The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Jazz Cosmopolitanism in Accra: Five Musical Years in Ghana
by Steven Feld
(Duke University Press; Durham and London)

Guy Warren/Ghanaba: From Afro-Jazz to Handel via Max Roach

Ghanaba at home                                                             ©1998 Nii Yemo Nunu, Kotopon Afrikan Images


‘‘Excuse me?’’

‘‘You heard me, I said ‘racists,’ fucking racists!’’

‘‘Come on, who are you talking about?’’

‘‘Your people, so many of them. It’s where I have to start the story with you. You said you wanted to talk today about my relationship to American jazz, jazz music, jazz musicians. And I’m telling you, in a word, what I think of all of that. They’re racists.’’

‘‘Why racists? Why use that word?’’

‘‘Because they thought we were incomplete versions of them. They thought that jazz was better than us, more sophisticated, that, you know, we stopped on the evolutionary ladder. That what we had to do with jazz was in the past, you know, that it was just about drums and the slave times. Well that’s bullshit. And it’s racist.’’

Ghanaba is in a feisty mood. He’s chosen to start off one of our conversations with a punch. He’s fond of boxing, and has used punching language often when talking to me about drumming. (His own boxing name was Kpakposhito, his name Kpakpo plus shito, ‘red hot pepper.’) He’s also fond of being a tough guy who has for years enjoyed a public image as defiant, proud, rough, boisterous, and outspoken. He is well known for ruffling feathers by his use of crude speech in public. Offstage I’ve learned that it is just his fire, his passion for verbal sparring in English, mixing the language of the street with that of refined debate. He loves to get in the ring and work out with someone he considers a suitable partner. This is how it goes with us, and I like his candid honesty, even if it occasionally makes the conversation quite prickly.

Among artists and intellectuals I’ve met in Ghana, Ghanaba is surely among the most outspoken and articulate. He loves language, poetry, and literature of all kinds, and it shows on his bookshelves, his recording collection of many singers in many languages, and in his everyday speech. Friends tell me he is particularly eloquent when speaking Ga, his first language. And as you can hear in the Hallelujah! Film conversation, his impeccable English is spoken with a distinctly North American accent, with nothing of the typical hint of colonial British or Ghanaian English pronunciation common to Accra.

Over the three years of our association, I sparred with Ghanaba’s pugilistic side on quite a few occasions, particularly when I brought up names of people or specific historical incidents that irritated him. He could be brutally dismissive in his judgments and terribly tough on even his most loyal friends. But I also saw his remarkably soft side, contemplative, spiritual, and warm, as when I would show up at his far-from-Accra hideaway and find him deep in thought and meditation during and after reading his bibles, teachings of Mohammed, the Buddha, the Kabbala, and Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, his favorite book, the one he gives to friends, quotes often, reads even more often. And while Ghanaba’s playfulness is less known to the public, you can see it quite clearly in the last part of the ‘‘Hallelujah’’ chorus performance, when he clowns with the Winneba Youth Choir and mugs for my camera, encouraging me, behind the lens, to dance with him.

But in the conversation we just opened, I really want to understand how he is thinking about racism and a place for African music in relation to jazz. Back to him:

‘‘Maybe it’s not what you think of as racist, maybe you are just thinking about your own story, or how whites have treated blacks in America. But from the African side, I’m talking about racism. And it’s just as racist when it comes from the African American musicians as when it comes from the white critics and record producers. You see, that’s what they didn’t understand about me in the fifties. That I saw through the racism, saw through THEIR racism, all of it, black, white, whatever, saw through all of their jazz bullshit. Jazz, Jazz, Jazz. They were talking all their AMERICAN jazz bullshit. That’s why they had no use for me, you see, that’s why they said I didn’t fit in. Because I wasn’t part of that american jazz bullshit’’ (his voice heightened, his emphasis delivered precisely). ‘‘I didn’t want to sit behind a trap drummer with some congas, just playing some little African thing, what do you call them . . . huh? . . . ‘fills’ . . . behind the real drummer. That’s what they wanted, that was how they wanted Africa to fit into jazz. They wanted ‘fills.’ They couldn’t imagine our music as equal, as something that they should learn and have to meet. That’s why I didn’t fit in, that’s why it’s racist, that American jazz bullshit. It’s racist.’’

Ouch. Ghanaba’s narrative lands like a right hook, and its sting is more than a little complicated. As I came to hear versions of it over the years, I wondered what part was just bitterness verging on self-aggrandizement, and what part was a really serious challenge to the business-as-usual discourse on jazz qua pluralism, democracy, and race in America, like the much pilloried Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis, PBS-sponsored, nationalist American jazz-gumbo master narrative.

I occasionally brought up Ghanaba’s ideas with Ghanaian friends to see how they played. In one instance the response was quite pointed: ‘‘Yes, he’s got it! Why celebrate us as where something else came from?’’ The speaker was Nat Nuno Amarteifio, an architect, art collector and connoisseur, and former mayor of Accra, educated in the seventies at Howard and Pratt. What he picked up on and echoed was the dead-end cultural politics of celebratory citations of Africa as a place of origins with no further space for negotiating a truly historical presence. This is exactly what Ghanaba had been saying for a long time, that Africa was often reduced to a distant place and time in the American story of jazz. He found that narrative to be an act of cultural humiliation, with no serious space for engaging with Africa in the present.

