If there is anything worth describing as a new development in the consciousness of the world today, it may be summed up in one word: globalisation—by which ethnocentrism and myopic or parochial world views or cosmologies are fast crumbling to make way for new all-embracing world views—thanks to Anthropology and other similar academic pursuits and the awareness that all human beings on our planet have a common destiny.
It is no wonder therefore that Voices is a world forum for music therapy and not a Nordic or European journal even if it is hosted and supported by a Nordic country. That is certainly an instance of globalisation.
Scholars of various disciplines and of diverse nationalities both within and outside Africa are coming out with findings which are paving the way for a review of entrenched mindsets so that today there are books on African philosophy (1998), African music, African religions etc. Some fifty years ago, any mention or reference to African history or African philosophy would have been scoffed at because of the negative prejudices created by such misguided philosophers as Hegel and Lévy-Bruhl among others.
There were also scholars of the opposite camp who tried to romanticise the unique attributes of J.J. Rousseau’s proverbial noble savage not corrupted by (Western) civilization by making all kinds of claims in support of African traditions.
Needless to say, there are still (currently) adherents of both past traditions. Amongst them are some Africans who are making unsubstantiated claims to esoteric African knowledge based on a few and often ethnocentric data which are then called "African" in contradistinction to Western/Oriental views. A recent case in point among many others is the claim by a West African Head of State to the effect that he can cure HIV aids within three days using African herbal concoctions. Such unguarded statements certainly do not benefit HIV patients.
Fortunately, music therapy is the use of music to aid an individual to recover from some form of ailment, be it a trauma, a psychological or neurotic ailment. Even the use of music to heal or correct physical conditions (similar to physiotherapy) is aimed at aiding the recovery of an individual
That hypothetical individual, whether s/he is handled individually or in a group therapy session is certainly a member of a social group; ethnic, cultural or racial and his/her identity cannot be isolated from the norms of the social group. So, therefore, the ethnic background of a person may be a useful index in an attempt to help such an individual with music(therapy). But paradoxically, this is where we should guard against making ethnocentric observations/prescriptions even for individuals with a common ethnic background—and this is precisely where generalisations which may want to refer to "African" trends or traditions should be cautiously made if they cannot be avoided.
Fortunately the fuss about there being no word in most African languages equivalent to "music" in the Western sense has subsided. It may still be of interest to such fussy people that there is no word or term for "music therapy" in many an African language. How then is music therapy delivered and who practices music therapy in traditional Africa. What concepts (or misconceptions) come into play in the delivery of music therapy? To answer these questions various participant observations were made followed by a chat with a traditional healer. The main points of the chat are presented in the following paragraphs:
Nana Kwadwo Komfo is a traditional healer resident in Koraso, a village 10 kilometres north of Berekum in the middle belt of Ghana, or 450 kilometres northwest of Accra, the capital. Nana, as all Akan traditional healers are called, reverentially, is literate and speaks both English and Akan, his mother tongue. Nana knows, in Wittgenstein’s terms (1985,TLP), that he uses music in his healing sessions. Traditional Akan musical instruments predominantly membranophones which feature in his sessions are conspicuous in his house.
Question: "There is currently a trend in Western health delivery called music therapy. Are you aware of this trend?"
Q.: "What similar or equivalent term do/would you give to this aspect of health delivery in Akan your mother tongue?"
N: "There is no specific term (cf. Plato) for it. It is just referred to as drumming/singing/dancing or let’s just say music-making."
Q: "What role does music-making play in your healing sessions?"
N: "It creates the mood for communication between the spirit world and the medium, i.e. the healer. As you are probably aware, in traditional medicine what is known to orthodox medical practice as diagnostics, meaning a laboratory investigation, does not exist. The spirits communicate the cause of the illness and the cure to the medium when he is possessed, and since music (drumming and singing) is the means through which we invite the spirits, you may understand what role music plays directly and indirectly in traditional healing."
Q: "Would you say then that the music is not for the patient but for the healer?"
