Why a Ghanaian man played the flute with his nose to farewell Kofi Annan


A performance of the Ghanian flute during the funeral for Kofi Annan has been praised as a fitting tribute for the former United Nations secretary-general.

The memorial service for former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan included a funeral dirge performed on the Ghanian bamboo flute played by a member of the military with his nose.

President of the Ghana Association of Victoria, Ayuba Issaka, said the use of the traditional instrument at funerals has cultural significance.

"Everything that comes out of the flute means something. So some of the things that the flute might be saying is: we share your pain, sorry for your pain. And (it is) leading you to your final destination," he said.

Honour guards carry the coffin of the late Kofi Annan during the state funeral.
Honour guards carry the coffin of the late Kofi Annan during the state funeral.

The bamboo recorder-like flute is called an atenteben, which comes from the words atente (the type of music played) and aben (Twi: ‘whistle’ or ‘horn’).

Musician Fred Nii Addo, who plays the atenteben, said it is more commonly played with the mouth, but can be played with the nose, although it takes a musician with more training.

"It is part of the step forward of the player. Everybody knows you play the flute with the mouth. But as soon as the player connects (with the audience), the musician can use the different skills to advance what they are doing. So people can be like: wow!"

"So if you can control the air through the nose, you can play the instrument that way as well."

Ms Issaka praised the quality of the service, saying it was an appropriate send off for someone of Mr Annan’s stature.

"When it comes to the funeral of this sort, with many people, there are many young children who probably have not witnessed such a thing. They did it very well. And it reflects on who he is. Everything they did meant something important."

Ethel Duker, Vice-President of the Ghana Association of Victoria, also praised the service.

"It was beautiful. It was very emotional sad, but the respect shown (to him and his family)...he deserves it. He helped serve the nation, he served everybody."

Traditional rites

A Ghanaian of Ashanti lineage, Annan was granted a royal title by the Ashanti king in 2002.

His coffin was draped in the country’s national colours for public viewing. Traditional rites have been performed by local chiefs and clan leaders to aid the peaceful “travel” for their royal and national hero.

Dignitaries sit before the coffin of the late Kofi Annan, during a state funeral in Ghana.
Dignitaries sit before the coffin of the late Kofi Annan, during a state funeral in Ghana.

His death will also be marked in Victoria with a service planned for next month.

Mr Issaka said the funeral service for Mr Annan is a once in a generation event that many young Ghanaians may never have seen the likes of.

"It is believed he is a man of humanity," he said. "It is believed such people are rare. In Ghana, and many African countries, he is considered with very high regard," he said.

Fred Nii Addo will be playing the special flute as part of the occasion. He said the sound of the instrument conveys a special meaning.

"The sound sends a message. The sound is really connected to the soul and the spirit. So we believe the sound of the flute sends the message, the spirit of the dead person who is going."

Bamboo flute modernised in the 1940s

The instrument has its origins with tribes in central Ghana, and was modernised by musicologist Dr Ephraim Amu (1899-1995) in the mid-1940s.

The original flute was played horizontally – like an orchestral silver flute - and was capable of playing five notes. It was commonly used to play funeral dirges.

Ephraim Amu created a modern version, which transformed it into a vertically played instrument with a changed mouthpiece, and two additional finger holes to play two octaves.

The improved ease of playing, clarity in the tone and greater range of notes has led to its greater use in other music genres, including classical orchestral arrangements, jazz and pop.

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