunpan), twin bells, banana bells, bells, rattles, dondo, three supporting drums, petia, and apentemma. Ms Numekevor explained that although “adowa is a bisexual dance”, women mostly performed it because of its expressive nature while the men preferred to do the drumming. “The dance appeals more to women but both men and women can dance adowa,” she stated. It must be mentioned that adowa is performed with songs that are based on cultural beliefs and social issues.

According to Ms Numekevor, although many popular dances had faded out, adowa would continue to dominate the cultural arena due to its uniqueness and Ghanaian identity.
She said although the dance “is subjective” and might have some changes in its performance and costume, its significance has not changed. Although many people perceive traditional dances, including adowa, as religious dances with a strong link to traditionalists, Ms Numekevor said adowa is not a religious dance. “Adowa is a work of art and not a religious dance,” she said. “We tend to regard anything not European as barbaric,” Ms Numekevor said, and added, “If we stop adowa, we may be starving some people of what they like to see.”

Apart from adowa being used to express varied cultural, social, and emotional opinions, the dance also comes with some economic importance. It creates business opportunities for artisans such as wood carvers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths who make the drums, bells and ornaments respectively for the performance of the dance. It is important to mention that through these artisans, our fathers were able to preserve the dance up to our time.

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