Thursday, August 30, 2007


I have added pictures to the Ghana album.

I am riding high. Back from a journey, I am surrounded by love and safety, though soon I must venture out again...

Friday was the first night in a while when I allowed myself to be swept up into the night-heart of Accra and took off on an adventure. I left the house around dinner time (forgetting to eat) and went to the bar of a beach hotel, where I knew from weeks past there was a highlife band playing that had some jazz sympathies. So I drank my first bottle of Star Beer (a point of local pride) and sat in with the band. We played a highlife number and then “Autumn Leaves,” for my benefit, I think.

Then it was off to meet Ali for a jam session he'd invited me to. He had to wait a long time though, because the acquaintance I was with was unfortunately stubborn and bad with directions. But we arrived nonetheless and walked through the winding roads of Osu to a glittering club with a very funky highlife band playing inside. This is Accra's trendiest neighborhood – and the clientele was upper-echelon – educated, curious – a listening crowd. The band was led by the guitarist, who seemed to invent highlife licks and riffs with no effort at all... After eye contact with the drummer and keyboardist, and encouragement from Ali, I got out my horn and played a solo, and then another, and another. It was a jam band, really, but they were so tight that it was very easy to play with them. I would put the bass player in the category of funky mofo.

All in all a very good night, though we ended late and it rained on the walking bit of the trip home, which is what I think led to THE COLD. Saturday I rested and practiced and exercised – and sniffled. Sunday I had promised to sit in with the church choir, but was feeling so awful by the morning that I thought about not going. But I was convinced to go and sneezed through the entire service – which may have been the best thing, as that choir did not really need any horn accompaniment. They were carrying their own sound right on up to the heavenly sensibilities.

The service was outside and a huge celebration for a newly ordained priest from the parish. People came from every region of Ghana to congratulate him and be blessed by him. It was pretty amazing – kind of like a meeting of nations, like all the different peoples in Star Wars coming together for an intergalactic council, or all of the pirate lords in Pirates of the Caribbean convening for a debate over “the code.” My favorite were the people from northern Ghana, who played a combination of small, hand-held copper-pieces, which clanged together in syncopated rhythm; long, tapered, sideways bamboo flutes, whose pitch was changed by putting one's fingers over the end or its various holes; and some more recorder-like, high-pitched, wooden instruments. And they danced – high-stepping and grinning the whole time. They made me feel a little bit better about having to sneeze through a Catholic mass in the hot sun.

In the end, I was glad I went, but I started to get really sick that afternoon and had to take some serious rest. There is nothing that will make you more homesick, I've found, than being sick in that kind of helpless way and not having people to take care of you in the way you are used to. I wanted to send my mom to buy ginger ale at Big Y in Holden, Massachusetts and watch the Lord of the Rings on our leather couch in our living room on Bullard Street. But instead I slept fitfully in my room in southern Ghana, and wondered melodramatically if I would live to tell the world of my strange tropical disease.

Monday my host brother was going back to school at Kumasi, and I'd planned to go along to see another part of the country, and to get out of Accra for a while. I was surprised that when I woke up in the morning, I felt well enough to go. We took a five hour bus ride up to Ghana's second largest city – on “luxury” state transport, meaning, essentially, that the bus is air conditioned. When we arrived in Kumasi, the bus parked on the side of the road, jammed up against a dirt embankment, and proceeded to unload the cargo bay in the most chaotic manner possible, with much angry yelling and pushing as taxi drivers joined the fray, trying to pick up customers – all in a tightly squeezed passageway between bus and red dirt. Having no luggage, I removed myself from the situation by climbing the embankment, and waited for my brother. Several others took my lead, only to be pushed back by police, indicating they were not cross over. Those people yelled that they had let an obroni (white person) over so why should they not be allowed. Hearing this, I disappeared quietly over the other side of the hill. I met my brother on the other side and we caught a taxi.

I called the guitarist Koonimo, to whom John Collins had referred me, and he very kindly sent someone down to bring me to his office. I would later know this person as George, who teaches music technology and recording at the university. He is a guitarist himself, and has a lot to say about the fusion of jazz and African musical forms. Koonimo, who at 70 is retired but still lectures for the university, received me and asked me to explain my project. His first reaction: he kind of smiled and said, “I am an old man.” He explained that he is a preservationist and has chosen to resist the influence of most Western music, devoting his life to playing traditional palmwine music. When I talked to him the next day, he admitted to loving jazz and having studied it at one point in his life, but maintains that palmwine music is tied to his identity and finds his calling in continuing the tradition and passing it on.

