The Woo Dance vs. Kete: Tradition Recycled or Coincidence?
Dodzi K. Aveh
Drill music, a sub-genre of hip-hop, has blown up globally in the last 18 months. We’ve had hits from both the US and the UK, and these energies have sparked numerous iterations across the world through which Drill continues to evolve.
There are different peculiarities that distinguish Drill from other hip-hop subgenres like Trap. The difference between Trap and Drill is technical. Trap began in the Southern United States in the early 90s, and Drill is a sub-genre of Trap. Drill began in Chicago in the 2010s, before being transported to the UK where it flourished, while Trap and Mumble Rap became the focus in the US. Both of them reflect gangster life in the places from which they originated, and have been adapted to. Trap is more melodic than Drill, which has a much darker tone and is characterised by a slower beat speed and heftier baselines. Lyrically, Trap mostly reflects drug use while Drill reflects street violence. Another peculiarity of Drill, that is often overlooked, is that there seems to be a particular dance that goes with it, as seen in most Drill music videos. The Woo Walk Dance. For the remainder of this article, I will refer to it as the Woo dance or the Woo Walk dance interchangeably.
About two years ago in Kumasi - the regional capital of the Ashanti region of Ghana - a very unique Drill scene began to grow. This version of Drill is known as Asaaka; about a year ago, the scene blew up globally, bagging a number of solid collaborations with international artistes, and inspiring a flourishing Drill scene across Ghana. Asakaa has peculiarities that distinguish it from Drill - even Ghanaian Drill - setting it apart as an indigenous fusion of hip-hop, to create a localised sub-genre as has happened with Hip Life music, and Kasahari rap.
One thing that captivated me about Asaaka was its parallels with the Woo Walk dance in performances and music videos. I noticed elements of certain indigenous Ghanaian traditional dances being fused with the Woo Walk dance and and I also identified movements from the Kete traditional dance. As an academic of performing arts I was intrigued and decided to take a critical look at this phenomenon. This essay seeks to explore both dances and musical expressions to find out if there is any relation between them. There is the possibility that this phenomenon is entirely coincidental. Regardless, I think it is worth investigating as an academic, artiste and a fan of hip-hop.
It’s quite clear that hip-hop music has inspirational roots from African talking drum poetry. Such references were made in the early works of hip-hop pioneers like A Tribe Called Quest and Africa Bambaataa. Certain schools of thought actually identify Ghanaian musical legend Gyedu Blay Ambolley as the original creator of hip-hop since he released the rap album ’The Simigwahene’ at a time that predates the time frame identified as the birth of hip-hop in New York.
When it comes to hip-hop dance, most of the popular dance movements we know and love have their roots from resistance movements among black slaves in the Americas. These dance movements are evolutions of traditional dances that the people carried with them when they were stolen from Africa. It is important to note that traditional dance in Africa was done for a number of reasons that cut across the socio-cultural religious landscape.
There were dances like Agbadza by the Ewe people of Ghana and Togo that were done as possession dances by warriors to charge up right before a battle. It is interesting seeing how this dance has evolved and made it into traditional secular spaces - Agbadza is done at any traditional Ewe celebration. Growing up as a child it was quite common for me to see my elder uncles dancing Agbadza while drinking and playing loud music. Women are also seen dancing Agbadza, and it’s quite popular in churches in the Volta region of Ghana and Togo. It wasn’t until I started my performing arts degree at the University of Ghana that one of my elder uncles sat me down and decided to teach me the history of some of our indigenous dances and where they came from. It was through that that I found out about the origins of Agbadza.
In terms of hip-hop in Ghana, Agbadza has successfully made its way into performances by Ewe hip-hop artists like Worlasi and Edem. This is why I believe that it’s possible for certain elements of African traditional dance to find its way into contemporary hip-hop dance, because I have seen it happen with the traditional dance of my people.
Origins of Kete
There are many accounts of the origins of the Kete dance. The one I’m most familiar with is one that was told to me by one of my mentors and tutors, Baffour Kyeremanteng of blessed memory, whom we affectionately called Yewura. Before passing on, he was an accomplished artist and performer, who specialised in ceremonial royal dances and he played a number of traditional drums and the Sɛprewa. Yewura was a tutor from the music department at the School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana and an accomplished Kete performer who performed in the court of the Ashanti monarch (of blessed memory) Otumfuɔ Opoku Ware.
