Articles from the 1997 Festival of American Folklife
Program Book

Celebrations in African Immigrant Communities: Nature & Significance of Durbar in Ghanaian Societies
by Kwaku Ofori-Ansa & Peter Pipim

Officials of the Washington, DC, Ghanaian community organization Asanteman Kuo were attired in regalia for an inaugural event in 1994 at a gym in Langly Park, Maryland. Photo courtesy Peter Pipim, Asanteman Kuo organization

Ghanaian traditional rulers sit in state and meet their people at events called durbars (an English word that comes from an Indo-Persian term for "ruler's court"). To the accompaniment of music and dance, ceremonies honor their ancestors, rekindle their bond to the people, revive unity, cleanse the society, and pray for the fruitfulness of the land and the welfare of the people. Beautifully adorned kings, queens, chiefs, and their elders appear in public procession amidst intensive drumming, singing, and dancing. At their destination king and queen sit in state flanked by chiefs and elders, as sound and motion continue around them: drum languages articulate praises; special guests extend greetings and pay homage; gifts are presented.

The Akan people of Ghana organize durbars for the installation of chiefs, kings and queens, and their elders, a tradition that has been carried over to the United States. This year the Asanteman Kuo, an association organized by the Asante, one of the Akan groups in the United States, will hold the third installation of its leadership, an event which happens every three years. During a durbar, the Asanteman Kuohene (chief of the Asanteman association) of the Washington metropolitan area will host members of Asanteman Kuo from Atlanta, Toronto, New York, New England, Montreal, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas. The chiefs and the queen mothers of these Asante associations will appear in traditional ceremonial clothing of hand-woven, hand-stamped, hand-embroidered, and hand-appliqued cloths accentuated with glittering gold, silver jewelry, and precious beads. Accompanied by drumming, singing, and dancing, they will process under ceremonial umbrellas of brilliant colors.

Symbols of status and authority, the royal paraphernalia reflect a complex array of philosophical, religious, and political concepts, which inform ideals and codes of conduct. The large, colorful umbrellas (akatamanso) represent the protective role and the authority of chiefs and queens. Gold-plated staffs (akyeamepoma) of the chief's spokesmen, or linguists, symbolically depict political ideals. Ceremonial chief stools (ahenkongua) - carried by stool bearers and placed in front of the chiefs - are symbols of spiritual and political unity. Their carved images refer to certain philosophical, religious, and political concepts. Gold-plated ceremonial swords carried by the Council of Elders are traditionally borne by royal messengers and are used in swearing oaths of allegiance during installations of rulers and elders.

Traditional durbars can last a whole day until sunset. Sharing special drinks at these occasions symbolizes hospitality and community spirit. The durbar ends with a procession from the public grounds to the chief's palace, where a libation is poured to honor the ancestors and thank the Supreme Creator. More than just a social gathering, a durbar revives and reinforces loyalty and strengthens the ties and the sense of belonging that bind a people together.

Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, who is from Ghana, is Professor of Art at Howard University. He holds a Ph.D. in folklore studies. He is also a cultural activist and has been an integral part of the group of community scholar/advisors to the African Immigrant Folklife Project since 1994.

Peter Pipim, an Education Specialist at the National Museum of African Art, is also active in Ghanaian-American cultural affairs as an officer of the Akan organization Asanteman Kuo and of the Council of Ghanaian Organizations in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

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