To discuss Africa and jazz with Ghanaba was always to become aware of the potency of history, of the vicissitudes of a music whose dynamic origins were overtaken, in terms of both acoustic and social complexity, by diasporic dialogues, global crossings, and transnational feedback. In some of Ghanaba’s orations, I also heard a very local spin on a perspective associated with Marshall Sahlins, the ‘‘tradition is a mode of change’’ school of historical anthropology. Ghanaba presented his version of it in our conversations around the concept of sankofa, of retrieval into presence (from the Akan word meaning ‘‘go back and take’’). ‘‘If you want to go forward, go back to your roots’’ is the way Ghanaba put it in our conversation following the Hallelujah! film. The idea is iconized by the bird whose neck cranes over its shoulder to take an egg off its back, the proverbial Asante adinkra symbol you see topping Ghanaba’s golden staff in the film. Here as elsewhere, the past is not something fully finished and the present is not something fully immediate. History is the over the- shoulder urgency to connect the past to now.

Before I dig further into his experience of jazz in America from 1953 to 1958, and into why Warren ultimately rejected it to return to Ghana, it is worth mentioning that there are other biographies in Ghanaian music that share some of this musical expansiveness. In writings on the interplay of jazz feedback in Africa and African roots in diasporic popular musics, the Ghana popular music historian John Collins also links the sankofa art movement to the outlook of the Kumasi guitarist Koo Nimo. He writes: ‘‘Despite basing his music on the old palm wine technique of playing guitar, he is able to blend that style with jazz and the bossa nova. As he explains: ‘I am going to marry the traditional highlife guitar with Spanish and Latin American music; an Afro-Spanish style using traditional rhythms with arpeggio. I always use finger-picking, never the plectrum. Also I want to develop an Afro-jazz and use Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian type chords in it.’ ’’

Koo Nimo’s words here echo Ghanaba’s long embrace of multiple fusions of popular genres and styles with African music, acknowledging that these diasporic forms have long had histories of expansion and contraction, breakdown and renewal. This makes a lot of sense in the context of Ghanaba’s biography. His childhood was shaped in the 1930s and 1940s by the sound world of bars and streets criss-crossing an extraordinary urban zone of migrations, Accra’s Kadri Zongo, his mother’s home place. The swing jazz he heard there, especially during the war years, when he encountered African American soldiers, overlapped with many layers of music from Ghana – Ga, Asante, and Ewe, plus music of Nigerian Hausa origin, Kru songs and dances from Sierra Leone, songs of multiple migrants and sailors coming and going. At the same time he absorbed the considerable presence of popular music and dance from American movies, from which he also learned to tap dance in the style of Bill ‘‘Bojangles’’ Robinson. And once he started with drumming, Warren’s class position brought access to the best teachers in the Accra of his youth, and later teachers who imparted mastery of Western harmony, notation, and composition during his time at Achimota College.

All of these experiences were in play in 1943, when the twenty-year-old Warren Gamaliel Akwei changed his name to Guy Warren, dropped out of Achimota, and went to America for the first time courtesy of the wartime Office of Special Services, which trained him to return as a journalist while working covertly as a spy. By the time he got back to Ghana (then Gold Coast) to work as a journalist-spy, he was already sure that he would in time return to America to become a jazz musician.

In a 2007 autobiographical statement he remembers the moment like this: ‘‘By an interesting, if not miraculous coincidence at that point in time, I had read an article in an American show-biz magazine about one of the up and coming jazz stars of the period. He was Billy Eckstine, an excellent jazz musician. He had decided whilst he was at Howard University to take to the jazz world, and had dropped out of Howard and gone to jazz. Now, by another coincidence, Billy looked like me physically. He was my double!!! I decided firmly to drop out of Achimota and go jazz! And I did, bag and baggage! Just like Billy!’’

Right then, jazz was America and America was jazz, and part of the whole identification process for Warren involved rejecting things British as colonial and empire. Warren was imagining a life of jazz in America, but his world of music was already a big world, of many musics that jazz touched. While drumming with the Tempos highlife band in the late 1940s, he went to London and played with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists, bringing back bongo drums and calypso experiences from his interactions with the early wave of London Trinidadians. By the time he left Ghana for Liberia in 1950, and then the United States, where he arrived in 1953, he was musically aware of South African kwela and township music, of soukous from Congo, jùjú from Nigeria, and perhaps makossa from Cameroon. The background to his African musical universe was seriously reflexive; he understood that African music contributed hugely to popular musics in the U.S. and the Caribbean diasporas. And he knew that the diaspora had fed back its own fusions into African popular styles, particularly in the case of Ghanaian highlife, through the influences of both jazz and calypso.

The dynamism Warren sought to explore in America was a matter of hybridizing the hybrid through rearticulation of roots. Thus, in 1973, when the historian John Collins asked him: ‘‘Why did you change from playing jazz to developing your own Afro-jazz fusions?’’ he replied: ‘‘It was a personal decision I made in my room in Chicago. I remember it very well. I said to myself, ‘Guy, you can never play like Gene Krupa, Max Roach, or Louis Bellson. They have a different culture, and they can never play like you.’ I had to make a choice between being a poor imitation of Buddy Rich or playing something they couldn’t. I could play jazz well, but I possessed something that nobody else had, so I started to play African music with a little bit of jazz thrown in, not jazz with a little bit of African thrown in.’’

Warren’s idea was to give a more leading role to African creativity in the production of jazz music. But this hit a brick wall in mid-1950s America. Bebop was the rage. Africa’s place was imagined to be long in the past, not in the present. The diasporic drive in bebop was Afro-Cuban, also imagined to be far from Africa.

© 2012 Duke University Press

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