THE “JERA” DANCE
Intertwined with enigmatic sounds, the rhythms and movements draw a certain potency in dance that stimulates the viewer. The historical background of the Jera Dance is obscure, deep and mysterious. The origin traces back to the days of hunting expeditions (of the Kparibas in Dagbon) where one particular hunter called Nanja’s remedy to a confrontation in the forest by an ill omen (a group of dwarfs) will set the mystic movements. The beautiful dance of Jera emanated to be performed as a ritual when returning from hunting trips to drive away evil, and later after midnights at the funerals of chiefs and elders. It is believed that on these occasions the mystical drums could sound without a drummer.
However, it is important to note that today, the Jera dance is decontextualized from its embedded African traditional antics and religious significance. It is performed at a myriad of social events and at all times of the day. Its performance illustrates the original connotations and it is able to connect the contemporary participants to their rich heritage from the anchorage of the dance to the ground to the spiritual amulets worn by the dancers.
As with most dances in Northern Ghana, the body of the dancers is ornamentally decorated with a waist belt called “yebsa” made with strands of cowries, metallic anklets and castanets. The dynamics of body movements in the Jera dance is vigorous with steady upper bodies, thrusting hips and tactical maneuvers of the legs with the tilting of the dancers altogether anticlockwise to the sound of the gun-gong and a handful of talking drummers.
The ornaments make synchronized sounds with the moving bodies adding another sonic dimension to the dance environment amidst the songs sang along.
Tora is among the oldest of the Dagomba drum stories. There came a time when a chief died having produced no sons, and they were forced to make a woman Yaa-naa. Another man who wanted the chieftaincy scared her out of the palace one night, forcing them to choose a new chief, and in accordance with his plan they chose him. The story of Tora is about the tragedy and misfortune that befell the man who violated tradition by scaring the Yaa-naa out of the palace to get the chieftaincy for himself.
The Dagomba people perform the Takai Dance. The Dagombas occupy an area of undulating grassland spotted with Shea-butter trees and a few hills. Their source of water is the White Volta, a tributary of the great Volta River, the largest river in Ghana. The main occupation of the traditional Dagomba, like most of the other people in the area is cattle, sheep, guinea fowl and goat rearing. They are also in the business of growing millet, rice and the production of she-butter. The impact of Islam and to a lesser degree, Christianity and the advent of independence brought about many changes into the social structure of the Dagomba. Today quite a sizeable number of Moslems and a few Christian exist among the Dagomba. However, the main religion, Wende, or Wuni allows individual Dagombas to keep their own private lesser gods, Noli , Wuni. Noli Wuni is subservient to a superior god, Bogli. Bogli therefore, represents a pantheon of all the lesser gods.
One of the most respected and visible cultural practices among the Dagomba, is the annual festival. The Damba festival is held in commemoration of the birth of the holy prophet, Mohammed, and the Nnumba, Mamprusi, Gonja and Wala ethnic and other ethnic groups in Northern Ghana, perform the naming of the holy prophet Mohammed. A widely travelled Naa Zangina who became Ya-Na around 1700AD introduced the Damba festival to the people of Northern Ghana. Arguably, the most prominent dance performed during the festival celebrated in August is the Takai. Takai performance comes at the climax of the festival. The dance is a blend of Islamic religious influences, reflected both the in the costume worn by the dancers and in the actual movements of the dance; and elements of the indigenous culture of the people.
Today, the original commemorative function of the Takai has expanded to cover funerals, weddings and other special occasions. The King, who usually serves the principal dancer, holds a white horse-tail in one hand and walking stick in the other to perform the main Damba movements. An entourage of men and women and follow him. Some of the women fan the King as he performs short, calculated simple steps on the first beat of the phrase in the music provided by an orchestra of donno and brekete drums. He usually finishes the step at the end of the phrase, with half turns to the right; and then to left. He may enhance the basic movements with the articulation of the large Bumaa (smock) he is wearing.
This billows out and twirls gracefully as he performs pivot and spin turns, punctuated with torso swings and feet stamps. He dances with his head bobbing with an air of contentment.
The men, dressed in the same fashion and each holding a short metal rod in the right hand, perform the group version of the Takai Dance. Each dancer at regular intervals, strikes his metal rod alternatively against that of the person in front of him, and then turns around to strike the person behind him. The entire performance usually takes place in a circular formation with drummers in the centre in spirited but controlled and dignified manner. Today some of these dancers may be men of ordinary background, but by virtue of their knowledge and ability, may perform the Takai.
The Takai consists of several distinct, but interrelated variations including the following: Damba
Damba: indicates the number of steps the dancers should take before a turn while striking the metal rods against that of their partners.
Takai: the dancer is required to activate the large pantaloon he is wearing by making a series of turns.
Normali Ya: in this variation the dancer is required to strike the empty space on the right before turning to strike the metal of the other dancer; come back and touch the ground and then goes back to strike.
Jera was originally a religious music and dance of the Kparibas in Dagbon, performed before and after hunting expeditions. It is now performed by most Dagbamba villages in Northern Ghana on diverse social occasions: festivals, funerals, and for recreation after a hard day’s work. The religious costume is however retained.
Baamaaya, meaning “The river (valley) is wet”, is the most popular social music and dance (recreational dance-drumming) among the inhabitants of Dagbon` of Northern Ghana. The history of this classic dance which started as a religious musical performance underscores the philosophy and culture of the Dagbamba/Dagomba towards women. Baamaaya now functions during funerals, festivals, and national day celebrations. From a processional dance-drumming that started slow and changed to fast tempo, Baamaaya has developed into a ceremony with at least nine distinct phases including Baamaaya Sochendi,, Sikolo, Kondoliya, Dakolikutooko, Abalimbee and others. Each of the phases has unique set of dance routines, movements and choreography. Instruments used include Gungon (a) master drum (s) – double headed cylindrical drum), Lunna (si), supporting drum(s) – hourglass shaped drums, Siyalim- container rattles and Wia- notched flute.
