Staging Ghana: Artistry and Nationalism in State Dance Ensembles

Staging Ghana: Artistry and Nationalism in State Dance Ensembles

by Paul Schauert


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253017420
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 09/07/2015
Series: Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Paul Schauert is a lecturer in Ethnomusicology at Oakland University (Michigan).

Read an Excerpt

Staging Ghana

Artistry and Nationalism in State Dance Ensembles

By Paul Schauert

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Paul W. Schauert
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01749-9


Beyond Ethnicity, beyond Ghana

Staging and Embodying African Personality


As the guitar on a recording by Senegalese Afro-pop star Youssou N'Dour sounded a cheerful melody, six female dancers, one by one, skipped onto the stage of the National Theatre of Ghana. Clad in the red, gold, green, and black of the Ghanaian flag, they swung their large calabashes as they moved to their positions in a semicircle at the back of the stage. They began a refrain of unison movements, collecting imaginary water as they moved their calabashes with ease. They continued this playful sequence as a male dancer entered from stage left, performing a series of elegant gestures and acrobatic rolls. Two more dancers quickly followed, all dressed in costumes that streamed with the colorful symbolism of the Ghanaian flag. They paused as two more dancers entered from backstage, performing, in unison, a series of fluid gestures, spins, and stretches. The audience, comprising Ghana's president J. A. Kufuor, a host of government officials, and an assortment of local teachers and schoolchildren, all watched quietly as the five male dancers came together. They began a complex series of contemporary dance movements in close proximity, blurring the boundaries between them. Three dancers exited the stage, leaving a pair of dancers to perform a short duet as the female dancers continued their refrain. The duet included a combination of counterpoint and unison, leaps and lifts. After mirroring each other's movements, one leapt into the other's arms. They displayed their strength as they balanced in a statuesque form. The female dancers, still gesturing with their colorful calabashes, moved forward and consolidated behind the male figures. The male dancers triumphantly stretched out their arms as the dancers continued to close in, forming a mass of moving bodies as the audience applauded.

Suddenly the female dancers scattered offstage, and a new song played on the speakers. "Africa oh!" the chorus sang, while performers quickly scurried to their positions for the second movement of this dance suite. The dancers formed groups of four, three males fronted by a female. Moving in rhythmic harmony, they made their way forward while gesturing and turning. After a few movements and brief pauses, the male dancers broke away to form a tight mass in the center of the stage. Looking left, looking right, leaping, rolling, and bending forward and back all in unison, they embodied social solidarity. Subsequently, they quickly ran offstage, and the audience applauded.

A moment later, two females came to the back of center stage. The curtain behind them slowly opened to reveal a giant three-dimensional map of Ghana with a framework outlining the various regions of the country. As the map became recognizable to the audience members, they cheered. Several male dancers then dutifully walked in a line onto the stage, each carrying a large, colorful cardboard object that resembled a particular region of the country/map. They paraded the regions of Ghana around the stage before bringing their pieces to the map. One by one, the dancers inserted the pieces into the appropriate positions. As the map was filling in, applause started to build, and as the final piece was hoisted into place, the audience let out whistles, thunderous claps, and yells of joy and approval. The dancers, male and female, then united in front of the map, bobbing to the musical refrain "Africa, Africa, Africa, eh!" Fanning out across the stage, they danced, combining movements from the various Ghanaian regions that were represented in the multicolored map behind them. In unison, a pair of dancers leapt into the arms of their respective partners and posed for the final time as the singer let out a climactic "Africa!" (PURL 1.1).

This choreography was an original artistic work performed ceremoniously by the Ghana Dance Ensemble during the nation's Golden Jubilee anniversary. On April 11, 2007, the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sports (MOESS) launched "Education Reform 2007." To give cultural expression to this political action, the MOESS called upon the national dance company to perform a piece that would "unify the country around education reform." As I watched the performance I was reminded that, as education must be reformed and updated to suit the present, so too must nationalism be reshaped to resonate with contemporary times. This particular educational reform aligned Ghana's public schools with the grade level system of the United States. As such, while departing from the previous British model, Ghana maintained connections to the West. The dance, however, reaffirmed Ghana's national identity and connection with Africa. State officials and organizers of this event were exploiting the power of music and dance to "integrate the affective and identity-forming potentials of both icons and indices in special ways" that often are "central resource[s] in events and propaganda aimed at creating social unity, participation, and purpose" (Turino 1999, 236). The icons and indices of each region of the map could also be associated with particular ethnic or language groups within Ghana. Thus, as the "geo-ethnic" pieces of the map came together and the dancers moved in rhythmic unison amid the Afro-pop musical chants of "Africa," the ensemble signified both Ghanaian and transnational unity; the performance produced an emotional outburst from the crowd of Ghanaians, indicating that these individuals were perhaps simultaneously appreciating the achievements of their nation and continent.

