Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adowa Music - Onyame Nkrabea Nwomkro

Moving away from popular music for the moment, I would like to present "Adowa," a traditional genre/dance of the Asante of Ghana.  Like other traditional music genres, Adowa combines drumming and percussion with dancing and call-and-response style singing. This music serves a profound social function, as Adowa is a dance that is performed at and often associated with funerals. Accordingly, song texts are frequently philosophical in nature, meditations on life, death, and humankind itself.

This particular recording by Onyame Nkrabea Nwomkro features three twenty-minute long tracks in medley style. The drummers maintain a minimal presence throughout, allowing the powerful chorus of singers to take the forefront. This music is beautiful and stunning, and I find myself totally absorbed in the complex melodic lines sung by the lead singers and the lead drummer's varied Atumpan phrases.

Please read below for some more detailed information on Adowa:

"The [Ensemble] includes one or two bells - dawuro (boat-shaped) or slit-type called adawuraa; one or two hourglass drums called donno; one sonorous drum played by the hand called apentemma; one tenor drum played with stick called petia; and a talking drum called atumpan.

With the exception of the bells which may be played by women, the rest of the instruments are played by men, while women form the chorus. Normally one of the bells is regarded as the 'primary' bell while the other bell functions as 'the bell that crosses.'

The hourglass drum plays something in simple duple thyrhms. Where there are two, the second one plays cross rhythm. The main function of the apentemma drums is to suply recurring high-pitched tones. The drummer works in patterns of low and high pitches. The basic rhythm of the peti is a simple 5-note phrase made up of alternating simple and duple rhythmic motif rather like the primary bell.

The atumpan is the most important of all the instruments in the ensemble. When the music starts, the drummer may first make an announcement of drums or give a short message of sympathy. Immediately after this, he may begin with first, the introductory rhythms, and then other rhythms follow, to give the dancer the opportunity to find his bearing or time. This could be followed by other rhythmic motifs, all these go to animate the dance."
- "African Music: Traditional & Contemporary," Alexander Akorlie Agordoh

The meaning of the word "Adowa" is interesting in itself. Adowa is the Asante name for the Royal Antelope (pictured right), one of the rarest and smallest of the antelope species (about the size of a house cat). This tiny animal is considered exceedingly graceful in its movements, and it is this type of graceful movement that Adowa dancers must imitate and express. The Adowa genre, then, is named after this small antelope.

I've already introduced the Atumpan drums briefly in this post. Played in pairs of two differently pitched drums, the Atumpan is used to express verbal phrases, proverbs, and appellations.  The experienced player is able to translate these speech patterns (many of which are set phrases) onto the Atumpan based upon the different tones of the Twi language.  In Adowa another layer of complexity is added. Here, the lead drummer plays set Adowa phrases on the Atumpan that correspond to specific dance actions. In effect, this drummer controls the dancers' steps and motions by playing through a commonly recognized repertoire of drum proverbs/phrases.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lets Do the Highlife!: George Danquah - Hot and Jumpy

"The music of this album, like the product of a wandering minstrel, is colored by the travels and adventures of the performer. These are not the songs of the jungle, nor are they work tunes. They are urban interpretation that leap with the rhythms of the modern day cities. But at their root they are pure African strain of daily life."

Why worry baby, lets do the Highlife!

Araba Soso Wo Ndzema

Saturday, October 16, 2010

T.O. Jazz - Agyeman Baidoo & Bonus Single

The highlife musician T.O. Jazz remains a bit of a mystery to me, but I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some of his old-time (sometimes palmwine-style) music through songs recorded & released by John Collins and also the few  albums I've been able to listen to. Any track by the late T.O. Jazz just seems special. Below you can listen to "Agyeman Baidoo," recorded at Collins' classic, now-defunct Bokoor Studio. I've also included some biography information, and a bonus single from T.O. Jazz at the bottom of the page. This one features T.O.'s long-time female singer Adjoa Badu, pictured below.

T.O. Jazz - Agyeman Baidoo. Download

Thomas Osei ‘Jazz”  Ampoumah comes from the town of Obomeng in the mountainous Akan Kwahu region between Accra and Kumasi.  Born in 1932 he started learning guitar when he was fifteen years old in the town of Nkawkaw. T.O began playing in public with friends in 1950 when he was just eighteen years old. He formed his Ampoumah’s guitar band Mpraeso in 1952 with Kwabena  Amoah (vocals), Kwaku Gyima (second guitar) and  Edmond Kye (congas).  T.O. made his  his first recordings  with a Ghana Broadcasting mobile van unit in 1954 and then with the UAC (United Africa Company) that had a small recording studio in Accra. In those days he was paid eight pounds per recording (i.e. two songs)

In 1957/8 his guitar band was on tour in Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta) where he met the Congolese band the Bantus Africana  – who invited T.O. and his three musicians to Zaire where they played highlife numbers for the Bantus who were fascinated by this music but could not play it. The Bantus in turn taught the Ghanaians to play  local lingala rumbas, chachacha’s, meringues, pachanga and boleros  T.O. also met Franco the leader of Zaire’s top band O.K. and so changed the name of his Ampoumah’s guitar band to ‘T.O. Jazz’. When T.O. Jazz returned to Ghana in 1961 they introduced the chachacha to the country.

