Preserving the African Presence in Jazz

By Seth Paris

January, 2009

Nestled at the base of a green rolling hill, thirty minutes north of Accra, Ghana in the small village of Medie, is the African Heritage Library, the home of Odomankoma Kyrema, the “Divine Drummer” Kofi Ghanaba. Formerly known as Guy Warren, Ghanaba is one of the more elusive musicians of the 20th century. His musical career spanned eight decades, three continents, and led to 7 commercial releases. On Dec. 23, 2008 at the age of 85, just three months after his last performance and recording session, Kofi Ghanaba passed away. A truly infamous character, Ghanaba was known as a master musician, a spiritualist, a friend and confidant to presidents, a crazy hermit, a traditionalist and a revolutionary. The story of Kofi Ghanaba is the story of insatiable ego, boundless creativity, and the rebirth of the African identity in the 20th century.

The African Heritage Library (AHL), chronicling the work of this master musician, journalist, disc jockey, and revolutionary is one of many cultural heritage collections in Ghana at risk. When I first encountered the AHL as an NYU student in 2004, we dusted off the piles of old recordings, photographs, newspapers and ephemera that tell the story of the life of one of West Africa’s most interesting musicians and journalists. Dust covered every surface and holes created by pests damaged the papers and cardboard boxes, while spiders and other insects occupied every nook and cranny of the collection. These conditions coupled with extreme humidity fluctuations and high humidity took a serious toll on old newspapers, photo negatives, reel-to-reel tapes, audio cassettes and records. Old tapes in plastic enclosures were fairing best, but tapes that had been left out in this less than optimum environment were completely destroyed. I could easily see that if major preservation efforts were not undertaken soon, the most unique items in the collection would not survive.

Born Warren Gamaliel Akwei in the Cadere Zongo neighborhood of Accra on May 4th, 1923, Ghanaba was exposed to a wide variety of music from an early age. In the burgeoning ghettos of a new urban African landscape a new type of musician was developing. Ghanaba, born into the Ga tribe, was not trained just as a master drummer in his own cultural heritage. Instead, the influx of urban migrants, lured by the financial, educational and cultural gains afforded by colonial cities, exposed Ghanaba to the music of several cultural heritages. Among these are: the Ga, Ewe, Akan, Fante, Hausa, Dagomba, Builsa, and Lobi cultures. In addition to indigenous African music, Ghanaba was exposed to Western musical styles. Brass band music and new guitar styles were becoming popularized by the end of the 19th century up and down the West African Coast. By the early1930s, just around the corner from his childhood home, Warren Gamliel was watching live Jazz performed by a small trio at the Gold Coast Bar. By the end of World War II, bolstered by an influx of American and British soldiers stationed there, the popular styles of American and European music, such as jazz, calypso, fox-trot, cha-cha, rhumbas and waltzes, were being transfigured into the African vernacular. In Ghana, “Highlife” was emerging and young Warren was listening.

From an early age Warren was an entertainer, renowned for his dancing, singing and drumming. Little Kpakpo (a Ga term of endearment for small children), as his admirers then knew him, could dance Ewe Agbatsia just as easily as he could imitate the tap dancing of Al Jolson. By the age of 12 he was singing tenor in his church choir and much to his mother’s dismay, soon became the house drummer at the Gold Coast Bar playing late into the evenings. As a member of the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra in1937 at the age of 14, and a few years later as a founding member of the Tempos Band, Warren was an active force in Ghanaian popular music. In his teenage years he took the name Guy Warren to sound more American. With fellow musicians, like saxophonist Joe Kelly and bassist Oscarmore Ofori, Guy was part of the generation to bring the influences of African-American musical styles into mainstream Ghanaian culture. During 1948, Guy Warren worked with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists in the UK, and when he returned to Ghana, helped introduce Afro-Cuban rhythms to the country. By now, Ghanaian popular music had become a hybrid of indigenous African and African-American rhythms and melodies with Western instruments and harmonies. During the era leading up to independence, popular music became one of the most important tools in spreading a post-colonial African identity and cosmopolitanism into the hinterlands and surrounding countries in West Africa.

In addition to being a professional musician, Guy was also a reporter and disc jockey. He was known amongst the political elite, including Kwame Nkrumah and the last British Governor, Sir Charles Noble Arden-Clarke. In 1953 Guy relocated to Monrovia, Liberia where he was a disk jockey for the Voice of America on ELBC radio. During this time he also became the first African to broadcast on the BBC World Service. For Guy, an important part of his experience in Liberia was access to the ELCB record collection. This was one of the largest collections of records available anywhere in West Africa, and exposed Guy to everything from Beethoven Sonatas to field recordings of the Royal Watutsi Drummers of the Belgian Congo. As his musical experience widened, Guy set his sights upon the United States. This time he was ready to bring, in his own words, “the African presence” back to Jazz.