According to him, Kete came from the Volta Region even though he agrees and identifies it as an Asante court dance. He said: “Even though we do not have a specific root of the name…Kete happened to be hunters drumming and this is because the original Kete is Abↄfoagorↄ (hunter’s game/dance). So we [the Asante’s] absorbed the Kete dance during the war at Kete-Krachie (a town in the Volta region of Ghana). This is evident through the symbolic cloth used to cover the Kete drums known as sum ne mogya, meaning darkness and blood. Everything our ancestors did had a meaning. Sum ne mogya further explains that if one goes to war and there is no death, there should still be blood.”
Most traditional dances are tied to specific drums, as the dances are seen as spiritual interpretations and responses through movements to the truths the drums speak. In the philosophical and spiritual traditions of the wood carvers who make drums, there is the belief that spirits dwell in trees and so when a tree is felled the carver has to perform divination rites to ask the spirits of the tree if it wishes to continue to live on as a stool or a drum. These dances are spiritually tied to the specific type of drum that produces the needed rhythms and Kete is known to be a dance of power and identity, specific to the Asante Royal Court, and performed only by certain warriors and hunters.
Origins of the woo walk dance
The Woo Dance was originated by Pop Smoke and other New York based rappers who recorded an accompanying song of the same name to popularise the dance further through social media and streaming services. The Woo Walk dance grew in prominence through his albums Meet The Woo and Meet The Woo 2 and it slowly grew to be associated with Drill music everywhere. I think this happened as a tribute, with Drill music blowing up globally around the same time Pop Smoke was murdered.
Pop Smoke, named Bashar Barakah Jackson, grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a low income community, with predominantly people of colour and was exposed to a lot of gang violence. It is essential to note that part of his early musical experience in life was him playing African drums at church as a child.
The woo walk dance is characterised by its distinctive leg movements and a variety of hand movements from gang signs to holding up your sagging pants between your legs while dancing. Similar to the way an indigenous Kete dancer holds the hem of their cloth when doing legwork. The dance has become so synonymous with Drill that even in Ghana if a Drill song is played in the club everyone starts to woo walk.
Asakaa, Akata Street Culture and Kumerican Dance
I want to talk a little about Asakaa - alongside its related terminologies - to differentiate it from Ghanaian Drill before I examine the variations in their version of the Woo walk dance and how it relates to Kete. Asakaa is a peculiar sub-genre of Ghanaian hip-hop originating in Kumasi and its suburbs. This genre was created by the artists of Life Living Records, a Kumasi based record label started by rapper Sean Lifer, and producer Rabby Jones. Notable members of the label are Kwaku DMC, Jay Bahd, Reggie, Yga Okenneth, City Boy, Skyface, Kawabanga and Bra Benk.
The word Asakaa originates from popular street slang (originally done to mask language), which is essentially a pig-Latin dialect of the Akan language. The last syllable of a word is sent to the beginning of the word, so Asakaa is the Twi word akasa, which means language. Kumasi then becomes Simaku, streets becomes tistree and broada becomes dabro
Musically, Asakaa is not just Ghanaian Drill or Drill in Twi. Sonically, the beats are slightly different. In a conversation with Rabby Jones of Life Living Records, he told me that they grew up in Kumasi hearing Soloku rhythms at funerals, so it felt right for them to take inspiration from those and spin them into danceable Drill sounds. In 2020 the internet blew up with Kawabanga’s Akatafoɔ and Yaw Tog’s Sore. The attention they received inspired almost every Ghanaian rapper - both in the underground and the mainstream - to hop onto Drill music .
The dance movements associated with Asakaa are heavily influenced by Akata culture and the Kumerican wave The word Akata was originally used to refer to someone who dresses flashy, a local term used to refer to hipster fashion.
However, Akata as a culture isn’t just fashion. Just like in some of the world’s marginalized communities who exist inside big cities where different genres and styles of hip-hop are created, Akata is a reflection of the lives of the young creatives who live in that place.
Most developed and developing countries have heavy class systems ingrained in their societies which have descended from colonialism and turned into neo-colonial features of their social systems. In Africa they're fuelled by elitism. Outside of Africa they're mostly fuelled by race. Hip-hop as we know it evolved as a protest art form among marginalised communities in the US, who had to resort to any means necessary to fend for themselves.
