Title: Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana, West Africa; Asafra Catholic C.Y.O. Mmensoun Group (field recording by Roger Vetter--see Bibliography). Label: Smithsonian/Folkways. Format: CD. Catalogue#: SFW 40463. Track: 7.

Title: Asafra—Mmensoun Group. Label: Vetter field recording, 26 February 1993. Format: Hi8. Catalog#: VC-4.

Contextual Associations

Aben are side-blown conical-bore lip-reed aerophones of the Fante people (who are part of the Akan cultural complex) of southern Ghana. They are made in sets of seven or more and, along with a few drums and a percussion plaque, are part of the mmensoun (‘seven horn’) ensemble.  Such horns are modeled after ones made from elephant tusks and used by court musicians of high-ranking traditional chiefs throughout the Akan cultural region of southern Ghana. During the past few decades several youth group mmensoun ensembles have been formed at schools or even by churches in the Cape Coast area. It is such ensembles that make use of wooden aben like those pictured here rather than ones made from elephant tusks. These groups may take part in community celebrations, but they are not associated with or in the service of traditional chiefs, many of whom have inherited sets of ivory aben and have relationships with particular families or villages in their territories who provide them with knowledgeable musicians when mmensoun are needed for inclusion in events.


Each aben is constructed from several pieces of wood in such a way as to mimic the shape of a horn made from an elephant tusk. The closed end of the horn is made from a cone-shaped solid piece of wood that is hollowed out and has a rectangular-shaped hole cut into its side. The rest of the wall of the horn is made from slats of wood tightly bound together by cotton cord and covered with a local egg- and ash-based paint. These three aben were made in the Fante village of Asafra in 1993. 

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

In a set of aben, each horn is tuned to a single pitch except for the smallest one, which is provided with a fingerhole at its apex that allows two pitches to be produced on it. The aben is a lip-reed instrument. While holding the horn horizontally, the player covers the opening near its tip with his lips. By forcing an airstream through his tensed lips, the lips rapidly open and close (‘buzz’), allowing bursts of energy into the horn that set the air into vibration, producing a pitch. The music played by such an ensemble is organized around the leader-chorus principle and involves text-based hocket performance.


Ivory aben have a very long and culturally deep association with Akan chieftaincy. However, wooden aben such as the ones pictured here are most likely of recent origin, emerging during modern times when selected practices associated with pre-nation-state institutions (such as chieftaincy) are repackaged for and re-contextualized in contemporary society.

Bibliographic Citations

Sarpong, Peter Kwasi. 1990. The Ceremonial Horns of the Ashanti. Accra: Sedco Publishing Limited.

Vetter, Roger. 1996. Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana, West Africa. CD and booklet. Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40463.

________. Anomabu, Ghana—Musicking in a Fante Community, accessed November 1, 2016, http://vetter.sites.grinnell.edu/ghana/


Instrument Information


Continent: Africa

Region: West Africa

Nation: Ghana

Formation: Fante

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.122.1 aerophone--side-blown straight natural labrosone

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over hole in side of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: none

Overblowing utilization: not used

Pitch production: single pitch - one pitch produced in single air cavity


21.7 in. length 19.8 in. length 10.1 in. length

Primary Materials

cord - cotton

Entry Author

Toby Austin, Roger Vetter