The Northern Region has a lot to offer in terms of tourism. Apart from the region’s vast array of attractions, the region can jealously boast many traditional dances, including “Bamaya ”.
Bamaya is one of the popular and most commonly performed dance during public events and functions in the Northern Region.
‘Bamaya’ is a Dagbani word which literally means ‘’the river or valley is wet’’. This dance is mostly done by men who are dressed in feminine outfits.
The Bamaya ensemble comprises a lead dancer, other dancers and drummers who also double as chorus singers and sing along with the dancers.
The movements in the dance are very symbolic in meaning. The dancers move their feet very swiftly and twist their waist many times as they dance round the drummers.
Their dancers’ waists and chins are tied with beads and cymbal bells that make noises as they shake and thump their feet while dancing.
Bamaya is performed with a chorus song supported with drums and flutes.
The sound of the drums and flutes dictate the dance movement. The leader picks and communicates the movement to the rest of the dancers.
Whether to dance slowly or swiftly depends on the rhythm of the drums and flutes.
When the dancers are about to leave the stage, each of them displays his own skills.
The story behind Bamaya is that the dance was first performed in the early 19th Century to mark an end to a protracted drought that hit most parts of the Dagbon states in the Northern Region.
Narrating the etymology of the dance to the Daily Graphic, the Northern Regional Administrator of the Centre for National Culture (CNC), Mr Abubakari Iddrisu Saeed, said oral tradition had it that there was a long spell of drought during which many animals and plants died.
He said the chief and his elders consulted an oracle located in a valley to inquire about what to do to bring rain.
Mr Saeed said the people believed that it was the gods who had held the rains from falling.
According to him, the oracle instructed them (chief and his elders) that for the drought to end, the men had to appease the gods of the land by wearing women’s apparel.
“The men had to dress like women to give thanks to the gods because it was believed that the prayers of women usually got a quicker response than those of men,” he stated.
Mr Saeed further said the gods also instructed them to sacrifice some animals in addition to the prescribed dress code.
Like Tɔra and Takai, Bamaaya has several segments, each with its own name, musical phrases, and dance movements. Bamaaya is not linked with the chiefs of Dagbon,
It started in a village named Zheng within the chieftaincy area of Nantoŋ, there was a time when the village was hit by drought and hunger when one of the only tubaani (Bambara beans, similar to chick peas) was the only foodstuffs that can be grown. Children, satisfied with full bellies after their evening meal, would jape about the compound with cornhusks full in their waistbands saying, “Tubaan’ kpinli,” meaning “bowl of tubaani beans.” For numerous days the grown-ups liked the children’s play up until one day an adult inquired them, “What are you doing?” The children did not response because the African politeness of the era spoke that children sometimes are not supposed to talk straight to adults. A wise elder who was old enough to be a grandfather started a joking relationship with the children and talked to them in secret. The children enlightened them that because their mothers had fed them nicely, their bellies were full so they felt happy.
Drummers were invited to play for the kids. This was the beginning of Mazhe whose gung-gong theme goes with the words Tubaan’ kpele (vocals: kaka kaki). The dance movement was modified from a dance called Jera. Instead of Jera’s belt of cowry shells, women used shells, beads and cotton to make colorful belts of pom-poms that drew attention to the dancersshimmying midsections.
Later, when rain had fallen and crops were harvested, creative adults adapted the children’s game into a full-fledged dance called Bamaaya. Among the lunga’s phrases is one that, “Rain has fallen. The ground has become soft.” [Lo means a swampy area, for example, a field where rice is farmed.] Bamaaya expressed the farmers’ happiness at a good harvest. The dance became popular among young men who enjoyed doing it on moonlight nights.
As year went by, dancers apparently began wearing increasingly outlandish costumes to amuse themselves and their audiences. Strikingly in the gender-specialized Afro-Islamic culture of the Dagomba, the Bamaaya costume suggests male cross-dressing. Some Dagombas teach that the Bamaaya costume stems from unethical conduct of men toward women. In this account, in order for the drought to end, men had to appease land gods by wearing women’s clothes. Alhaji reports that his teachers never mentioned this story and that he did not hear it during his youth when he enjoyed dancing Bamaaya. He doubts its credibility. Other Dagomba teachers suggest that Bamaaya frenetic motions derive from waving off mosquitoes by shaking hips and arms. This makes sense to me, given the story of origin, but Alhaji tends to downplay its significance.
In an arrangement taught by Alhaji, dancers come to the stage and form a circle in time to the relatively slow-paced music of Naa Daa. After moving through the more up-tempo sections, dancers go off stage with a return to the music of Bamaaya. In Bamaaya, Mazhe and Nyagboli dancers display their own creativity and style; they all utilize the same movement vocabulary but everyone is “doing their own thing,” so to speak. Dakɔli Kutoko is unique: dancers bump hips against their neighbors on the circle. This section pokes fun at unmarried males saying, “Bachelors cannot farm.” The message is that a farmer needs the manual labor of a big family in order to produce enough food to run a household.
The instrumentation in Bamaaya is unique among these materials: there is no part for answer lunga. Nyagboli in Bamaaya is slightly different from the way it is played in Tɔra and Takai.