Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seprewa Kasa

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the relationship between popular and
traditional music in Ghana is the way in which the “highlife guitar” and the Akan harp called
seprewa are connected. With the introduction of the European guitar to Ghana, the very style
and technique of seprewa playing were “transferred” onto the guitar. In other words, as turn of
the century seprewa players began to interpret their own traditional music on the European
guitar, a uniquely Ghanaian guitarism emerged.

Similar to the well-known bridge harp kora of Mali and the Senegambia, the seprewa is
played against the torso, with both hands used to pluck two parallel sides of stacked strings.
These strings run from a bent piece of wood to a bridge sitting atop a wooden box with goatskin
stretched over the top . While the earliest constructions of the seprewa had only
six strings , newer varieties may have 8, 10, 12, or even more.

Osei Kwame Korankye, one of Ghana’s foremost seprewa players, has done a great deal
to re-popularize the seprewa by starting schools and teaching at the University of Ghana,
collaborating with highlife musicians, performing at national events, and doing academic
research. According to Osei and other scholars, the seprewa was captured by the Asante empire
in the 1700s as part of the spoils of war upon the defeat of Gyaaman, an Akan state in presentday Côte d’Ivoire. According to a story told by Osei, Asante soldiers discovered an injured man
with one leg clutching an unusual instrument, the seprewa. Upon hearing this instrument played,
the soldiers decided to bring the man back to the king of Asante, the Asantehene (Osei Tutu the
first). Osei Tutu enjoyed this instrument so much that the injured man was appointed a court
musician, and the seprewa became a royal instrument used to deliver appellations and praises.
This praise function relates to the meaning of the name “seprewa,” a composite of three Twi
words: Se (speak), Pre (touch), and Wa (small). In other words, “this small instrument can speak
when it is touched” (Osei Korankye, personal communication). Like the Asante atumpan drums,
the seprewa is literally able to speak by imitating the tonal contours of the Twi language.
Proverbs, praises, and appellations may be “spoken” in this way by the seprewa player. At the
same time, the seprewa player may also sing in a declamatory, quasi-recitative style as he
delivers praises or proverbs and recites appellations.

by William Matczynski

for many perfect summer evenings

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