So I spent Tuesday morning interviewing Koonimo and talking to George and some of Koonimo's guitar students. This was the first place in Ghana where I have found such incredible positive energy surrounding this music. They have a jazz night every Friday and they put together small combos and play for each other. Amazingly, most of the musicians are majors in science and math, but then spend all of their free time practicing guitar and listening to highlife and jazz. They could sit around the piano laboratory for days, watching videos of American and European guitarists. They are hooked. And they were totally interested in my project, in life as a jazz musician in the States, in current trends on the scene. We talked about Dave Holland and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and the whole front edge of that movement; and about elitism in academic music and preservation and innovation and fusion and recombination. (David told me today that I am in the middle of what the postmodernists (he called them pocos... a reference that escaped me) like to call an environment of hybridity – but no one here would think to call it that. They just live it.)

George showed me a song he recorded with Oshame Kwame, a leading Ghanaian hip-life artist; the song is called “Kwame Ghana,” and the chorus translates as “Mother Ghana, help me, I am dying” and then the verses talk about all of the different things that are going on in Ghana – crime and materialism and disorganization and everything – and asking what is happening to our country.. This album is due out soon, but there is a copyright battle going on over who will release it first. The style is easy, acoustic highlife for most of the song, and the rap works in smoothly with no bass and no hip-hop beat for almost four minutes; it is not until the very end of the song that the hip-life groove kicks in. “This is what the youth understand,” said George. “And will help us to reach that audience.” The song strikes me as a perfect example of how Ghana's different musical styles – traditional, highlife, popular, contemporary – can combine to express something about what is going on in the country today – and to uplift people who are in the midst of trials.

There is a traditional symbol in Ghanaian culture which is a figure with one leg pointed backward and one forward, representing the ways in which a person must learn about the lessons of the past, deeply feel the present moment, and use these two things to cast a shadow onto the future, taking the best of what has come before along into the next phase. One student suggested to me that this is a good model for the progression of Ghanaian music, that they must take the best of the traditional music, and the best of the outside influences coming through their culture, and use these things to strengthen their performance practice and the power of their music to reach the people. The analogy can be extended to many transitions, I realize.

I have been receiving constant encouragement from family and friends and even the Watson folks, all of which has been wonderful, and keeps me going when things get tough. I feel like there are times when I want to say, “Really, guys; you can't be serious. Look at me. Are you sure this is all part of the plan? Because right now it seems like I am disorganized and lovesick and a little bit helpless. Whose idea was this again?” But then I end up in somewhere like Kumasi where the weather is cool and the trees are green and the people are beautiful and that all disappears.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Forward motion

Things have been picking up rapidly this week. If I go two places in a day, I am exhausted by the end, because getting around town involves catching shared minivans called tro-tros and sitting in hot traffic for about an hour between destinations. It's worth it, but I have to make a conscious decision to rest occasionally.

Things I like about Accra (that need explaining):

Reggae music on a packed tro-tro = delapidated minivan seating as many people as possible; the cheapest, if not the fastest, way around town – tro-tros often bear the saying “No Condition is Permanent” - a nice reminder when you are sitting in hours of traffic

Fanmilk = creamy frozen yogurt shrink-wrapped and sold on the street for 50 pesewas; comes in chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry

The Arts Center = section of market stalls where kente cloth, African clothing, artifacts, jewelry are sold for touristy prices; people will actually grab your arm and pull you into their shop, insisting, “Looking is for free.”

I spent Tuesday morning shedding with Ali, a Ghanaian trombonist I sat in with at a club last weekend. Trombonists look out for each other, and I have been so blessed to be able to spend some time with Ali. We shared warm-ups and exercises and played some blues, walking bass lines for each other. Later in the week, I would sit in with Ali's brass band and meet his wife – a trumpet player!

