The kete drum and bell ensemble is associated with the traditional chiefs of the Akan peoples of southern Ghana. The ownership of the kete ensemble is the domain of the Akan chieftains and performance of the ensemble is allowed only with permission of a chief. This type of ensemble is most frequently seen and heard in processions that form part of the elaborate funeral rites for Akan chiefs, but is also performed at funerals for other individuals with permission from a chief. The drums in kete ensembles are typically decorated in a red-and-black checkerboard pattern, which is either painted directly onto the drum shells or pieced together with patches of dyed cloth tacked onto the shells. Amongst the Akan, the colors of red and black are associated with funerals. While most chiefs today cannot afford to support full time music specialists in their palaces, most chiefs can still depend on certain families or villages under their authority to provide them with musicians on an as-needed basis.
The old kete tradition consists of three sections: drums, pipes, and vocals. However, the introduction of a central government and the accompanying reduction in the power and influence of the Akan chiefs has resulted in a reduction to only the drums in many cases. A notable exception to this change is the Asantehene, the head chief of the Akan region. The kete ensemble maintained at the court of the Asantehene includes pipes, vocals, and a large number of drums.
Kete performances, like most court music traditions, are structured and follow a traditional format depending on the occasion of the performance. A typical performance consists of eight pieces that coincide with specific rituals or moments within the funeral or event taking place. Kete also fulfills vital functions in the installment of a new chief. As part of the installment of a new chief, he is required to dance specific pieces before being presented to the regional chief.
The origin of the kete tradition and the instruments involved is an open question. The Akan people have three oral histories that explain the origin of the kete in various ways. The first story tells of super human creatures encountered on a hunting expedition. These creatures are honored by a piece (Abofoo) during all kete performances. The second story tells of a war against the Gyamang in which the piece Adinkrawas added to the performance of kete. The third story tells of a war with the Akyem. During a battle with this group all of the instruments in their kete ensemble were taken and adopted by the Ashante. While the kete ensemble remains to this day a component of Akan life and retains its primary association with traditional chiefs, in recent decades new social settings have emerged for this ensemble. In particular, some secondary and tertiary educational institutions possess a kete ensemble and provide performance instruction to present their students with an opportunity to learn about Akan drumming.
Ben teaching Kete at Residential in Kent 2016