Five decades after Ghana's independence, this ensemble continued to reinforce national and transnational solidarity, staging unity by propagating Kwame Nkrumah's notions of African Personality and Pan-Africanism. Exploring the emergence, institutionalization, performance, and embodiment of these ideological principles, this chapter not only provides a historical and analytical foundation for this ethnography but also moves into more recent times as it reveals components of the cosmopolitan political matrix that have continued to impact the representation of culture and the lived experiences of participants within Ghana's state dance ensembles. Focusing on the ways in which these performers go "beyond ethnicity" and "beyond Ghana," it illustrates the individual managing of ethnic, national, and Pan-African identities as artists use the practices and logics of nationalism to construct senses of self and pursue self-improvement.


As a young man growing up in the Western Region of the Gold Coast, Kwame Nkrumah excelled at scholastics, and in 1926, at the age of seventeen, he entered the Achimota Training College, located near Accra. It was through his studies at Achimota, over the course of four years, that Nkrumah developed a deep passion for the ideas of cultural nationalism, Pan-Africanism, political national movements, and the liberation of the Gold Coast (Botwe-Asamoah 2005, 3). Notably, it was at Achimota, where he was exposed to a variety of performing arts from several ethnic groups in the Gold Coast, including plays and dancing from Ga, Ewe, Asante, and various northern groups, that the seeds were planted for his later refinement of Ghanaian cultural nationalism. Cultural programming was a significant part of the curriculum at Achimota, because while it aimed to produce African elites who were Western in their intellectual orientation, it encouraged its students to retain links to "tribal life, custom, rule, and law" (Achimota College 1932, 14), which colonial officials predicted would better facilitate indirect rule. This hybrid of Western and African ideas and cultural practices was carried through to Nkrumah's later interpretation and implementation of African Personality.

While at Achimota, Nkrumah was primarily mentored by one of its founders, Dr. Kwagyir Aggrey, who encouraged his students to study well the lessons of the past in order to overcome colonial rule in Africa. Emulating other Pan-African pioneers he had learned about through Aggrey, such as Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois (S. Taylor 1994, 87), Nkrumah took his professor's advice and studied in the United States and Britain. At Lincoln University in the United States, Nkrumah received bachelor of arts degrees in theology, economics, and sociology. Later he obtained a master of science degree in education and a master of arts degree in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

Subsequently, Nkrumah left for Britain, where his excellence in education granted him an appointment on the organizational committee of the Fifth Pan-African Congress meeting held in October 1945. At this conference, Nkrumah stated, "A definite plan of action was agreed upon" with the "fundamental purpose of ... national independence leading to African unity" (1963, 135). Realizing this ideal became the primary aim for the remainder of Nkrumah's life as he joined other African leaders in an attempt to elevate Africa to a position of an influential world power. Nkrumah proclaimed that "a Union of African States will raise the dignity of Africa and strengthen its impact on world affairs. It will make possible the full expression of the African Personality" (ibid., 174–75).

Emerging from his interpretation of African Personality, Nkrumah viewed the attainment of national independence as the first measure toward the restitution of African humanity. By way of numerous political maneuvers (see B. Davidson 1989) enacted through his Convention People's Party, Nkrumah led Ghana to its official independence on March 6, 1957. At midnight on this date, Nkrumah gave the most notable speech of his life. That evening, he told the thousands of Ghanaians assembled at Independence Square in Accra, "We are going to demonstrate to the world, to other nations, that we are prepared to lay down our own foundation – our own African identity. ... We are going to create our own African Personality" (1957).

Attempting to put these words into action while president of the newly created nation of Ghana, Nkrumah's cultural policies were guided by his philosophical notions of African Personality:

African personality is merely a term expressing cultural and social bonds which unite Africans and peoples of African descent. It is a concept of the African nation, and is not associated with a particular state, language, religion, political system or color of the skin. For those who project it, it expresses identification not only with an African historical past, but with the struggle of the African people in the African Revolution to liberate and unify the continent and to build a just society. (1973, 205)

In other words, African Personality simultaneously encompassed many forms of nationalism and transnationalism as it created communities based on culture, territory, ideology, and language. In particular, Nkrumah's concepts position him as a "cultural nationalist," because his philosophies imply that the essence of a nation is its distinct culture. This conception stems from the Herderian idea that "humanity is endowed with a creative force which endows all things with individuality – nations are organic beings, living personalities" (Hutchinson 1987, 12) – and in Nkrumah's formulation, African personalities. Like many of his contemporaries (most notably, Léopold Sédar Senghor), Nkrumah subscribed to the notion that nations and national identity could be constructed and should be built on a foundation of cultural practices.