I rehearsed with Bibie Bruhe's Ghanaian soul band – quite a trip. We learned Curtis Mayfield's “Move On Up” off the record, horn lines and all, and then Africanized it. We also played some Stevie Wonder tunes - “Have a Talk With God” etc. They definitely have their own thing and are rehearsing for live shows in Ghana and a European tour.

Wednesday I met up with Professor John Collins, a Brit who has been living in Ghana since the 1970s, and is a published expert on highlife music. The fact that I could talk to a British academic about popular music in Ghana was kind of awesome on its own. He has some very interesting theories about the ways that music travels from one place to another, across the Atlantic ocean and back, how people take one thing, copy it for a while, and then gradually fuse it with their own music and start to innovate.

This weekend I went to my first jazz jam and met the owner of the club, who is from Georgia, U.S.A.; a sharp Ghanaian pianist named Victor (playing both keys and bass), who goes to Berklee in Boston; Victor's taxi driver friend Mohammed who is from Burkina Faso; and WATSON FELLOW SIGHTING #1 – a singer from Colorado doing a project on jazz in different places across the world. We didn't even know that we were both Fellows when we started playing together – but then we started to explain in that slightly tired way: “I just graduated. I'm doing a year of independent study...” And then the look of recognition, as if to say, “You too, endure this madness?” What a thrill to hear about others out there who are also taking on the world...

Today I went to the beach and felt like a tourist again. I have been slowly getting used to Ghanaian food. I like fried plaintains (I don't know anybody who doesn't) and red beans and spicy kebabs and papaya (which they call paw-paw, pronounced “po-po”) and red snapper and all the other things that come out of the ocean.

Some things are starting to fall into place; some folks have contacted me with homestays in my next destinations, but there is still a lot left to be figured out when I get there. Some musicians here know people in Benin, so I will have some contacts to start with when I get there. I am feeling good about my time here; I have stopped worrying if I should be here, and now I just am here – ups, downs, and all.

A note on religion in Ghana: it seems that every person you meet is some variety of Christian – Catholic, Pentecostal, Presbyterian... The names of small business have names like “Divine Providence,” “He is Risen,” “Good Shepherd.” There is a shop down the street that is simply called “Well Done Jesus.” I think this sums it up nicely.

Monday, August 13, 2007


For pictures, go here.

Today was a slow day. I woke up early and ate breakfast. My host father has an elder brother who is a pastor in Ghana and lived in the U.S. for seven years during the 1970s. Sometimes he talks like the country hasn't changed since he was there. But that's ok. I didn't mind the '70s. In fact, I should have been born then. I was able to practice a lot, although it's been humid, which makes me lethargic. I got scolded today for not going into town, even though my plans fell through. Ah well, summer can't last forever.

I crave familiar things, the people I love, regular schedules, fresh milk, pancakes.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


Something I keep forgetting to mention: the lights go out every 48 hours for 12 hours at a time because there is not enough power to go around the country. The dam on Lake Volta is just not cutting it.

Brainy and Footsy?

I have been finding more and more music and musicians – lots of highlife, old and new, though still have yet to take in any self-advertised “jazz,” per se, though have found some venues. I sat in Sunday night with a band at the Ghanaian Village restaurant – a wonderful band with five percussionists, guitar, alto and tenor sax, and a great male singer. They were very welcoming. They told me, “We could play 'Fly Me To the Moon,' but we will play it the African way,” which means in 6/8 instead of 4/4, so they maintain constant tension between the subdivided three and the larger two in which the melody stretches out polyrhythmically. That was a challenge. They played everything: John Lennon's “Imagine,” some Santana repertoire, and old highlife numbers – which they thought I wouldn't be able to play, but were actually my favorite. Something about that rhythm grabs you and won't let you go. I was like, “I shouldn't be able to dance to this, but somehow I am.”

The days have been slow. There has been a constant tease of going to a rehearsal with Parisian singer-artiste Bebe in Achimota. We actually made it out to her house one day, but the rehearsal had been canceled. This band has a very interesting repertoire, too, from what I can tell: a lot of Stevie Wonder and '70s soul – horn music! - Plus Bebe's own compositions. She and her Ghanaian band are preparing for a European tour. It will be interesting to hear them play.

