Ntan (en-tan) bands were popular among the Asante peoples of Ghana between
1920s and 1950s. They performed on occasions such as naming ceremonies,
weddings, funerals and traditional festivalsany event where entertainment
was needed. This is in contrast to other musical instruments and performances
that were reserved for the court. The term ntan (meaning bluff
in Twi) does not refer to the drum itself, but rather to the entire event
that featured music and the display of carved figurative sculptures representing
the chief, queen mother and members of the court. Reflecting the colonial
presence of the times on the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), the sculptural
entourage also included figures of colonial officers.
Although the primary function of a drum is to make music, one can focus
on its form as well. Looking at this drum, it is difficult to ignore the
elaborately carved imagery or iconography. The relief images represent
aspects of Akan culture and environment. This particular drum features
an elephant -- a symbol of power among the Asante as its support.
All drums of the ntan bands are characterized by breasts, which are typically
found in the center of the drum and objectify the idea of the drum as
the mother of the group. Most ntan drums also depict a heart
between or above the breasts, which recalls the phrase be patient
(nya akoma) because all Ntan members should have a motherly heart.
Just below the breasts and the red heart is the crescent moon and star,
which relates to a folktale that summons the proverb although the
moon is brightest, the star is more constant. Below the moon and
star is the bowl and grinding spoon embodying the proverb, if the
grinding spoon is as good as it brags, then it should grind the palm nut
and not the cocoyam leaves. This means that if one says he is good
at something, he should not demonstrate it in the easiest way. Perhaps
this refers to the performance, where musicians should not play only easy
pieces. A rooster and a hen flank the bowl and grinding stone. They refer
to the proverb, although the hen knows when it is dawn, she leaves
it for the rooster to announce. In other words, although knowledge
is not gender specific, men are the decision-makers. The next motif represents
the elephant with a palm tree. It is a common image of power that states
only the elephant can uproot the palm tree. It was also an
emblem of colonial Gold Coast.
Additional images on the drum that are not visible in the poster include:
- Snake biting the frog: Every part of the frog belongs to
the cobra. Everything the frog does eventually benefits the cobra
that eats him. If applied to the performances it could mean that every
musician works for the music association.
- Akan stool: The Asante believe the stool is the seat or the soul
of the Asante peoples.
- Snake biting the hornbill: By waiting patiently at one spot
on the ground, the puff adder was able to catch the hornbill for lunch.
With ingenuity and patience, one can do the impossible.
- Long-horned antelope: Had I known is always last, which
refers to the futility of hindsight.
- Cocoa tree: Indicates that many Ntan members are farmers; it is
also symbol of wealth.Osei Bonsu, the ArtistOsei Bonsu was a famous and
prolific sculptor who carved nearly all ntan drums and sculptures used
throughout the Asante region. Bonsu was born in Kumase on October 22,
1900. His father was a drummer and a carver, and Bonsu was introduced
to both at a young age. When he was in his teens, several chiefs from
many parts of the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) commissioned works from
him. These works were highly mature for so young a sculptor. Beginning
in 1920, Bonsu, his older brother and his father were hired by the British
anthropologist Captain R. S. Rattray as his interpreters for Akan cultural
matters and traveled with him throughout many parts of Asante land. In
1924, when Bonsus father and brother journeyed to England for the
British Empire Exhibition, Bonsu remained home and continued to receive
many important commissions from chiefs throughout the region. He taught
carving at several colonial schools between 1933 and 1956, continuing
to carve for the court during that time.
During his lifetime, Bonsu was the chief carver to three asantehene. However,
for reasons still unclear, Bonsu fell from favor during the Nkrumah administration
and was imprisoned from 1960 until the February 1966 coup. During his
confinement he did not sculpt. Six months after his release, he began
teaching at the University of Science and Technology in Kumase where he
worked until the spring of 1976. In 1975, he traveled to the United States
for the Festival of American Folklife at the Smithsonian Institution.
The next summer, he visited the United States again and spent the summer
traveling across the country, sharing his art with dignitaries in Denver,
Los Angeles and Honolulu. He returned to Kumase in September 1976 where
he spent the last months of his life. Bonsu remained a prolific carver
until his death in March 1977.
1. Objective: Recognizing representational and design elements
Have students identify the relief elements on the drum.
2. Objective: Designing a musical instrument
This drum incorporates an elephant. Many African drums as well as other
instruments incorporate figurative elements such male figures or mother-
and-child figures. Ask students to design and draw a musical instrument
that incorporates a human figure or an animal.
1. Objective: Creative writing
Skills: Ability to develop an imaginative story based
Works of art are frequently exchanged, sold or even removed from their
originating culture. Have students write an imaginary tale of how this
instrument came to the National Museum of African Art. Share your stories
with us; send to email@example.com or fax to 202-357-4879.
2. Objective: Understanding symbolism
Skills: Cross-cultural comparisons
The elephant is very significant in many cultures. Among the Asante peoples
the elephant is a symbol of fertility and power. Have students investigate
elephant symbolism in European, Asian and other African cultures.
3. Objective: Learning about Ghana
The Asante peoples live in a country called Ghana; its colonial name was
Gold Coast. Using library resources, current newspapers and the Internet
have students collect current and historical information about Ghana.
They may use poster boards to display images and texts about Ghana that
include information about the climate, geography, peoples, religions,
economy, government and cultural life. For example, the current Secretary-General
of the United Nations is a Ghanaian by the name of Kofi Annan.
1. Objective: Document different types of African drums
There are many different types of drums that are played in Africa. Have
students find images of a variety of African drums and display them on
a bulletin board. Each image should be accompanied by a written text that
explains the drums differences.
2. Objective: Documenting urban street music
Skills: Research, writing
In many American cities, young boys entertain passersby with inventive
complex rhythms they play on makeshift percussion instruments. Have students
prepare a presentation, which includes sample recordings of music, interviews
and photographs of the musicians. Have students work in small groups to
collect audio recordings of street musicians performing. Encourage them
to interview the musicians about their instruments and the inspiration
of their music. Photograph the musicians performance. Be sure that
students gain permission from the musicians to do this research.
For further reading
DjeDje, Jacqueline C., Ed., 1999. Turn up the Volume! A Celebration of
African Music. Los Angeles, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Ross, Doran, 1984. The Art of Osei Bonsu, in African Arts,
vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 28, 40, 90.
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