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.