Similarly, elite classism in Ghana has people living in marginalised communities trying to make ends meet by any means necessary, and as a result young people in these communities are struggling to survive. They are in search of easy money and could be driven to cybercrime, similar to how they see those marginalised communities in the States make their money – which can involve drug dealing.
Authorities just assume that all these people are inherently criminals, and treat them as such. A recent case is the #ENDSARS protests going on in Nigeria. However, most of the youth are just trying to make the most out of the limited opportunities available to them – as few as they are. The realities faced in the Akata street culture are no different from the experiences of young people in any other marginalised community in the world.
In Kumasi, Akata is about looking fly at all times, irrespective of your situation. In a bid to represent themselves through the way they dress, they renamed Kumasi as Kumerica - a name that has been around for a while - as the suburbs of Kumasi have long been renamed after American states. It was only right that the Hip-hop movement speaking as a voice of Akata for these newfound "Kumerican" states picked the name Kumericanz to describe their movement and the slogan "a Country within a Country" as a way of establishing their independence from the mainstream Accra-centred music industry in Ghana.
Ghanaian Versions of the Woo Walk in Drill and Asakaa
I’ve seen different versions of the Woo walk dance in Ghana and they're associated with different artistes. I want to highlight how the dance fused some movements from various traditional dances.
The first notable fusion is the version of the Woo Walk is associated with Black Sherif. The 19 year old Hip-hop artiste, hailing from Konongo Zongo, rose to fame this year with his two singles First Sermon and Second Sermon going viral. At a number of performances and in some of his videos, he does the Woo Walk dance with a distinct style. This involved back-bending and arm-throwing movements that are distinctive to Kpanlogo, a traditional Ghanaian recreational dance. I believe this movement comes naturally to Black Sherif because his style of music is a Trap/Drill sound fused with indigenous High Life melodies. Kpanlogo dance has been heavily associated with High Life music, because Kpanlogo was the popular recreational dance around the time it was getting popular in Accra.
The Asakaa music scene has created different fusions and variations of the woo walk dance. There have been different viral videos of boys in the streets dancing to Asakaa songs with movements from Azonto, Adowa, Kete and even Kpanlogo fused into the Woo Walk.
Kete and the woo walk in Asakaa
My area of interest for this essay was Kete and the Woo Walk. This fusion is prominent in the dances of the Asakaa artiste Jay Bahd who has been nicknamed Demon and thus calls his dance Demon Dance. This version of the dance is the woo walk dance fused with movements from Kete and Adowa dances. Both dances were traditionally reserved for the Asante royal court; Jay Bahd dances the Woo Walk with a peculiar countenance, like that of an Adowa dancer, and the manner of his legwork is similar to that of Adowa. I believe that this style of the Woo Walk dance is associated with Jay Bahd because he grew up with the influence of Asante cultural practices and grew up on the streets of Kumasi.
In his music video for Yɛyɛ Dɔm, something very interesting happens with the performance of the woo walk dance.
Official Music Video For Y3 Y3 DOM By Jay Bahd Featuring Skyface, Reggie, Kwaku DMC, City Boy, Kawabanga & O'Kenneth
Directed By Junie Annan
Sonically the song is just like any Asakaa song. The beat has hard hitting Drill synths and 808s, along with a catchy Soloku tune. The lyrics speak to the everyday hustle of how to survive and the communal fellowship holding you down. However, the concept of the video is different from any other Drill and Asakaa video. Most Drill videos have guys doing the woo walk dance, posed near expensive cars, or flexing jewelry or brandishing guns. Consequently most Asakaa music videos follow the same concept, it’s just that it has been adapted to Kumasi and the Kumerican wave through showing off Akata street culture.
But with this song, the concept is different. It has the boys thrown into a historical setting, dressed as traditional warriors and warrior priests preparing for battle, brandishing swords and arrows. We see a perfect fusion of the Woo Walk dance with Kete, a fusion that looks so flawless because both dances happen simultaneously - both in movement and the context in which these performances were created.
