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In addition to the swords, the treasury and verbal arts, the Asantehene has the largest collection of sound producing instruments ranging from solo instruments and fairly large orchestras. The musical ensembles (solo and duo groups included) are crucial part of the Akan political structure since they are indexes of power and the heirachical structure of chieftaincy. For example, the nkontwema group of ivory trumpeters have the following praise poetry for the Asantehene: Nipa ɔne wo sɛ/Kyerɛ wo mmɛn/Kyerɛ wo dom (for those who say they are the same rank as you/they should show their trumpets/They should show their people). Musical ensembles were vital to the numerous wars of expansion as they preceded army units while sounding coded messages as signals for the infantry. The ensembles and instruments symbolize power and several wars were won or lost just by capturing the musical ensemble(s) of an enemy. At Manhyia Palace, this department is known as Asɔkwa or Asɔkwafoɔ (trumpet blowers) and Akyerɛmade or Akyerɛmadefoɔ (lit. drummers). These two groups are generally referred to as Asɔkwa ne Akyerɛmade but this gives the erroneous impression that they are under a single chief. However, the Asɔkwafoɔ are made up of several varieties of ivory trumpets of different sizes with corresponding chiefs and elders but collectively, they are under Nana Boakye Yam (Akyeamehene).
Our focus in this section is the Asɔkwafoɔ. I will discuss the Akyerɛmadefoɔ in a separate section. The first groups are performed in ensembles of seven and they include the ntahera, kɔkroanya, nkofe, nkɔntwema, amoakwa, and nkrawobɛn. Additionally, mmɛntia (short trumpets) may comprise four to about fourteen players at the Asantehene’s court while asesebɛn, sɔkɔbɛn, and mɔdwemmɔdwe are solo instruments within the amoakwa group. Although the durugya is an aerophone, it is not considered part of the Asɔkwafoɔ and as a result, I shall discuss it in the next section. While some of the ensembles such as the ntahera have a wider distribution among the Amanhene in the Akan area, the kɔkroanya, nkofe, and nkontwema are restricted to the Asantehene’s court. The amoakwa and nkrawobɛn are essentially for the Asantehemaa (the Asante queen) where they are combined with drums and percussion to form the tipre ne amoakwa ensemble. All of the various types of trumpets have ahyɛnso (felt that gives particular identity as discussed below).
From the outset, I would like to correct two misconceptions about the ivory trumpets. First, they are not horns. They are made from the elephant tusk; technically a tooth, but ‘horns’ are projections on the heads of animals (see for instance, Joseph Kaminski, 2008: 118-119). The Akan term, aben (singular) and mmɛn (plural) does not distinguish between a trumpet, a horn, or even a flute. The best option in English is to call this category of instruments trumpets. The second issue is that the players use these trumpets to ‘speak’ and thereby become substitutes for the human voice, and in the process imitate the pitches of the Twi language, which is classified as a tonal language. In his Ceremonial Horns of the Ashanti, Peter Akwasi Sarpong is explicit and emphatic the “player uses the horn to speak” and that “the horns are not musical instruments...” (1990: 1). Hence, these ivory trumpets are not musical instruments in the true sense of the word. This practice is known as surrogate speech whereby the ivory trumpets are used as substitutes for the human voice to recite praise poetry, convey messages (including coded messages during the days of war), recite proverbs, and recount history. This practice is unlike the Abrafoɔ Apae or the Kwadwomfoɔ where humans recite poetry. In line with the above, I would like to refer to the ivory trumpets as “sound producing instruments.” Each ensemble consists of seven ivory trumpets further divided into four sections namely: seseɛ (sayer), afrɛ (callers), agyesoa (responders) and bɔsoɔ (reinforcer). The player of seseɛ is the leader and, as its name implies, he recites fairly long phrases (sometimes short phrases) of mmrane (praise poetry) and towards the end, plays a special signal for the rest of the group to respond. The response is usually in the form of a cyclical call and response format. In order to end the cyclical call and response form, the seseɛ player renders a long, non-lexical, phrase described in Twi as otum (otu abɛn no mu-lit. he is clearing inside the trumpet). Once they hear the seseɛ’s tum signal, they will play another cycle of the call and response phrases and then end the cycle. Alternatively, the chief or the seseɛ player of each ensemble can verbally recite or be (noun abeɛ) and at the end of his abeɛ, use the phrase: abɛn sɔ me muɛ (help me trumpet) followed by a lead call by the seseɛ. In that case, the seseɛ will play non-lexical phrases for the players to be ready: to, to to to, taa to taa to to// after which he will play one of the praise poetries in their repertoire for the rest to respond. Nana Akwasi Boaponim (Kɔkroanyahene) and Kwaku Fori (player of bɔsoɔ in Kɔkroanya), and Nana Kwaku Agyare II (Nkofe Gyaamanmmɛnhene) use this procedure. On the other hand, the lead player in the nkɔntwema group plays a text: mo nsɔ mu o (hold your trumpets) at the beginning to alert his group. Nam sin or ho nam sin refers to short praises performed by the ivory trumpeters when they become exhausted during long ceremonies.