N: "Yes, and no. No, because at some point in the course of the treatment a patient may be asked to participate in some singing or dancing; but that is certainly different from the music that is performed for the healer before he is possessed. So, yes, some music is meant only for the medium or healer and some other type of music may be meant for the patient."
Q: "There is an aspect of music therapy in the West which may best be described as physiotherapy through music. For example, a patient may be asked or encouraged to play note patterns on a musical instrument as a means of stimulating finger action. Although the patient makes or plays music in the process, the aim of the exercise is to activate the fingers. Do you have something in your healing sessions similar to that practice?"
N: "That is a good question; and for your information I have a patient here who is learning to walk again by dancing to drum music. You may interview him after our discussions."
Q: "Which other forms of treatment require the use of music?"
N: "As mentioned earlier, most of my prescriptions are recommended to me when I am possessed, and although I may have a repertoire of prescriptions from past sessions, I can not consider them as applicable to all situations. But let me also add that music-making alone does not heal my clients. It is music in aid of something: herbs, rituals, etc."
Q: "In current music therapy practice in the West, a doctor may refer a patient to the music therapy unit of a hospital if he thinks a condition needs music therapeutic intervention. Do you, or would you consider a situation in which you may refer a client to a musician or a music-making group outside your premises?"
N: "No, I must monitor what is happening to my client even when music is involved and I therefore have to be present. I would therefore not refer a client to outsiders. At best I may invite performers to my premises if need be."
Q: "One more question about the music you use: Ghana is a multicultural country with diverse music traditions. Do you ever use music other than music from the Akan tradition? In other words, would you ever consider it relevant to use music of other cultures in your sessions?"
Q: "Why not?"
N: "Just as communication between the spirit world and our world is via language which both spirit and medium share, the music used must also be appreciated or understood by both parties." (cf. Blacking)
Q: "Talking of understanding, you may have to explain further what happens between a medium and the spirit world, because certainly your utterances (when you are possessed and speak in strange tongues) are not intelligible to us."
N: "That is true; non-the-less, the music to which I respond is a common repertoire which spirits and medium share. Don’t forget that the spirits know by what means to communicate with their medium."
Q: "Let me take you back to something you mentioned earlier, namely, that music creates the mood for communication between the spirits and their medium, i.e. you. Must there always be music before possession?"
N: "There are times when possession takes place without music; but most of the times music must be present. It must also be said that sometimes it may take a long time of music-making before possession occurs whereas at other times possession may take place after a few minutes of music-making."
"Thank you very much for your time, Nana."
After the chat with Nana, the client who was responding to treatment at Nana’s premises was interviewed. He is a young man in his twenties and had travelled 50 kilometres to receive treatment. The young man told the interviewer that he could not walk when he arrived at Nana’s premises six weeks ago, but he felt much better and could now use his limbs. He demonstrated this to the author. He was sure he would be discharged after a few more days of treatment.
Although the author did not observe Nana’s client in a healing session, it is clear that Nana uses music as a therapeutic tool similar to what pertains elsewhere. On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are aspects of the use of music in healing in Africa which cannot as yet be explained. But this should not lead to any claims by some Africans writing about music therapy that they have such esoteric knowledge especially if they cannot justify or prove their claims. Any true scholar worth his salt must appreciate that the hallmark of a scholar is his/her ability to lay bare obscure facts that he unearths so that others may have access to such privileged knowledge.
Nana has assured the author that he is ready to answer further questions. Readers with questions may please leave such questions in the contributions/discussions columns for further action. Unfortunately Nana cannot be reached by telephone or e-mail.
Blacking, John (1969). The Value of Music in Human Experience. YBIFMC.
Coetzee, P. H.& A. P. J. Roux (1998). The African Philosophy Reader. Routledge.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1985). Werke, Band 8. Franfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Kofie, Nicholas N. (2007). Lest We Repeat Past Prejudices: Reflections on a Chat With a Traditional Healer. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 11, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colkofie260207