Guy Warren Ghanaba: The Divine Drummer

BY: Yaw Owusu-Frempong
Ghanaba was one of the most celebrated drummers in the 20th century
Ghanaba was one of the most celebrated drummers in the 20th century

One of the most celebrated drummers of the 20th century was Guy Warren of Ghana, also known as Kofi Ghanaba. He was born Warren Gamaliel Kpakpo Akwei in Accra in the then Gold Coast to Richard Mabuo Akwei, founder of the Ghana National School and Susana Awula Aba Moore, 96 years ago on May 4, 1923.

He was named after Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States. In 1943, he changed his name to Guy Warren while he was in the United States and became Guy Warren of Ghana. Later, he changed his name to “Ghanaba” on July 1, 1974 Ghana’s Republic Day. He died in December 2008 aged 85.

The Unsung Hero

“He was a great jazz drummer and a player of traditional Ghanaian (African) percussion instruments; the inventor of Afro-jazz; a unique and radical figure in African music. He was among the earliest African musicians to exert an influence on world music – a bold achievement for a musician who was so far out in front of his own time and audience that his presence was barely perceived by most of his colleagues” Bruce Elder wrote in 1975.

Ghanaba was so far ahead of what we were all doing” said the legendary jazz drummer, Max Roach later, “that in order for African American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilize with its African origin. We ignored him”.

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The Drum and Communication

The communication dimension of the drum cannot be over-emphasised in an age when there were no television, radio, the Internet and mobile phones. In many Akan societies, the drum was used not only for music and dance but also to communicate.

When we were growing up, it was common to hear the sound of the drum on the farm miles away from the village. My illiterate mother understood the language of the drum and whenever she heard the fast rhythmic pace of the asafo drum, she would tell me, Yaw, let’s hurry up and go home because there is some danger in the village. If she heard the single, loud thump of the duakro with long intervals, she would tell me there was death in the royal family.

In Virginia, USA, the white slave masters were so terrified and frightened by the sound of the drum that it was banned because they viewed it as an instrument of rebellion or insurrection.

The drum has been used over the years to produce musical sounds in many societies in Africa and is a symbol of power in many African societies. Drummers have high status and the position of a master drummer is often inherited. Sons of master drummers are taught their skills at an early age and spend their entire lives perfecting their art.

Drums are basic to African orchestra and they come in different sizes and shapes.  Some drums have fixed pitch and others can be tuned. Contrasting pitches are necessary to every good orchestra. Therefore, drums of different sizes and pitches are used together in drum batteries to produce a unique sound that is distinctively African.

The sound of a drum, to the traditional African people, may be described as the vehicle for articulating an abstract idea in concrete form (i.e., for communicating “thought” as matter).

Fundamental traditional African belief holds that sound is evocative, that is, it has mystical powers which can be used to evoke psychic forces of tremendous potency; powers which, for example, can be used time and again to produce tangible results through chant and incantations.

Drum Music

According to the Nigerian musician, composer and writer, Fela Sowande, music is the organisation of the raw material of sound into formal and structural patterns that are meaningful and generally acceptable to that society in which the organisation has taken place; pattern that relate directly and in a most intimate manner to the world-view and the life-experience of that society viewed as a homogenous whole, and are accepted as such by that society.

What Sowande is saying in essence is that for a group of people to recognise organised sound pattern as music, it must have specific meaning to it. A chanter who praises an important personality in the community or a drummer who drums in praise of a deity always makes sure that the melody corresponds with the tonal inflection of the words used to evoke the spirit of a deity or recant the deeds of a past hero or king.

It is clear from these beliefs that sound manifestation has much broader scope to the African people and people of African descent than the superficial meaning often attached to it in the West. In African societies, the textual contents of traditional music in particular are not just mere words but words that have mystical potency and can be used in many practical ways to produce concrete observable results. The sound of the drum in combination with other instruments can evoke laughter, joy, admiration, dance, love, tears, etc.

Ghanaba—The Divine Drummer

Drumming has developed over the centuries to be a powerful art form and is commonly viewed as the root of music. As a discipline, drumming concentrates on training the body to punctuate, convey and interpret musical rhythmic intention to an audience and to the performer e.g. a kinaesthetic dancer, a conductor of orchestra, etc.

 A drummer in the Western musical tradition is a percussionist who creates and accompanies music using drums. Most Western contemporary ensembles and bands for pop, jazz, R&B, etc. include a drummer for purposes including time-keeping and embellishing the musical timbre. 

The drummer in the traditional village of the African society along with the village sage, however, is a repository of historical data relating to ancestry and heritage. The drummer traces the lineage and recants the deeds of the ancestors and past kings.

Drums and drumming may have come into Europe in the times of the Iberians who originated from Africa. According to one source:  “it is possibly an inheritance of the Iberians who were of Hamitic, North African origin.

No element of African musical tradition has been more dominant than the rhythm. Indeed, no musical form and influence have had greater impact on world music and, especially, American music than those of African origin.  Jazz music, America’s only original music has its roots in West Africa. The symbol of rhythmic heritage in Africa is the sound of the drum.

Drumming is an ancestral tradition long central to any concept of African music.  And no one exemplified and understood this rhythmic heritage of Africa better than Guy Warren, Ghanaba –The Divine Drummer.

Despite his achievements and contribution to the promotion of culture, music and drumming in Ghana and the United States, little is known and said about this great Ga-Adangme creative icon. The country has not done enough to immortalise the Divine Drummer. Ghanaba continues to be un-heard of, unknown, and un-recognised in the creative arts circles in Ghana. 

The Coltrane Jazz Club in Adenta, Accra, will on Saturday, June 1, 2019, host a memorial lecture dubbed, “Ghanaba’s Contribution To Jazz and World Music” at 7:30 p.m. Naya and His Quartet will perform as well as a screening of a documentary on Ghanaba by Nii Kwate Owoo.


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