In 1954 Guy Warren traveled to the United States with dreams of making it big on the American jazz scene. After a brief stay in New York, he found a home in Chicago performing with the Red Saunders Orchestra under the direction of Gene Esposito. This collaboration resulted in the album, “Africa Speaks, America Answers”. It was released by Decca in 1954 in an attempt to jump on the Exotica craze. A very early example of Afro Jazz, it sold more than one million copies worldwide despite achieving little commercial success in the United States. The music blends Ghanaian folksongs and Highlife rhythms with jazz instruments and classical orchestration, as well as featuring very modern jazz composition. In 1955 Ghanaba relocated to New York City where he ran a nightly engagement at the African Room.

Though he received little critical acclaim during his years performing in the US, Guy met many of his idols, including Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billy Holiday, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Max Roach. But his steadfast ideas about music and his unwillingness to adapt his musical style to the musicians around him led to little meaningful collaboration with the musicians he idolized. It was the mid 1950s, the smooth sounds of Bossa Nova was all the rage. Very few people, least of all African American jazz musicians searching for their own identities within American culture were interested in the African roots of jazz. Ghanaba was an oddity. His music was considered to be too strange, and he was often brashly outspoken against the community he wanted to influence and the industry behind it. Had he arrived in New York in 1959 or 1960, he would have likely found open arms in the avant-garde movement led by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Don Cherry. Max Roach later generously paid tribute to Ghanaba’s earlier potential influence on this movement with the following words:

“Ghanaba was so far ahead of what we were all doing, that none of us understood what he was saying – that in order for African-American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilize with its African origins. . . we ignored him. Seventeen years later the African sound of Ghanaba is now being imitated all over the United States.”

It is a stretch to proclaim that Ghanaba, as a drummer and composer, was as influential to the sound of jazz as Roach claims. But the ideology behind his music, the “African Presence in Jazz,” as Ghanaba proclaimed it, seems more resonant now than it did at the time his music was first released. His subsequent American recordings, (featuring bassist Richard Davis and trombonist Lawrence Brown) “Themes for African Drums – The Guy Warren Sounds” (1958), and “African Rhythms – The Exciting Sounds of Guy Warren and his Talking Drums” (1959) sound as fresh and ahead of their time today as they did when they were released. Ghanaba’s composition for solo drum kit, “Third Phase,” found on “Africa Rhythms,” is an amazing performance and is a must listen for all modern jazz drummers.

In 1960 a disillusioned Guy Warren returned to Ghana, where he would reside up until his death. By the 1970s he had adopted Buddhism, was heavily influenced by the writings of Khalil Gilbran, and became a spiritual recluse. At a special ceremony at the African Village in London in 19??, Guy Warren was given the title of Odomankoma Kyrema, the “Divine Drummer,” and once again took a new name. This time, Kofi Ghanaba, meaning “Son of Ghana.”

Ghanaba spent the remainder of his musical career performing on his “African drum kit,” consisting of 7 large Ga Fontomfrom drums, usually found in the court of the Ga Mantia (King), and arranged them like an American drum kit. This massive drum kit was built at the Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology in Kumasi. During the 1970s-1980s Ghanaba’s home became a destination for drummers interested in African music. He was visited by Max Roach, Ginger Baker, Ed Blackwell, Fela Kuti (who he threw out for showing up without an appointment), and Royal Hartigan. In the 1980’s he was once again active in Ghanaian politics as friend and confidant of then President J. J. Rawlings. As the years progressed, Ghanaba continued to move as the capital of Accra expanded outward, always remaining an enigmatic character on the fringe of Ghanaian culture. Ghanaba finally settled in Medie Village, 30 minutes north of Accra, where he will be buried beneath his favorite meditation spot.

In the face of this intrigue and the challenges presented by the condition of the collection, I returned to Medie in 2007 with the support of New York University and a U.S. Dept. of State Fulbright grant to begin the first major preservation work in the 30 year history of the AHL. Before departing for Ghana, I had the great luck of meeting Chris Lacinak of Audiovisual Preservation Solutions (AVPS), a New York based audiovisual preservation consulting firm. With his vast expertise in providing archival assistance to archivists charged with the care of audiovisual collections, we were able to design workflows for assessing, cataloging and prioritizing the collection for preservation digitization.

