Monday, January 19, 2015

What "Ago! Ame!" Means And Where That Call & Response Command Came From

Edited by Azizi Powell

[updated December 30, 2016]

This post provides information & comments about and a video example of the call & response command "Ago!" "Ame!".

The content of this post is presented for cultural and folkloric purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the publishers of these videos, and thanks to Dr. Chuck Davis and others who use this African call & response command.

"Ago!" is a call for attention and "Ame'" is its response.

"Ago!" means "Listen!" or "Attention" (or a similarly worded command.) "Ame" means "I am [we are] listening."

"Ago" is pronounced "ah-GOOO" and "Ame" is pronounced "ah-MAY".

Here are some online comments about "Ago Ame!" that indicate that this phrase comes from the Akan language of West Africa:
1. "Saturday, July 24, 2010
Accra, Ghana

Call and response has traditionally be used through out Africa and is still used today. In the Ghanian Akan language Ago (pronounced Ahgooo) means are you listening? the response is Ame (pronounced Ahmaaa) you have my attention. This call and response is very effective in getting the attention of a group."

From FROM Perry, Theresa. Teaching Malcolm X. New York: Routledge, 1996. "About Ago and Ame
...“Responding quickly to Ago and Ame” requires some explanation. We have borrowed the call and response words, ago and ame, from the Twi language of West Africa. Any member of the community may use ago if she or he needs to get the attention of the group. Ame is the response that acknowledges a willingness to listen. Not only does this call and response demonstrate respect for other members of the classroom, but it offers an example of the cultural borrowings that give honor to cultures of the African Diaspora in the development of a multicultural classroom community."....
Note that "Twi" is a form of the Akan language.
"Akan refers to the language of the Akan ethnic group of Ghana. It is also spoken in the central and eastern part of Cote d’Ivoire. Akan comprises three main mutually intelligible dialects: Fante, Asante Twi and Akwapim Twi. Asante Twi is the widely used. Akan is the most widely spoken and used indigenous language in Ghana..."
"Twi is a dialect of Akan, a member of the Kwa sub-group of Niger-Congo languages. There are about 7 million Twi speakers, mainly in Ghana. Major dialects of Twi include Akuapim Twi, Fante Twi and Ashanti Twi, which all mutually intelligible."

From Posted by Ms Niki
"June 17, 2008 Anonymous said...
"It is from W. Africa, and the origin tribal language is unknown to me. It has been passed to us, however, by many storytellers and included in folktales that are published in English (I'll have to review research to share which/who.)

Chuck Davis is an African Dance teacher and performer located in N.C. who also tells shares verbal tales. He has been using this call-response since at least the late 1970's."
These comments were written to correct another blogger's the statement that "Ago Ame" are KiSwahili words]

Dr. Chuck Davis [respectfully known as Baba Chuck Davis] is the Artistic Director of the African American Dance Ensemble which is currently located in Durham, North Carolina. More comments about Chuck Davis' and the call & response phrase "Ago! Ame!"are found below.

August 7, 2008 Girls Institute of Science said...
“Ago, Ame....Akan language..West Africa-Ghana"
Ms. Akosua Youth Institute of Science & Technology-Agogo, Ghana

December 4, 2008 at 1:49 AM Anonymous said...
"ago means 'are you listening?', and ame means 'you have my attention'. it is used in ceremony and in every day. i don't know it's origins, but we say it all the time. it is respectfull. a child will not say 'ago' to an adult, but he or she may say it to an audience that contains adults, to get the crowd's attetion.,3101
is other great source on this topic[...]"

Ago and Ame

October 24, 2003 06:44PM By nat
"its my tribal language.

Ago and Ame is a greeting and response, respectively"

January 12, 2004 By Susan
"When one wants to enter a room and does not want to budge in in case whoever is in would have to tidy up self or one wants to show curtesy and respect one then says 'Ago' and if it is ok for the person knocking to enter, whoever is in the room then responds 'Ame' , This is a Ghanian Language of the Ashanti tribe"

"Before any celebration begins, it has to be called to order. One way is the Akan phrase: call - Ago and response - Ame, which means, "May I have your attention" and "You have my attention", respectively.."


So much fun learning a Ghanaian dance today (Saturday, April 4th) with Adwoa Tacheampong at an All Around This World African dance workshop for families at International House Philly.

We started with the Akan attention-getting call and response chant — the leader calls AGO! and everyone responds AME! According to the trusty internet we have Dr. Chuck Davis, the Artistic Director of the African American Dance Ensemble which is currently located in Durham, North Carolina, to thank for popularizing Ago!/Ame! in the U.S. Whether or not that’s true, and whether or not you’re an artistic director of your very own African-American dance ensemble, try it — it works."

