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Exotic and Exuberant

An outpost uses its instruments against hip-hop and reggae

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Benjamin Gedan
Globe Correspondent / August 8, 2004

KOPEYIA, Ghana -- The six drummers tuned with a series of impromptu whacks, but as they pounded out ''Gahu," an African love song, a nearby lizard rhythmically bobbed its head, chickens picked up the pace of their pecking, and a toddler broke into spontaneous dance.

When I took the sticks, my teachers silently winced. No singing. No yelping. Not even foot tapping.

That was all the enthusiasm I generated during my four-hour drum boot camp at the Dagbe Cultural Institute and Arts Centre in eastern Ghana, my performance leaving an impression only on my thighs, artistically bruised by the axatse, a beaded wooden rattle. Still, Emmanuel Agbeli, the center's director, invited me to return, and when I can walk again, I just might.

Tourism in this hilly, West African region is never high, and it has declined sharply since Sept. 11, 2001. At Dagbe, however, the dancers, singers, and kente cloth weavers are optimistic. And since January, when electricity finally arrived in Kopeyia, their uniquely Ghanaian exuberance has been fueled and illuminated by artificial light, streaming from fixtures installed in 1997.

The Volta Region, sandwiched between neighboring Togo and Lake Volta, the world's largest artificial lake, draws only 5 percent of Ghana's tourists, most of whom flock to the slave castles on the Atlantic coast. Dagbe, however, has attracted international interest since it opened in 1991, tutoring 100 students annually from Italy, New Zealand, and, in Massachusetts, Tufts University and the Berklee College of Music. Accustomed to training music majors, the center is launching a new effort to lure families and the musically challenged with beach excursions, carving classes, and new nighttime concerts.

''People are trying to bury our culture with hip-hop and reggae music," Agbeli said. ''Our music brings us together."

Dagbe's entrepreneurial efforts are uncommon in this area that boasts impressive natural attractions long ignored by the official tourist industry. Still, Volta Region offers a West African experience in the region's safest country. Though roads remain hopelessly potholed, and visitor facilities nonexistent, the principal attractions are accessible, inexpensive, and usually vacant.

Thickly forested, with mangroves, palms, and wild mangoes, Volta Region is a welcome escape from Accra, the flat, coastal capital awash in honking taxis and acrid odors. The four-hour journey to Kopeyia is less than refreshing. Our State Transport Company bus, touted as luxury travel, filled quickly, then filled some more, idling in the parking lot as ushers jammed the center aisle with fold-out seats. On the eastbound Pan Africa Highway, it rumbled along past 8-foot-high termite mounds, swerving around deep craters with clattering windows and rattling doors.

It was tough to see through the exhaust fumes and clouds of red dust. At our first stop, the bus was awash in commerce, with hawkers selling fried snail kabobs, fresh bread, and doughnuts through open windows.

We were rewarded in Aflao, the chaotic border city where we disembarked and eased into a taxi to speed along the well-paved path to Kopeyia. Agbeli, in sandals, a tank top, and an enormous grin, greeted us inside a thatch-roof hut. Apologetically, he said that no recent deaths meant no traditional funeral merrymaking or kinka drumming that night.

Like most of Ghana, which had fewer than 500,000 visitors in 2002, Kopeyia is not accustomed to tourism. Still, it offers perhaps the most critical amenity: bottomless hospitality. By day, the village is quiet save for the low rumble of drumming and near-constant whoosh of the handle-less brooms people use to sweep the cement.

At night, villagers host drumming performances, and don face paint and elaborate costumes for tribal dances that mix Christian, Muslim, and indigenous beliefs. Guests must join, or at least watch. Also required is a gulp of akpeteshie, a highly alcoholic fermented palm wine prized locally, but also squandered, poured into the dirt for one's ancestors before every toast.

Lodging at Dagbe is almost comfortable, with rooms that lock and include mosquito nets but register at least 10 degrees hotter than outside. The cafeteria's spaghetti with tomato fish sauce is plentiful, but seasoned with grit. There is no running water, but the bucket showers and outhouse, along with the goats and chickens that amble about, contribute a pleasant rural aesthetic.

By my afternoon lesson, when I had advanced from the cowbell and now straddled the boba, or master drum, I led a marathon session and found myself with sore arms, callouses, and at least a hint of African beat.

Though it requires a return to Aflao, and a visa request at an outdoor, seaside customs office, it is hard to resist an excursion to Togo. For us, the skyline of Lome, Togo's capital, and the potential pampering of the elegant Hotel Ibis proved irresistible. With Togo's history of influence and colonization by the Portuguese, the Germans, the British, and the French, the city offers fine French dining unavailable in Ghana, which was Africa's first independent country but remains loyal to British culinary standards.

Back across the border, Volta Region offers nothing of this quality or comfort. For wealthy Ghanaians and travelers seeking to experience Africa alongside Africans, however, one locally owned hotel provides dependable housing and transportation to all Volta activities. (Transportation, in the form of an air-conditioned, well-maintained van, is no small amenity given the alternative: the ubiquitous tro-tro, or aging, rapidly disassembling, 10-seat vehicles stuffed with up to 20 passengers and groaning under mounds of luggage and produce.)