Although Ghanaba had meticulously organized and noted his collection during his reclusion, his system had deteriorated in recent years. A combination of excavation of the existing paper catalog and the capture of Ghanaba’s reminiscences about the remarkable contents of the collection shortly before his death was fortuitous for the ultimate fate of the collection. Some of the highlights of this collection are: field recordings of traditional music made in Ghana and Liberia, live performance of popular music in Ghana, speeches by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and Pres. J. J. Rawlings, and Ghanaba’s home recordings, which include musical interactions with Max Roach and Ginger Baker. There are also over 160 rare 78rpm discs of Ghanaian popular music dating back to the 1930s.

Two of the most interesting, and most at risk items in the collection, are two open-reel audio tapes recorded in Chicago with Gene Esposito during the 1950s which lead to the “Africa Speaks, America Answers” recording session. In addition, Ghanaba had approximately 1600 discs (33, 45 and 78rpms) of American, European and African commercial music, much of it not available elsewhere in Ghana.

Upon local completion of cataloging and collection assessment efforts, Chris Lacinak brought his expertise to Ghana. The AHL partnered on this project with NYU beginning in 2004, and in May 2007 AVPS assisted in setting up a state-of-the-art audio preservation lab at the NYU in Ghana academic center. Chris, who is also an adjunct professor in the Moving Image Preservation graduate program (MIAP) at NYU/Tisch School of the Arts, provided hands on preservation training and documentation for use in saving the collection. By October 2008, 1134 items were cataloged, over 20 hours of rare and unique home and commercial recordings were digitized, and 288 historic photos were scanned. Most importantly, a stable system for preservation work was established in Ghana that will be of use to other local heritage collections that hold audiovisual materials. Continued funding is now being sought to focus on the digitization of ¼” open reel tapes in the collection.

In the digital age, the increased ease of distribution of recorded sounds and images has dramatically changed the global landscape. The quantity of recordings available in the United States and Europe from virtually all parts of the globe is staggering. But in Ghana and much of the developing world this is unfortunately not the case. Katamanto Market in Central Accra, not far from the neighborhood where Ghanaba grew up, has a row of corrugated tin roof shacks that serve as the major distribution point for all of the cassettes, CDs, VCDs and DVDs available in Ghana today (with the exception of contemporary Francophone Afro pop music entering across the borders of Ghana’s neighboring countries).

One can walk for a half-mile down the narrow dirt path lined with recordings, a different hit blasting full volume from the speakers of each seller only feet away, and easily find cassettes and CDs of Akon, R Kelly, Justin Timberlake, Dolly Parton or Don Williams. Contemporary Ghanaian highlife, hip life, reggae and gospel, which are largely not available outside of Ghana, are also in abundance. As you continue searching through the cacophony of sound and colors in the market it becomes readily apparent that there is little distribution of Ghanaian music recorded before or during the “golden age” of Highlife. There is almost no early Ghanaian Palmwine Guitar music, or 1940s and 50s Dance Band Highlife. Even though Lagos, Nigeria is less than a single day away by car, it is even difficult to find recordings of Fela Kuti, one of the popular African musicians in the world today.

Until serious preservation work began on the audio collection at the African Heritage Library, the recordings of Kofi Ghanaba, considered by many to be one of Ghana’s cultural icons, were not easily accessible in Ghana. Due to these efforts, all of Ghanaba’s commercial recordings are now available for listening at the African Heritage Library and at the NYU in Ghana academic center. The tools of cultural preservation available today and the ease with which audiovisual materials can be distributed around the world have created new responsibilities and opportunities. It is possible today to have a collection of recordings even larger than the one at ELBC in the palm of your hand.

With further support, audio recordings held at the African Heritage Library and other audiovisual collections in Ghana could be shared both locally and abroad, exposing interested musicians and music lovers to previously unavailable recordings. The continuation of the cultural exchange experienced in the 20th century, once exemplified by the cosmopolitan experience of growing up in a newly diverse Accra during 1930s and 40s, is now a technological responsibility of the first world in the 21st Century. The democratization of education, through public access to archives such as the African Heritage Library should be considered a vital part of aid and development projects around the world.

With his passing, the true story of the life of Kofi Ghanaba, a part of the oral history of Ghana in the 20th century may remain shrouded in mystery. But his music is now ensured the opportunity to continue preaching the “African Presence in Jazz” long after the Divine Drummer’s heart gave its final beat.