Dispatches from Ghana VII: We're in Frickin' Africa!




Our time at Dzodze was drawing to a close. There were just two days of workshops and performances remaining before we would board the bus to Accra. For one of my final workshops, I chose a Level I presented by a musician from Colombia who performed under his first name: Tupac. (I never had the chance to ask him if he was intentionally associating himself with the late rapper, but I assume he was aware of the feelings that name evokes for Americans steeped in hip hop.) Tupac’s performance style is suave, sophisticated, and occasionally employs a wry sense of humor, but not of the clowning variety. Instead, watching his featured performance several days earlier, I was immediately reminded me of the Jets choreography in West Side Story. He’s very cool and smooth in what he does, incorporating elements of Latin American dance.

He’s also an excellent teacher, precisely hitting the sweet spot between challenge and simplicity that I consider “Level Me.” He knew when to slow down, when to break it up into smaller chunks, when to add extra repetitions, and he understood when we were in need of encouragement, doling it out judiciously but never to excess.

What worked the best for me, though, was the way he summed up the entire festival in just a few words, circling us up for a pep talk, lauding the incredible support all the performers and participants had for each other, the amazing talent on top in this gathering, and most of all, the wonderful fact that, as he put it, “We’re in frickin’ Africa!

And that really is the key. It’s what brought me to Ghana in 2014: the knowledge that Africa is the birthplace of rhythmic music and dance; that each of the multitudinous styles of this music has developed, uninterrupted, for millennia; and that there is no place on earth where music and movement are more integral to the identity of a whole people.

Bringing the festival to Africa was a dream Keith Terry had had for years. The circumstance that brought him to seek out Kofi’s help in realizing that drum was the growing difficulty of bringing international musicians to the United States, even before Donald Trump took office. Kofi’s own experience with Customs and Border Patrol on his way to present at a workshop in Portland may have sealed the deal: Keith just couldn’t subject his international community of musicians, many of them from countries being given increased scrutiny by the CBP, to that kind of abuse.

I don’t know if Ghana was always Keith’s choice for this festival. Every African region has its own rich musical heritage, its own primary instrumentation (in fact, in Ewe, there is no word for “music”; instead, each style of playing is named after the drum, rattle, or bell at its heart), its own story of how music has informed its identity and history. In South Africa, for instance, gumboot dancing grew out of the enslavement of mineworkers who, denied their drums, began playing rhythms on their rubber boots instead—a story akin to the body music forms created by African-American slaves who were also denied their drums. South Africa is also home to a style of powerful, full-voiced, four-part choral singing that helped to drive the peaceful revolution that finally rejected apartheid. Drumming figures prominently in indigenous pre-colonial South African, but so does the use of the marimba and mbira (thumb piano).

Then again, Ghana is a land that elevates welcoming strangers over any other virtue; and most of those in attendance would be strangers to this small country. More importantly, Ghana has Kofi Gbolonyo, who hit a home run with his very first Orff-Afrique in 2014, and has been honing the experience ever since. It also has Nunya Music Academy, a program founded by Kofi that teaches children both to play European band instruments and to drum and dance the traditional music of their culture. Nunya performances were the highlight of my 2014 experience, and in 2018, they did not disappoint. As with all the children we met, they were eager to perform for us, learn from us, and teach us their own games, as well. At one point, I had an impromptu drum lesson from a 13-year-old Nunya student who was helping his mother sell jewelry at the hotel. And finally, Ghana, more specifically Dzodze, had the White Dove Hotel, a resort designed to introduce Westerners to Ghanaian culture and cuisine.

Ghana has many features that are typically African, according to friends who’ve traveled to other parts of the continent: the market culture, the favorite pastime of bartering, the general shabbiness of villages, the relaxed attitude toward building projects (houses and hotels [including the White Dove], like ancient cathedrals, go up in spurts, as money is available and tax breaks can be tapped into, with whatever progress has been made then being abandoned until the next building wave, leading some of them to more resemble ancient ruins than architectural works in progress), the propensity for cramming the greatest amount of equipment or passengers into a vehicle before beginning a journey, the uniformed school children attending Christian mission schools where they are trained out of their traditional religious beliefs, only to recover them as middle age approaches—I could go on, but instead, I’ll leave it at this: every time we left the hotel compound, we were assaulted with sights, sounds, an smells of Africa. It was intoxicating, a cultural experience as rich as any Rick Steves tour could offer.

So here we were in frickin’ Africa, on a musical pilgrimage to find the roots of the music we all either played or enjoyed. It was good to be reminded of this from time to time, though with the frequency of performances by either Nunya or another performing ensemble Kofi had hired, there was little chance of us taking it for granted.

One thing a few of us did take for granted was the openness of our hosts to more permissive Western norms of dress and behavior. We were reminded, as a group, several times that outside of dance performances, Ghanaians favor modesty over exposure. We were also urged to dress well for any occasion that might feature a ceremony with a chief: Ghanaians dress well. And finally, as some of our clown performers learned, there are certain movements that Ghanaians interpret as offensively sexual—even though as a whole, West Africans are far more frank and practical about sexuality than prudish Americans.

So again, we were in frickin’ Africa. Just being there was the experience of a lifetime for many, but then Keith took it up a notch with his collaborative performances, times when, after enjoying a dancing and drumming performance by the village’s ensemble, some of us would present short versions of their IBMF sets for the musicians of a village. This would be followed by short workshops in drumming and dancing for us, in body music for them, culminating in a collaborative jam session that took whatever body music styles had been featured in the performances and workshops and fused them with the drumming and dance of the village. We were in frickin’ Africa, creating music of, by, and with Africans, and it was tremendous, an experience that will be with me the rest of my life.

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