Singing and Dancing for Health: Traditional music and dance for health education and promotion in rural northern Ghana

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Registered as a UN Partnership for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and a project of the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology

for more information, please contact Michael Frishkopf, Professor of Music at the University of Alberta.

Banner for campaign to combat malaria and cholera in Ghana's Northern Region (December 2014)

Goals and Methods

In this project, we aim to create, evaluate, and refine effective music and dance interventions for public health education and promotion in the developing world. In particular, we seek to collaboratively develop and assess the impact of participatory "dance dramas" (comprising music, song, dance, poetry, drama, and comedy in traditional or neo-traditional idioms) for public health education in northern Ghana, that country's most underdeveloped area, partnering with a Ghanaian performing arts/education NGO experienced in applications of music and dance to development projects. Efficacy of traditional performance arts as a vehicle for promoting positive health messaging in an atmosphere of social solidarity rests on the traditional respect accorded such arts, while meanwhile compensating for obstacles encountered by health workers due to illiteracy and social anomie.

Thus far, we have focused upon two critical health issues: sanitation/cholera and malaria. We are also seeking funding to add three additional dance dramas: Maternal and Neonatal Health, Mental Health, and Ebola awareness.

In parallel with raising awareness and changing health behaviors, the project also supports good health through youth groups (see below) encouraging music and dance as therapeutic in themselves: as positive, social, non-competitive, inclusive mind-body exercise.

The research model entails the following components, in collaboration with Youth Home Cultural Group, an arts-based NGO based in Tamale, Ghana, and local representatives of Ghana Health Service in each locale.

Preliminary stages:

  • We compose scripts, music, choreography. Scripts are vetted by public health experts in Canada and Ghana. These dramas are then extensively rehearsed
  • We stage these theatre pieces in a small village (Jenkeriyili) located close to the regional capital of Tamale, and professionally video record them.
  • From these recordings, we produce edited, English- subtitled video recordings suitable for broadcast on local, national, or international television, or for distribution via Internet or DVD copies. (See links below.)
  • We identify partner villages, and work to secure support from local chiefs and elders, members of the elected assembly, Ghana Health Service, and other respected authorities and "opinion leaders".

Pre-intervention, intervention, post-intervention stages:

  • Pre-intervention research. We carry out preliminary health studies in three villages, establishing baseline estimations of knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP surveys) relevant to these health issues, developing rapport, and publicizing the project.
  • Interventions and associated research. Next, we perform the dance dramas (featuring Youth Home Cultural Group) live in each village, alongside workshops encouraging residents’ active participation and learning, enhancing sustainability. These events, gathering as much of each village as possible and including also local village performing groups for greater participatory inclusion, are documented through ethnomusicological fieldwork, to better understand the method's strengths and weaknesses.
  • Post-intervention research.
    • Immediately following each intervention we conduct a focus group with youth (e.g. Junior High School aged) to find out how they viewed the intervention, what they liked or disliked, and how it could have been improved to become more effective.
    • In the following 6 months, we periodically return to repeat the same KAP health studies. We also conduct "tracking" research, contacting the same individuals periodically to find out about changes in local practices that may be related to either dance drama. In this way, we are able to assess the impact of our interventions, and to refine them.
  • Post-intervention sustainability:
    • Videos may be screened indefinitely, or broadcast on TV.
    • Live performances by professionals are expensive and not sustainable. Therefore we seek additional funding to establish local "singing and dancing for health" groups in each village. Such youth groups are equipped and trained by professionals (e.g. Youth Home Cultural Group), then become self-sustaining, in conjunction with local institutions (e.g. junior high schools). Groups meet regularly, and establish their own regimens of rehearsal, selection and training of new members, and selecting leaders. They perform on school, civic, and traditional holidays, drawing an audience to hear health messaging, or speeches by Ghana Health Services. Participation in itself enhances health, both individually and socially. Social cohesion and cultural continuity are both enhanced. Performance knowledge having become localized, we anticipate that these local groups -- as socio-cultural units of health performance -- will enter into oral tradition, to be passed down through subsequent generations. Monitoring and further research will be required to verify whether or not this happens.

Objectives and Outputs

This pilot study, conducted over approximately 10 months, resulted in presentations, publications, and external funding applications to development agencies including CIHR, DFATD, IDRC, Grand Challenges, Gates, Ford, WHO, Unicef, and others. For results to date, see below.

These results promise great significance to ethnomusicology and global health, in light of four recent trends: (a) exponential growth in "applied" ethnomusicology since the 1990s; (b) advent of a more recent subdiscipline, medical ethnomusicology; (c) global health studies, increasingly recognizing the importance of culturally-sensitized communications and the role of "edu-entertainment" in public health campaigns; (d) "music as medicine", including community-based arts therapies.

