Monday, October 27, 2008

Accra and The Prophet

What's new:

Music: I'm still working hard at drumming, and working on a few new songs: "Agbadja" (with sticks) and "Kpalogo" (with hands). Slowly my sound is improving, and there are some upcoming opportunities to perform with other musicians in the next few weeks. I *finally* got a keyboard and it's a real piece of junk: an early-90s vintage Casios with 4 octaves, 100 preloaded rhythms that all suck and the ability to play no more than 4 notes at a time. But I've never been more excited to have something to play on, and I'm hoping to jam a bit with some Ghanaian musicians. I'm getting to know my students in orchestration and jazz piano, and they are really great people, very talented and appreciative of my teaching. It's been a great experience so far.

Accra: I'm starting to explore the city more and more. On one trip I saw the commercial center of the city (Adabraka), the National Museum, and an art store with authentic Ghanaian paintings. I also saw some live "jazz" at the Golden Tulip hotel, a 4-star hotel near the Airport. The jazz sounded like it was from the 1930s, and it wasn't exactly my style, but the hotel courtyard took me away from Ghana with its modern atmosphere and truly international mix of people (mostly wealthy, so I didn't exactly fit in).

Accra is hard to pin down; some areas feel modern and vibrant, with 25-story skyscrapers and stores stocked with new tvs and appliances, and some areas are cramped, smelling of sewage and public urination. Some roads are well-paved and wide, others are dirt roads that ride like a wooden roller coaster. Traffic can be brutal at times, but there are windows where getting around is quite easy. There's still much more to explore, and I'm sure my impression of the city will constantly change.

I took a trip north with my neighbors (Solomon, who lived in Toronto for 30 years, and Peace, his wife) to a traditional church service. The trip took over an hour, and the service lasted almost 6 hours!! The church, called The Church of Rabbi, was "Christian", but certainly not in the Western sense. The service started with a few junior pastors preaching in Twi, the local language, interrupted by traditional music (a highlight for me, most of it was just awesome) so they could take a breather.

However, once the Prophet Kwabena Takiah arrived, things became a bit less structured but more serious, as he called people up to solve their problems (which either resembled an episode of Judge Judy or a televangelist), preached a bit on whatever topic he felt like, and left the church from time to time to attend to his visions. The Prophet had a commanding presence, and was able to conjure up fear and laughter from his parishioners throughout the service. According to my neighbor, in the 20 years that the Prophet has led the church, no member has died! Many people told me that he was a great man and had solved many problems for them. I was even called up at one point to receive a blessing from the Prophet, who welcomed me and proceeded to drench me in a ridiculous amount of oil from a special horn. I was glad to get home and wash myself!!

Being a white man: While I continue to have a great experience in Ghana, it has been tough at times. First, I am here completely on my own, independent of any program. While this has been a great asset, since I have been able to decide how to structure my time, it's been hard having no one to share in the same experiences. I've met some American exchange students at the University, but they live on campus with other foreigners and have their own circle of friends. While they are friendly, I haven't really connected with any of them yet. I'm starting to become friends with several Ghanaians but I have to be cautious with who I can trust.

I also constantly stand out. Since I usually travel alone, I'm the only white person in almost all situations. And this means people notice me, and want to talk. Sometimes they just want to say "Good afternoon", or "How are you?", or just ask permission to be my friend, or maybe I'm the subject of a laugh while riding on a tro-tro, or maybe they want to teach me a little Twi (the most common language taught to foreigners). In fact, one friendly guy taught me a few phrases in Twi, then offered to give me lessons for $100/hr! We laughed about it.

But this is a common perception: that as a white man I have lots of money, and this is when standing out isn't so good. Strangers sometimes ask me for money, and even my "friends" will pressure me to help them out using a variety of tactics. This is often the hardest to deal with: for instance, the man who rakes leaves for me each week haggled with me for 20 minutes to give him some extra money after I had already lent him some the previous week. I don't mind helping people out, but I don't like being seen as an ATM; I just want to be seen as a regular person.

