For almost ten weeks now, a group of devotees of song at Wheta Gbota in the Ketu North District of the Volta Region, has been gathering for three hours every night to pay homage to the spirit of song.
Consequently, members of the Haikotu Drum Ensemble of Wheta Gbota are preparing themselves for a rare tradition in the arts — Heno/Azaguno Dzidzi: a poetic search for the soul of a departed poet-cantor (Heno or Hesino: “Mother of Song”) and master drummer (Azaguno).
The last time they performed such a ritual was almost half-a-century ago, for Hesino Kligu Yortuvor, lead poet-cantor for the group, when it was founded. Many have wondered whether it would ever happen again in their life time.
But now, with the death of Dumega Kodzovi Anyidoho, the Haikotu drum is ready to sound once more to a harvest of songs for the celebration of the spirit of poetry and song. Kodzovi Nugbegble, as he was popularly called, was the last great Azaguno (master drummer) and Heno (poet-cantor) of his generation.
Those to whom he gave birth in drum and song, feel it is an ancestral duty to celebrate his life as a mother artist, and in doing so, pay homage to the soul of drum and song and dance.
As I sat among the Haikotuviawo a few nights ago in a long hakpa (song practice) session, I could feel the rising excitement and anticipation and even anxiety while they moved through one old song to another, occasionally fumbling with sections of the longer ones.
But the real joy was to listen to them raise their voice in harmony over three new songs, specially composed for Kodzovi Nugbegble by younger poet-cantors, who are ready to take up from where the older composer has left off.
Indeed, that is one of the main reasons for this elaborate memorial in drum and song and dance for the departed master drummer and poet-cantor. The loss of an elder great artist creates an opportunity for the emergence of a younger gifted one.
There was a special kind of joy and awe on all faces in the semi-darkness when I played back to them a 2001 recording of a Haikotu song performed at the funeral of Dumega Kpodo Yortuwo, led by the now departed two great poet-cantors, Agbodzi Yortuwor, alias Thousand-Thousand, and Kodzovi Anyidoho, alias Nugbegble.
Nugbegble’s voice broke into the muffled background sounds and rose deep with a touch of longing and sorrow for an older master-drummer Azaguno Nomu. Two members of the group stood up, took a few carefully measured nostalgic dance steps, broke off with one leg in mid-air, then stepped back to their seats. Someone remarked: “Did you note the confidence with which they carried their voices? And the women, did you hear the clarity in their voices? Henoawo fe gbe vava! (The voice of the poet-cantors, indeed!”
On Wednesday, August 5, the Haikotu Drum Ensemble sent a special emissary to selected neighbouring towns: Abolove-Noloƒi, Anlo-Afidadenyigba, Tsavanya, and Klikor, carrying a ?uƒotsi (drum stick) and a Lashi (horse tail flywhisk), symbols for the Azaguno and Heno.
At each stop, the emissary presented these symbols as a formal notice from the Haikotu drum ensemble, declaring their resolve to descend on the host community during their impending search for their lost Azaguno and Henoga Kodzovi Nugbegble. A copy of the deceased’s funeral poster was formally presented to confirm the identity of the Azaguno and Hesino they are searching for. This ritual is known as ouƒotsi mama (for Azaguno) or Lashi mama (for Hesino). Kodzovi Nugbegble was both Azaguno and Hesino.
On Thursday, August 13, two days before the date of burial and final funeral rites, the Haikotu group will stage the most important enactment in their poetic search for the soul of the departed Azagun? and Heno.
The whole day will be devoted to a performance tour that will take them first to Aboloe-Noloƒi, then to Anlo-Afiadenyigba, to Tsavanya, and to Klikor. The performance at each stop will be built around a dramatic moment when a spokesperson for the group will announce the reason for their visit: the sudden disappearance of Azaguno and Henoga Kodzovi Nugbegble and reliable information that he may be hiding with a relative in this town.
A spokesperson for the hosts in Abolove-Noloƒi will assure the visitors that Kodzovi Nugbegble has, indeed, been with Togbi Dzisam for a few days, but left this very dawn to Afiadenyigba to visit his old friend Eha.
They will discover in Afiadenyigba that he has just left for Tsavanya; and in Tsavanya, they will be told he left an hour ago to visit Togbi Addo and Togbi Nuwordu in Klikor. In Klikor, they will be assured that Nugbegble is on his way back to Wheta, using the short cut through the bush along the cemetery.
These elaborate enactments move into a climax on August 15, 2015, the date of the burial and final funeral rites. The Haikotu ensemble will begin at dawn with a ceremonial processional, from outskirts of town, moving through all the other four divisions (Tokoawo) of Wheta—Tsavi, Anyigbe, Ashiyo and Afegame, finally converging at the funeral grounds in Gbota.
There will be a special farewell ritual in drum and song and dance, directly addressed to their departed elder colleague now lying in state. Then the group will settle down at a chosen spot for a long valedictory performance for most of the day.
In all these enactments, the new songs specially composed in honour of the departed Heno or Hadada will be given special prominence. Indeed, when the mother of song dies, it is song that buries her. And the death of one song-bird must see the birth of a new song star.
I salute the Haikotuviawo, under the inspiring leadership of Hanua Besa Kafa Fomenya, for their total devotion to the spirit of drum and song and dance, for the rare honour they have done to Kodzovi Nugbegblematekpe, the man who brought me up and sent me to school, who also guided me into the mysteries and the enduring power of song. Several years ago, Kodzovi Nugbegblematekpe lamented over the possibility of the death of the Haikotu tradition itself.
He feared that with the passing of Atsu Adzima, Agbodzi Yortuwor and himself, the Haiotu Drum was certain to go silent, forever. He is the last of them to go.
And you have proved him wrong.