Research Team and Funding


  • Youth Home Cultural Group (Sulemana Abu, project manager; Fatawu Abdelkarim, Artistic Director)
  • Mubarak Alhassan and Ibrahim Zukpeni, field researchers.
  • Hasan Hamze, statistical analyst
  • Ghana Health Service
  • Chiefs, elders, and other local village authorities
  • Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology
  • Professors Michael Frishkopf (Professor of Music, University of Alberta; Director of Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology) and David Zakus (Professor of Distinction in Global Health, Ryerson University)
  • University for Development Studies, Faculty of Health Sciences (Department of Public Health)

Funding for the initial project was provided by a Killam Cornerstone Grant, with additional support from the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry (FoMD) Division of Community Engagement; Faculty of Arts; Centre for Health and Culture, Department of Family Medicine, FoMD; and DFATD/CIDA (now Gobal Affairs Canada).

Subsequent funding for the follow-up project (establishment of sustainable youth groups) was provided by folkwaysAlive! and The Department of Music's President's Fund, which also provided funds for research dissemination at the 22nd Canadian Conference on Global Health, Hotel Bonaventure, Montreal, Nov 5-7, 2015.

We gratefully acknowledge our sponsors.

Status (April 2017)

Pre-intervention and post-intervention research, as well as the interventions themselves (performances) is complete. We have completed an initial assessment phase, presented one poster session and published one paper, and are applying for more funding. We presented preliminary results at a poster session for the 22nd Canadian Conference on Global Health November 5 – 7, 2015, Montreal, Canada: "Capacity Building for Global Health". See poster here and published a paper based on these results. Please see below for details.

We have established a local "Drumming and Dancing for Health" youth groups in Tolon and Ziong, thanks to funding from the President's Fund, Department of Music, and from folkwaysAlive! that provided for equipment (drums, costumes) and two weeks of training. We are currently seeking funding for Gbungbaliga as well.

We expect that such local groups will serve to maintain sustainable messaging; further monitoring and research is planned to evaluate this strategy and refine it as needed.

We presented further results in a second conference and journal publication (see below).

Together with University for Development Studies as a new partner, we are actively seeking additional grants to extend this project in several directions:

  • Live village performances
  • Establishing youth groups
  • Creating video versions for local screening and national broadcast
  • Creating radio versions for local and national broadcast
  • Adding new dance dramas to address additional community health issues of great importance:
    • Maternal and neonatal health
    • Mental health
    • Ebola awareness and prevention

Research sites and maps

Initial research centered on three sites - three villages of varying sizes and locations, all Dagbani speaking.

  • Tolon (large)
  • Ziong (near Nanton; smaller)
  • Gbungbaliga (near Yendi; smallest)

Here is a map of performance/research sites, including Tolon, Ziong, Gbungbaliga, and a fourth site, Jekeriyili, was selected for the performance to be locally video recorded (see local video productions below) because it is so close to Tamale - effectively absorbed into the city's metropolitan area.

Video outputs

Dance Dramas

Local video production (full subtitled dance dramas):

Sanitation and Cholera drama (September 2014)

Malaria drama (September 2014)

Video excerpt (video shot and edited by Michael Frishkopf, from fieldwork December 2014):

Excerpt of Malaria drama, performed at Ziong, December 2014. GoPro perspective on the same performance.

Youth Groups

Having primed each village with performances from outside, we now seek to establish vibrant youth groups in each of the three communities where we worked, in order to embed "singing and dancing for health" in the local culture as a sustainable feature. Our youth group projects entail construction of musical instruments and sewing of costumes, followed by a period of training. Youth groups are established with the support, encouragement, and supervision of local adult leaders - teachers or elders - who can help by organizing rehearsals and safely storing equipment. Our hope is that these local groups will shift from particular constellations of young people to local traditions, passed down orally and maintained with pride. Each such group performs traditional dances -- ironically, these have often been lost in the rural area due to poverty and influence of contemporary media -- enhancing social cohesion and especially intergenerational connection -- but charged with a new theme: carrying songs about crucial public health issues, especially malaria and sanitation.


The Tolon group was inaugurated July 2015. Equipment and training was provided by Youth Home Cultural Group. Members were selected from a local junior high school. Their parents, many of whom had grown up with traditions no longer actively promoted in the village, also took an active role. The group was presented to the Tolon Naa (Regent of Tolon District) in November 2015, and enjoys his full support. Since then the group has been rehearsing regularly.


Subsequent Rehearsal

Final Rehearsal (unavailable)

Inauguration Ceremony

Parent Performance (the new group served to draw parents back into performance of traditional Dagomba dances!)

The Chief of Tolon -- the Tolon Naa -- expresses his thoughts about the project following a special performance at the Chief's Palace (November 2015)


The Ziong youth group completed their training in March 2016.

Inaugural performance at Ziong


We are searching for funding to establish a youth group in Gbungbaliga, our third research location.

Publications and Presentations