The final installment of the trilogy of my travels with royal hartigan and blood drum spirit, blending Western Jazz music and traditional Ghanaian music, concludes with the Ashanti Region and Accra. We were based in royal’s current hometown – Kumasi, where he is a visiting professor at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (‘KNUST’ or ‘Tech’ for short). The Kumasi Cultural Center became our musical hub; their music and dance ensemble directed by Daniel Annan Sackey and led by Eric Owusu, our extended family. Practice, rehearsal sessions and video recordings included “Fontomfrom Improvisations,” “Naima” by John Coltrane, and “Tie Me Sufre” and “Hits,” both by David Bindman, combined respectively with Fontomfrom and Kete royal court musics, Adowa funeral/social music, and Sikyi social music. The Asante Fontomfrom royal court music included three main sections, Atopiretia, Akantam, and Naawia corresponding to different parts of the ceremony.
One of the highlights of the week spent in the Ashanti region was attending and entertaining at the Akwasidae Festival at the Manhyia Palace, seat of Asantehene, the paramount chief of the Asante people. These Akwasidae Festivals are held every 6th Sunday, hosting all of the chiefs from around the region with their respective drum and dance troupes. The King of the Ashanti, or Asantehene, is arguably the one of the most powerful people in Ghana. While Ghanaian democracy is all encompassing, it is relatively new, and many of Ghana’s ethnic majority, the Ashanti, would defer to their king over the current president if there were a choice to be made. These festival celebrations take place on the palace grounds, outside the gates, and are open to whoever may want to attend; in fact, it has become a worthwhile destination for visitors from within Ghana and abroad. However, as the festival winds down, another party ramps up within the palace gates that is rarely attended by anyone who isn’t invited or “of importance.” However, music continues to cross boundaries and knock down obstacles as we were fortunate enough to perform at this semi-private party! The novel combination of musical genres drew accolades all around and astonishment from many listeners, having never heard anything like it; they couldn’t help but dance as close to the musicians as they could. Compliments were even passed down from the Asantehene himself giving us hope for potential performances in the future!
Our musical tour continued to Penteng village with stops in Ntonso and Mampong on the way. Ntonso is one of the two original homes of the Ashanti Adinkra symbols where they still make stamps and ink using traditional methods. We were not joined by any musicians in Ntonso but Nana Owusu Gyasi and Nana Boakye and many of the artists provided incredible explanations and demonstrations of their cultural history, both accompanied by our music on and off camera as well. It was an excellent combination of creative processes and the footage we have is all the stronger for it. There was no ensemble waiting for us in Mampong, no scheduled performance at any venue, so we took our music to the streets! Joined shortly after our arrival by master drummers Yaw Daniel Okyere and Papa Yaw, we headed directly for a local market with a musical procession unlike anything I have ever experienced. Stopping in front of various shops here and there, crowds instantly formed around the group of foreigners playing Ghanaian rhythms to sing, dance, clap, gawk and laugh. While many have come to think of jazz as elitist, this was the ideal example of music for the people, by the people. The palpable connection between everyone involved was easily my personal favorite moment of our musical journey and one that will stick with me forever. It didn’t matter that we were “obroni” (‘whites,’ ‘outsiders’), that one of us had a soprano saxophone or that jazz was being mixed in, everyone felt the music and managed to contribute in ways that felt comfortable. When we visited Penteng, we went to the Bodwese shrine to play with their ensemble, directed by priest Nana Obeng Gyasi. The Bodwese music is very powerful and draws the musicians and audience into various states of spiritual trance when played at their ceremonies. Having spent so much time in big cities – Accra and Kumasi – the three village stops in the Ashanti Region were amazing insight into the lives of non-urban Ghanaians and the ways that music manifests itself in their lives.
After two weeks of bringing music to the people of Ghana, the last week had the people come to us. It was filled with concerts at some of the biggest jazz clubs Ghana has to offer, accompanied by many of the bigger names. First up, Henry Asare Baah and Agya Koo Nimo joined blood drum spirit at the KNUST Senior Staff Club with their atenteben flute and Ghanaian Palm Wine styles, respectively. The band played Wadsworth Falls, by royal hartigan, Threads, in 11/8, by David Bindman, In a Sentimental Mood, by Duke Ellington, and Caravan, by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol, arranged in 15/8 by royal hartigan to a dimly lit audience because we lost our power but managed to rig a few lights and all the amps up to our standby generators. Back in Accra, blood drum sprit held a workshop for interested musicians at Club +233 before their culminating concert. For the Club +233 performance, they were re-joined by Sulley Imoro, Tijan Dorwana, Eric Owusu and many others that we played with over the last few weeks. Most people weren’t able to travel with us so this night became a chance to show what we had been doing all over the country! Never before had a bill included this many master musicians from so many diverse sub-genres of Ghanaian cultural music and dance all under one roof; a three-week tour of Ghana without having to leave your seat. The night of connection between traditional Ghanaian music and dance with the acoustic African American jazz heritage of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Sun Ra was the first time such musical blending on this scale happened in Ghana, so the music that evening was historic. The last official performance was unfortunately held after Art, the pianist, had to return to the United States. The condensed trio provided a few sets and musical accompaniments at “The Write Experience” – a series of multimedia performances including song, poetry, Hip Hop, painters and dancers – held at the Alliance Francais.
As I wrote in part one, blood drum spirit arrived in Ghana with the hope to “help others and [themselves] to develop positive human connections and visions of the world through music and dance teaching, performance, and sharing.” I can say confidently that we accomplished that goal although it is not one that can or ever will be finished. I am blessed to have shared these connections and as I type this am working with royal on ways to get the group back here for round two!