I have now been up to the University of Ghana at Legon and visited a few music professors. It's a nice area, a few kilometers outside Accra, under some really nice big trees, where everybody goes outside to practice and teach. Hopefully I will be able to spend some more time up there once they start classes.

Last night I went down to the Equator bar to check out the band – a loud, rock-highlife group with young, rogue-like singer and eccentric keyboardist. It turns out the keyboardist is working on a thesis on highlife music at Legon. The complaint I am hearing from a lot of people is that the old highlife music is starting to die out in the face of hip-life, and people are becoming more well-versed in production and electronic manipulation than they are in playing live acoustic music. Nobody is learning to play horns anymore, they say, which are key in highlife music. This sounds like a very familiar problem to me, because even in the States, it starts to seem like the only way to make a living in music is to submit oneself to formatting by the public image industry. People still play live music in the States; the only question is whether there is anyone there to listen. At least, in Ghana, people are craving live music – the audience is there, ready and waiting.

My host family is amazing. I have a home here. I have two host-brothers, who are 18 and 19, and are good company. There are other family members moving in and out and visiting periodically, which makes for a lively environment. My host-mother just lost an uncle, so she and her husband have been recently occupied with funeral preparations.

I started using Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! as devotional material as I was preparing to leave. It has become a kind of traveling song-mantra-thing for me now. I think it makes good advice to any Watson Fellow, or any sojourner, for that matter. To share:


Today is your day.

You're off to Great Places!

You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.

You have feet in your shoes.

You can steer yourself

any direction you choose.

You're on your own. And you know what you know.

And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

You'll look up and down streets. Look 'em over with care.

About some you will say, “I don't choose to go there.”

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,

you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.

And you may not find any

you'll want to go down.

In that case, of course,

you'll head strait out of town.

It's opener there

in the wide open air.

Out there things can happen

and frequently do

to people as brainy

and footsy as you.

And when things start to happen,

don't worry. Don't stew.

Just go right along.

You'll start happening too...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

First impressions and aftermath

Only after having been here for almost a week are things starting to look a little bit familiar. The arrival was chaotic. Our flight into Accra was delayed by about an hour and a half from Amsterdam; once on the ground, I waited through a crowded customs line only to be told that my passport was going to be held because I hadn't listed the address where I would be staying. I figured out how to call my hosts' cell phone as I searched through a long, topsy-turvy pile of baggage. So I got my passport back. But still. Walking out of the airport, I was faced with what I can only describe as a huge mob of shouting, celebrating Ghanaians, held at bay by police barriers and armed police. Feeling more than a little exposed, I walked along the line of the crowd, sensing the improbability of seeing my name on one of those little white signs. But there it was. On two signs, no less, and with smiling faces to match.

Even through my travel-weariness, I soon realize that I am very, very privileged to be able to stay in a beautiful home with a kind family where I can be safe and supported. Honestly, this is not exactly how I imagined the project starting out - so safe and secure - but who can argue with this when my chiefest, deepest desire is often to be safe and accepted. A good starting point, I tell myself, but then I still long to stretch out, to go out on the limb I have promised myself.

I spent a few days recovering from jet lag and getting used to malaria pills and humidity. I changed my dollars and few remaining euros into New Ghana Cedis (they've very recently been re-denominated from Old Ghana Cedis); I also bought a cheap cell phone and SIM card - for emergencies and sniping friends back home.

Yesterday I went to a community festival in the town of Ada, about an hour and a half outside of Accra, with a drummer friend who offered to show me around. This was my first look at non-city Ghanaian life. We arrived at about 10 a.m. and the narrow street was already clogged with street vendors and onlookers. We joined one of the brass bands as it marched down the street, singing and waving our hands at the chief held up in the air. The huge colored umbrellas that were carried right behind the chief reminded me distinctly of New Orleans. I was tired a lot of the time, though, so had to rest periodically.

Today we went to church in Accra, which amounted to organ plus a great choir and African percussion. I met some musicians at the club at the hotel down the road last night, and I might go sit in with them later on. I've heard of a few jazz clubs around town, but as far as when and where I usually start and end with word of mouth. It is hard to say where things will go from here. I am anxious to keep on moving. Sometimes 5 months seems like forever, but every once in a while it seems like it will never be long enough!

No luck uploading images this time - may have to wait for a faster connection.