Drawing parallels: Woo Walk vs Kete
The flawless fusion of both dances presents a vivid parallel of the relationship between the dances. Both Kete and the Woo Walk include extensive leg work movements done with a flourish, whereas with the Woo Walk, the accompanying hand movements are mostly gang signs. With Kete, the accompanying hand movements are mostly coded messages to praise the king of the royal court, or incantations to prepare for battle, or signals to communicate with other warriors.
Drill music videos mostly show gangs and gang related activity. It is important to take note of the origins of gangs in inner cities in the US and UK, given that these are sites where Drill music gained prominence and developed a certain subcultural context. Gangs were originally formed as community watchdogs to protect the people of their community, since people of colour were consistently presented with limited opportunities and intentionally marginalized through systemic racism.
Traditionally in West African culture, there had always been places for entities like gangs to exist in communities, for the protection of their people. The most popular one is the Asafo Companies among the Akans. These were groups of young men who acted as community watchdogs to protect their towns and villages. In moments when kingdoms were at war, it is out of the Asafo companies across different towns, villages and vassals, that skilled warriors were recruited and trained to be part of the centralised army. Even today among the Efutus of Winneba in the central region of Ghana, the asafo companies are involved in the hunting and catching of deer during the Aboakyire festival. Among the Asantes, members of the Asafo company were mostly hunters, thus Kete was an important dance to them.
The idea of having gangs among communities of black people anywhere in the world comes from the old tradition of Asafo Companies. There’s a popular saying among the Akans that translates to if you kill a thousand, a thousand more will come.
In places where security systems don’t serve everyone or rather serve just a particular class, those who are marginalised are left to fend for themselves. In modern day Ghana, the Asafo companies are evolving into gangs and fraternities to protect their own and it’s quite common to find that people have ‘boys’ ready to defend them or fight for them if they were to get into trouble.
In the music video Yɛyɛ Dɔm, the gang and the Asafo company are merged as one, and the Woo Walk dance is fused with Kete, along with other traditional possession dances traditionally performed by war priests. The hand movements are both a fusion of the Drill gang signs movement and traditional Kete hand movement. We see gang sings thrown up along with the hand movement a traditional monarch does to show his supremacy over everything. We see the Woo Walk dance performed intertwined with possession dance variations of Kete. It is important to note that in this video, the performers are clad in traditional war and priestly costumes but their countenance isn’t so traditional, they still have their modern day Akata flex.
There is the possibility that the Woo Walk dance is an evolved version of the traditional Kete dance associated with Asante Asafo companies. This theory seems very plausible given that most gang activity is similar to what is known in Akan as Abↄfoagorↄ (hunter’s game/dance), which were the rites and practices of Asafo companies.
Both gangs and Asafo companies have associated symbols, colours, and dresscodes, both gangs and Asafo companies have initiation rites that are used to represent a transition from puberty to manhood. The new initiate is most likely to perform a feat that involves defeating an enemy and proving loyalty to the fraternity. Both entities also have strict rules for members to follow and most have violent punishments.
Given how times have changed, I believe that the original ideals that inspired Kete among Asafo companies still existed in the minds of black people when they were stolen from Africa, and thus, manifested as similar entities in different times and places. To me, this is possible given the evidence of different variations of African culture in the diaspora. Dance as a form of self expression comes from the soul and maybe certain movements are preserved in our collective consciuosness and muscle memory.
Asakaa music presents a very interesting fusion of both the Woo walk and kete dances. The fusion looks so flawless that one begs the question and begins to wonder if they are indeed the same dance being constantly reimagined.
From having similar body movements inspired by similar situations, and associated with similar musical rhythms. I believe there is definitely more to look into historically about both dances. And Asaaka music as a genre presents a perfect opportunity or lens through which one can look through to study the relationship between both dances. I believe that dance as a medium of expression carries a powerful spirit, one that lies in each and everyone of us, and only speaks in movements preserved in our muscle memories. No matter how much culture changes and evolves I believe that the core of these movements will stay with us to always remind us of who we once were and what we seek to be.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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Dodzi K Aveh
Dodzi Korsi Aveh is a 23 year old Ghanaian creative and academic, who creates under the identity WhoIsDeydzi.
He tells stories through spoken word poetry, hip-hop, film and theatre. Dodzi uses his craft as a tool for social advocacy and community engagements. Currently he is working on creating a new subgenre of Hip-hop, inspired by indigenous Anlo-Ewe performance poetry.
Dodzi K Aveh