October 27th, 2009
Cape Coast, Ghana
They call her Shark. “Heya Shark” they scream as we drive through downtown Cape Coast with the windows rolled down, Ghanaian radio blaring from the speakers. “yo, yo, yo” she shouts back with a deep tone, thrusting her hand out the window as she waves to her fans. She turns to me in the passenger seat, “they call me SHARK.” I look at her and laugh. I can see why they call her shark, but I ask her anyway so as not to seem presumptuous. “Sharks represent strength and power, but not everyone wants to get in the water and swim with them,” a smirk appearing across her face.
She wasn’t always a shark. But as Ghana’s only female master drummer to date, her defenses are portrayed as dangerous, powerful, and sleek…shark-like. The first woman in Ghana to attempt to fight the cultural taboo, forbidding women to play the drums, Antoinette Adwoa Kudoto has managed to stake her claim in the drumming realm of Ghana, and is truly a master of the art.
We arrive at the beachfront where a group of fifteen Ghanaian youth await the Sharks arrival. Smiles on their faces, they hold out their hand to hive-five her as they greet her, “Hello Mother, Good Afternoon Ma.” Their drums and sticks, bells and shakers, line the performance space as the children prepare for their daily rehearsal. The break of the ocean can be heard in the distance, slave castles line the waterfront, and the children begin to dance. The shark takes her seat, two men to her right, two men to her left, two young boys on either end, and she begins. Gung-go-do, Gung-go-do. She pounds the animal-skin with force, determination, energy, and passion. The children dance to the beats, their sculpted arms moving to the rhythms, their feet moving in unison as Ghana’s only female master drummer shouts to them, “Left, Right. Yes, good!”
Most of them are street children, abandoned by their families, orphaned, forced to sell on the streets, many lacking education. They come to Antoinette as children, to be trained in the art of traditional drumming and dancing. It becomes their outlet from their daily hardships and as they drum and dance together their energies are directed towards letting go of their emotional distress.
Antoinette’s troupe has become accustomed to her roaring cackle. Monday through Friday, the music from the evening rehearsals echoes throughout Cape Coast town, along with pangs of laughter and song. At the end of each day the children seem to be filled with a glowing light and energy. For those three hours in time they are transported to a place void of pain. They close their eyes and sway to the rhythms, enjoying their youth once again for a small moment in time.
Over the years, Antoinette has managed to affect each and every child in the group. When they are hungry she feeds them, when they are scared she comforts them, when they are sad she wipes their tears. These maternal qualities are only a part of Antoinette’s mission. At the same time she is a woman leading a group of children in a traditionally male-dominated field. She has begun to instill traditions in the youth, traditions she has managed to change within the boundaries of culture. Using her drum to speak to these children, Antoinette is demonstrating to them that they must not give up hope. If she was able to overcome such a harsh traditional taboo, so too can they overcome anything.
Antoinette and I walk across the beach. Her smile stretches from ear to ear as she lets down her defenses. “My life has been very hard as a woman drummer. So I’ve learned to build up a defense.” She seems serious for a moment, and then begins to laugh once again. Despite a life filled with adversity, Antoinette has proven that individuals can create change. Forty years back, when women were forbidden to touch the animal skin of a drum, a five-year-old Antoinette was dreaming of rhythms and tapping her hands on the desktop. Today you can find her performing at funerals, festivals, and every weekday, laughing with her children on the beach.
A shark she is, but underneath that layer of protection remains that same five-year-old Antoinette, who laughs and dances, smiles and sings, because deep down she knows, she has won.
“As people we are all able to be who we want to be and do what we want to do. We just need to find that drumbeat inside us all that will enable our individual selves to break free.” – Antoinette Adwoa Kudoto, 2001