In terms of size, the seseɛ is relatively smaller than the rest of the trumpets to enable the player to perform long phrases of praise poetry, engage in call and response dialogue with the remaining six trumpets and finally play the signal to cue the ensemble to end. Similarly, the trumpet that is used as bɔsoɔ is relatively larger for a lower sound (Twi: bɔ so literary, hammer the sound). The seven instruments are further divided into four sections as follows: one seseɛ, two afrɛ, three agyesoa, and one bɔsoɔ. The nkofe group has a different arrangement for the four sections: one seseɛ, one afrɛ, four agyesoa, and one bɔsoɔ. In order to produce a sound, the seseɛ has a hole at the smaller tip for the left thumb, a rectangular lip slot, and the open end while all the remaining six trumpets have a mouth slot and an opening at the end. In terms of size, the nkofe is relatively larger than all the six groups. As noted above, tipre ne amoakwa ne nkrawobɛn is the Asantehemaa’s (Asante queen) ensemble that is played behind her in processions. It is the only trumpet ensemble that combines drums and percussion intruments known as tipre. Although this ensemble is always referred to as tipre ne amoakwa, for our purposes, I will only discuss amoakwa and nkrawobɛn in this section while I will discuss tipre (drums and percussion) in the drum section. As its name implies, the mmɛntia are relatively shorter and smaller and the Twi name, mmɛn-trumpets; tia-short, compares these shorter trumpets to the larger and longer ones.
It is noteworthy that ivory trumpets were critical in the wars of expansion leading to numerous references to akobɛn (war or fighting trumpets) among the Akan. I have already alluded to the coded messages that the trumpets were played for the infantry. Unlike the human voice, the sound of ivory trumpets travel far in the forest so when it is blown for signal either in front or behind, all of the men in the infantary would hear. Some of the messages might be: anim yɛ (it is okay to move forward); anim nyɛ (it is not okay to move forward); mo nkoto (bend down), mo mpɛgya mo mu (rise up), monsan moakyi (retreat). Asante war formation was a three-prong attack from the right flank, the center, and the left flank. It was the signals by Asɔkwafoɔ that would alert the right flank to rise up and shoot, move forward, retreat. For those in the center, signals would indicate get ready, rise up and shoot, run forward. In addition to providing signals, the trumpets were used as part of psychological warfare where upon hearing the combined sounds, enemy soldiers would desert or flee because they imagined a large army. Because of this, the Asante army won several battles without resistance from the enemy. The poetry of Abrafoɔ (executioners) recounts the Dɛnkyira war as follows:
In the above apae, the sound of the ntahera trumpets is misinterpreted by a child as the cry of hornbills. But the elder wisely informsthe child that it is Osei Tutu’s ntahera that is crossing the Amantem River.
In addition to sending coded messages for the infantary, the primary aim was to scare enemy soldiers and animals in the forest. We might think of it as psychological warfare. In those days, the relatively new sound of ntahera scared enemy combatants (dɔyɛni), animals and bugs in the forest. The sound is said to ruffle bees nests sending them to attack enemy soldiers. In those early days, nsɛbɛ (talismans) were attached to some of the trumpets and it is said that the sound directed bees to attack their enemies ahead of the Asante army. The idea of trumpets representing bravery and valor in Akan is seen in the numerous references and representations of trumpets in adinkra symbols as well as the ntuatire (carved objects) on top of umbrellas (see section on umbrellas).
The Asɔkwafoɔ do not talk during ceremonies or when the Asantehene is judging cases. Even if they were witness to an incident or a crime, they do not talk but they can use the trumpet to alert Otumfoɔ. The Asɔkwafoɔ use only mmɛn to communicate with Asantehene. They play the trupets for the king during times of grief or on celebratory occasions. They use mmɛn if they want to express gratitude or to inform the king that they are hungry.