Although I didn't use it, I recall some afrocentric African Americans using "Ago" "Ame" in the late 1980s or early 1990s as a way of getting the audience's attention. One Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania organization that used this attention getting/call to order strategy was Valerie Lawrence's "Windows On Africa" 1990s
summer camps and after school program. I also observed "Ago!" "Amay" being used as a call/response strategy in December 2009 at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania program that was attended by Black adults, children, and youth, and in three "Keepers Of The Flame" Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania African American cultural programs that were hosted by Chuck Davis (in 2011, 2012, and 2015". At the beginning of those programs Chuck Davis explained what "Ago! Ame!" meant [as given above] and repeatedly used those phrases to make that the audience was being attentive.

For the record, "ago", "amay" weren't used in the afrocentric organization, Committee For Unified Newark (CFUN) that I belonged to from 1967-1969. For some of that time that organization was headed by poet/playwright, activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Members of that organization incorporated several Swahili words such as "Harambee!" (all pull together) and several Zulu words such as "Yebo! (yes) into our lexicon. A call & response strategy such as "Ago!" "Amay!" would have fit very well within the culture of this organization. But I'm sure that we didn't use it.

I've come across what I think is a mistaken belief that Chuck Davis got the command "Ago Ame" from a Gambian language and that those words are somehow related to the New Orleans, Louisiana terms "Iko Unday":
"Iko and un day are Creole corruptions of the Gambian call ago! [pay attention] and the expected response, which is amay! [I/we are listening]. Chuck Davis of the African- American Dance Ensemble, which is based here in Durham, uses this device ubiquitously when he acts as Griot (master storyteller/master of ceremonies). When he calls "ago!" everyone is supposed to shout "amay!"--no matter what else is going on. He likes to slip this into the middle of various narrations just to make sure folks are paying attention. He also uses it as an introductory, "calm down" sort of exercise before he starts to speak, or to quiet the crowd if it gets noisy while he's speaking.", retrieved by Azizi Powell, March 20, 2010
That commenter shares one of many theories about the meaning of certain words from the New Orleans, Louisiana Mardi Gras Indian song "Iko Iko" (that "iko" is a folk processed form of the word "ago" and means "Listen!". I don't particularly buy that theory, and, even if it is true, "Listen!" may not be what Mardi Gras Indians meant in the past or mean in the present when they sing the word "iko".

I've not found the statement that "Ago"/"Ame" comes from Gambia, West Africa anywhere else online (except in quotes of that comment). For the record, Akan isn't a language that is mentioned in "languages of Gambia" websites. I wonder if the person who posted the above comment confused "Gambia" with "Ghana".

For the record, I've not come across any quote from Chuck Davis about his use of the call & response command "Ago"/Ame" and where he got that phrase. That said, the use of "ago"/"ame" by master of ceremonies at afro-centric events certainly does appears to be most closely associated with Chuck Davis.

Chuck Davis' use of "Ago! Ame!" during a 1992 Chicago dance concert is included in an article about that event:
From "Ago! Ame! By Laura Molzahn
DANCE AFRICA/CHICAGO 1992 at the Medinah Temple, October 2-4
"I don't know but I've been told, if you keep on dancin' you'll never get old." That bit of down-home advice provided the title of a work performed during DanceAfrica/Chicago 1992; it also fit the spirit of the evening. It's strange to review something like this concert--five American companies performing African dance in a festival now in its second incarnation, produced by the Dance Center of Columbia College--because it seems more a religious and cultural celebration than a paid performance, more revival meeting than commodity.

Watching the concert, seeing how crucial the principles of call and response were, I was struck by how much all the performers must be attuned to things outside themselves: the drummers to each other and to the dancers, the dancers to each other and to the drummers. Even the audience is called on to give back some of the energy it's been given. Chuck Davis, artistic director of the African-American Dance Ensemble (who again acted as griot--master of ceremonies), has this routine I used to think was hokey but now seems essential: when he calls out "Ago!" ("Attention!"), which he does often, everyone is supposed to respond "Ame!" ("I'm listening" or "I'm open") Early in the concert we're told to "listen more to things than to beings"--things like the wind in the trees, for instance, the voices of our ancestors. But these natural things might just as easily be the physical facts of African dance and music, the footfalls and drumbeats and high-pitched singing, the chanting and handclaps"...
Italics added by me to highlight these sentences.

"I don't know but I've been told if you keep on dancin' you'll never get old" is an adaptation of floating verse from Spirituals ("I don’t know but I’ve been told, streets of heaven are paved with gold")

"Listen more [often] to things than to beings" is a line from the poem "Breaths" by Senegalese poet Birago Diop. That poem inspired the song "Breaths" that is performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Click for a pancocojams post about that poem and song.

SHOWCASE EXAMPLE: hiphopnc-Chuck Davis-African American Cultural Festival Raleigh, North Carolina

CarolinaExposedDVD, Uploaded on Dec 20, 2011
Chuck Davis first appears in this video at .036. He first uses "Ago"/"Ame" at .48 to .50 and several more times after that.

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  1. It is a sad day without Chuck Davis' love and light. I had to the good fortune to be in his audience several times in the early '80's. I will never forget Ago! Ame! and his message of peace.

    1. Thanks for your comment, The Sabbatical Chef.

      I appreciate it!