Located outside town, the red brick tower at the Chances Hotel in Ho, the regional capital, provides that small city's only skyline. Built on 25 acres at the base of the Kabakaba Mountains, and opened in 1997, the 11-building facility merits its own lofty perch. Unlike Ibis, with its bland luxury, the Chances resort is imbued with Ghanaian cuisine and culture. Its grounds, including a pool, almost alone merit a week in Volta. On our first stroll, we dragged our bags past six avocado trees and 15 mango trees and ducked beneath branches weighed down with tangerines, cashews, cocoa, and lemons. At night, 150 rabbits roamed the courtyard, and soon a chicken farm will help the elegant restaurant achieve near-total self-sufficiency. (The fresh tilapia still will be caught in Lake Volta and served with chopped hot pepper and banku, fermented cornmeal cooked in hot water into a white paste.)

Until a business convention arrived, however, the hotel's 78 rooms sat empty, a scene we encountered at every regional attraction. Neither of Ghana's first two elected presidents, Jerry Rawlings or John Kufuor, have invested heavily in Volta tourism, so dirt roads lead to the country's tallest mountain, largest lake, and highest waterfall. Most residents operate small farms, cultivating yams, rice, and cassava.

''It's seriously wrong," said Emmanuel Chance, 49, owner of the hotel.

''They promise always, but they don't do," said his wife, Ellen, 42.

Less than two hours from Ho, we discovered the Tafi-Atome Monkey Sanctuary, a village inside a tropical forest where 260 mona monkeys live, literally, on top of human inhabitants. The Peace Corps has helped protect the monkeys since 1993, and resulting tourist revenue helped Tafi-Atome install electricity in 2002 and renovate the local school last year. The monkeys are now more valuable alive than as bush meat.

The evening we arrived, the monkeys made an immediate appearance, plopping loudly on tin roofs, dashing tree-to-tree, climbing power lines. A mona group leader, called the ''commando," let his long tail dangle over branches, posing for photographs and depositing leaves on our head.

''People appreciate the monkeys," our guide, Innocent Foli, said. ''They've seen the benefit."

Peace Corps guidance also helped the village establish comfortable living quarters with powerful fans inside cement huts. Though a good night's sleep is interrupted often by the monkeys thumping overhead, and evening drumming has been replaced by local television, visitors can enjoy a close-up wildlife encounter.

Animals are tougher to spot at the Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary near Hohoe, though to be fair, we lost the energy to swivel our heads during the steep, two-hour hike. The trek includes lengthy breaks under mango trees, and views of the mountaintop, always distant, with thousands of fruit bats circling the peak. During our visit, gunfire from Togolese huntersoccasionally drowned out the rumble of the 1,600-foot-high Wli Waterfall. We learned later that only 10 percent of visitors climb to the upper falls; most prefer a casual stroll across 10-foot bridges to the equally impressive lower falls. (The misty breeze is less refreshing at the lower falls, but with benches provided by the Chances Hotel, it's worth the sacrifice.) The view from up high, however, is stunning, given the region's rolling topography and the proximity of Wli, a nearby village.

Because of its popularity with Ghanaians, Lake Volta has the most organized activities in the region. A cruise aboard the Dodi Princess is promoted by the Ministry of Tourism, and the lakeside roads, which service the country's hydroelectric dam, are some of Ghana's best. The sprawling lake, formed by the Akosombo Dam in 1966, covers 3.5 percent of Ghana and supplies almost all the country's electricity. Buses entering Akosombo cross the single-arched Adomi suspension bridge over the Volta River, an impressive bit of infrastructure.

Ghanaian passengers, however, are not eager for lectures on civil engineering, and staff members have little science to impart. Instead, the three-deck ship with capacity for 250 passengers offers pure maritime entertainment. On our trip, non-Ghanaian passengers included mostly British and German volunteers, as well as 40 US Marines singing ''Sweet Home Alabama" with the King's Anchor Band, and later wrestling in the kiddie pool on the main deck. Every Sunday, the ship also stops at Dodi Island, its rocky, uninhabited harbor filling with drummers and local residents offering 20-cent rides on wooden pirogues. The festive atmosphere of the Dodi Princess, with its chicken barbecue, dance floor, and chilled Ghanaian Star beer, continues on the island and on the slow return trip past miles of deep green hills.

Unfortunately, outside of the luxury hotels, Akosombo remains underdeveloped. The chop bars, or informal restaurants, on its main street serve day-old fufu (pounded cassava and plantain served in spicy tomato soup) with goat meat for dinner, and night activities are scarce.

''They do make something out of tourism here," said Xenia Salpius, 27, an Austrian doctor who climbed the Wli Waterfall in a camouflaged bathing suit. ''But as always, the last step is missing."

Benjamin Gedan can be reached at gedan@globe.com.

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