As Robert July argues, African Personality is also a form of cultural liberation of Africa from the West that attempts to reassert and interject African modes of expression, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy, and art into the world (1987; cf. Botwe-Asamoah 2005). Although Ghana had achieved political independence in 1957, it had a long road to travel in order to reach the ambitions of African Personality. Namely, as Kwame Botwe-Asamoah remarks, African Personality acknowledged that "a level of solidarity [and] the mere sovereignty of a nation did not ensure a cultural independence," and it was not faithful "unless it was rooted in African people's historical and cultural experiences" (2005, 71). Hence, before exporting African Personality to the world, Nkrumah had to first decolonize the culture of his nation by utilizing African-centered approaches to policy formation.

Achieving this cultural independence, Nkrumah knew, was essential to the political and economic independence of Ghana and the rest of the continent. As July notes, however, there had to first be an "intellectual decolonization" before traditional African values could be revived and then allowed to adapt to the environment of modernity (1987, 19). Nkrumah ascribed to the notion that indigenous elements may provide the "firmest foundation for building economically healthy, politically autonomous, and physically secure African societies" (ibid., x). Yet, as July shows, Western cultural practices were so "deeply imbedded" in African life that the leaders of independence movements could not reject them entirely; neither did African leaders naively appeal to a romanticized African past. Rather, in many instances they combined Western and African practices to reinvent traditions to suit Africa's interpretations of modernity (ibid., x). Despite concerns that "[Africa may be] degenerating into a collection of client states and economic satellites guided by an adulterant version of Western civilization ill adapted to the African environment" (ibid., x), the methodology of merging Western and African practices continued to be Nkrumah's approach to the cultural liberation of Ghana and, in turn, to his policies directed at the arts throughout his presidency.

In short, revealing nationalism's cosmopolitan character, the global and the local coalesced to shape this cultural phenomenon in Ghana. The ideas of nation-state and colonial rule, which were imposed on Africans, had to be countered, in part, on their own (Western) terms, but also in ways that resonated with local Africans. The mobilization of indigenous cultural forms, Nkrumah asserted, was the most productive way to consolidate and galvanize African populations to create a distinct and viable African nationalism. Yet Western practices and ideas were not wholly discarded but reconfigured in African-centered ways. African Personality and Pan-Africanism were the expressions of such a form of nationalism. As part of Nkrumah's National Theatre Movement, which sought to institutionalize the cultural arts of Ghana, the GDE became a central platform for the realization and dissemination of these nationalistic ideologies. The following section briefly outlines the struggles of Nkrumah and others as they mediated colonialism and its remnants to create a space for African Personality and the GDE to flourish in Ghana.


Nkrumah was a cultural nationalist and as such recognized the importance of the arts in building a strong unified nation. He attempted to harness this artistic power by creating various institutional bodies, which he anticipated would ensure that the arts were directed according to his philosophical principles. There were signs of a movement toward institutionalization and incorporating the arts into a national agenda starting in the mid-1950s. For instance, as Nkrumah became the leader of government business in 1951, an indigenous arts organization – the Asante Arts Council – was established by Dr. Yaw Kyeremateng (Botwe-Asamoah 2005, 181); it set out to preserve traditional culture that many Ghanaians perceived was "suffering from foreign adulteration and possible annihilation" (Okyerema 1995, 5). This institution was later subsumed by the Kumasi Municipal Council in 1954 to promote the artistic aspirations of the Asante nation.


Excerpted from Staging Ghana by Paul Schauert. Copyright © 2015 Paul W. Schauert. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

List of PURL Audio and Video Files
Introduction: Crossing Crocodiles and Staging Ethnography
1. Beyond Ethnicity, Beyond Ghana: Staging and Embodying African Personality
2. Dancing Essences: Sensational Staging and the Cosmopolitan Politics of Authentication
3. Soldiers of Culture: Discipline, Artistry, and Alternative Education
4. Speak to the Wind: Staging the State and Performing Indirection
5. "We are the Originals!": A Tale of Two Troupes and the Birth of Contemporary Dance in Ghana
6. Politics of Personality: Creativity, Competition, and Self-Expression within a Unitary Matrix
Conclusion: Dancing Between Self, State, and Nation
References and Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Rutgers University - Cati Coe

I have long thought that a book on the Ghana Dance Ensemble should be written. Paul Schauert's argument that nationalism becomes a resource in the performances of individual artists is strong and coherent.

University of Oregon - Lisa Gilman

Paul Schauert's attention to the intricacies of individual motives for participation, the troupe's objectives in relationship to the nationalist project, and the role of economic reward add an important dimension to scholarly understanding of institutionalized music and dance practices in African countries.

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