Back in Ghana he set the newly named T.O. Jazz band that specialized in highlifes and Akan renditions of the rumba.   It was with this band that T.O. recorded  in 1968 the hit song ‘Aware Bone Asu Manim Ase’ (Bad Marriage  Has Disgraced Me) that was released as a 45 RPM  on the Phillips label. For this T.O.  (together with Victor Uwaifo of Nigeria)  was awarded in  1970 the first Phillips West African Golden Discs – and went  to record a total of 127 songs. So by the mid 70’s T.O. Jazz was a household name in Ghana.  In 1996 T.O. began  teaching ‘palmwine highlife’ at  the Music Department of the University of Ghana, where he also played and sang with John Collins' Local Dimension Band.  T.O died after a short illness in 2001.


       1. Kasabrofo
       2. Ye Bewu Asee

Beware! This single is seriously crackly. Loud, scratchy sounds are consistent throughout, but I still find this music very enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sunsum Band - "Emmaa Bekum Mmarima" & Live Performance Footage

Here we have an album from the Sunsum Band. Formed in 1981, this group was a collaboration between guitarist Smart Nkansah (right, of Sweet Talks fame) and the tremendous singer Agyaaku (left), who achieved notoriety singing with Yamoah's Band. Nkansah left the Sweet Talks in 1976 to form the short lived Black Hustlers Band with Agyaaku, and it is this group which eventually evolved into the Sunsum Band.

I consider Sunsum Band within a category that includes similar musicians like Jewel Ackah, Amakye Dede and Pozo Hayes, artists I would describe as "transitional." I am interested in this genre of transitional highlife, straddling the old and the new through the '80s and '90s. Artists of this generation received their musical training from the "old masters" of highlife (Nkansah & Agyaaku started out with Yamoah, Dede with the Kumapim Royals, and Jewel Ackah was a pupil of Ebo Taylor and C.K. Mann).

Yet these musicians came into their own and began their own solo careers when foreign influences like disco music and synthesizers were the coolest things on the planet. So, I think this style of transitional highlife interestingly combines the synth-driven disco sound with the character and musical elements of classic highlife. To me, this is what is so appealing and unique about the Sunsum Band's highlife/disco sound.

Here I've also included some great old footage of the Sunsum Band performing "Susuka" at the famed Tip-Toe Gardens night club, taken from the rather hard-to-find documentary Africa Come Back in the "Repercussions" series. We have Smart Nkansah here on lead vocals, backed by Agyaaku and Becky B (who is featured on the "Odo (Love)" album). It's a treat to see these guys in action, so I consider this type of performance footage to be a real treasure.

Also, be sure to check out the Sunsum Band's magnum opus (at least in my opinion) "Odo (Love)," available over at Global Groove. "Mansee Madwen," the 15-minute last track, will blow your mind. I'm sure. You can also find the Black Hustlers album there.

Download 1982's "Emmaa Bekum Mmarima" Here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hollywood Icons, Local Demons: Ghanaian Popular Paintings by Mark Anthony

I've only recently become aware of an interesting exhibition of Ghanaian paintings, "Hollwood Icons, Local Demons," that has appeared at several museums since the early 2000s (it will be exhibited again at Marquette University in Wisconsin in 2011).  The show features some fantastically bizarre posters painted as advertisements for concert parties (a Ghanaian popular theater form combining vaudeville-type antics with ananse-like characters and guitar-band highlife music).

The Bizarre: A monster from a Kakaiku "concert."

Here we have posters of three bands, A.B. Crentsil's Ahenfo Band (formed after Sweet Talks), the City Boys Band, and Super Yaw Ofori's Band (which I don't know much about).  Below is a short excerpt of a nice review from the journal American Anthropologist that provides some more background information.  I encourage reading the full article, which you may download here as a PDF.  Click "Read More" to look at more of the paintings and listen to Super Yaw Ofori's Band.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Highlife Clarinet

Maybe the clarinet isn't exactly what we think of when we talk about highlife, but this instrument tends to appear in many, sometimes unexpected places. From the high-class dance music of E.T. Mensah to the rootsy guitar-band style of E.K. Nyame and the concert party, the clarinet adds something unique and quite out of the ordinary.

Here are three old recordings featuring the clarinet played in highlife style. Perhaps my favorite here is the second selection by the Osu Selected Union, in which the clarinet maneuvers dexterously in step with the melody while a playful argument is acted out between "Sowah" and his girlfriend "Ese" (drama ensues when Ese announces she is going out to attend the Homowo festival). You can find this recording on the collection "Ghana Popular Music, 1931-1957."

The Ga Quartet - Paulina

Osu Selected Union - Homowo Ese

E.K.'s Band - Agya Nyame Nka Wo Ho