Now with all of that being said, most Ghanaians are INCREDIBLY kind and friendly. Strangers who I've asked for directions have shown me the way and paid for a taxi. My neighbor has washed my clothes and insisted I don't pay him twice. Many many people have helped me out. So all in all, Ghana is way cool. Sometimes I wish I wasn't a white guy. Maybe I'll pull a reverse Michael Jackson (but what would this mean for my nose?)!

Hope all is well in the US...take care, and expect another post soon!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Random musings

RANDOM MUSING #1: In the streets of Ghana you may come across stores (which may be a 6x6x10 wooden shack, or part of a concrete building) that have names like these:

God Reigns Cold Store
Gifted Hand Beauty Salon
No Weapon Beauty Salon
Alpha & Omega Unit Transfer
Girls Next Door Mini-Mart
Merchants of Daughters Security Systems
Sober Spot Drinking Bar & Food Joint (a bit of an oxymoron?!)
But Seek First the Destiny of God Construction Works

You might see on the back of a taxi or tro-tro:

Holy Ghost Fire
God Dey

RANDOM MUSING #2: The fruit here is fresh, cheap and available almost anywhere. Here is my list of favorite fruit in Ghana:

1. Mango (not currently in season, but occasionally you can find it)
2. Pineapple (
its so soft and juicy you can eat almost the entire fruit)
3. Plantains (fried, heated, as chips, its delicious any way its been prepared)
4. Guava (very sweet, this fruit was new to me)
5. Banana (best bananas I've ever tasted, smaller and sweeter than ones in the US)
6. Grapes (I've only seen red)
7. Coconut (coconut trees are everywhere...someone climbs a tree, pulls them down, cuts them open, and you drink the juice. Then you can scoop out the goopy white stuff inside and eat it. But it stains your clothes)
8. Orange (most of the skin is cut away, the top is cut open, and you squeeze what's left of the skin to get the juice out of the open top. Basically you are drinking juice straight from an orange)
9. Papaya (hadn't had this before, resembles melons)

RANDOM MUSING #3: The sound of what seems like a million frogs outside my house is driving me insane. It starts at dark, maybe about 8pm, and seems to continue on and off all night long. If you don't hear from me again, I'm probably out trying to find and capture all the frogs so I can take them to Burkina Faso.

I'm working on getting a camera, but it probably will be a while before I post pictures. Farewell!

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Baby, can I take you to the Babicue"

Favorite songs I’ve heard on the radio while riding in tro-tros:

[reggae beat]
I’m gonna leave my AK-47
Down 'der in A-mer-i-ca
Down ‘der in A-Eur-o-pa
Down ‘der in A-Rus-si-cka
And enter Mt. Zion in peace

The Barack Obama song (can’t remember the lyrics)

Baby, can I take you to the Ba-bi-cue (=Barbeque)
Baby, can I take you to the Ba-bi-cue
7 o’clock the time, 7 o’clock
7 o’clock the time, 7 o’clock

One of the main reasons I came to Ghana was to see authentic performances of traditional music. Numerous attempts to actually see of these performances failed (but on one attempt I got to watch someone snort coke, so at least I learned something), and I began to think that the elusive “societies” that performed for funerals, naming of babies, rites of passage, and other festive occasions didn’t actually exist.

Luckily, this all changed yesterday (Sunday) when my drumming teacher took me to an Ewe (an ethnic group) celebration somewhere in the convoluted streets of Accra. The festivities took place in a small courtyard between houses where about 50 people, young and old, male and female, crammed in. I had to put on the colorful authentic cloth around my waist worn by all participants. The celebration had already started when I arrived, and it was a sensory overload: people were shouting, singing, clapping, drumming, dancing, singing, smiling at me, staring at me, grabbing my hand, making me dance...

I had been working with my teacher on “Kinka”, a song that would be performed at this society, and theoretically I was supposed to “sit in” with the musicians after I figured out what was going on. After soaking up the scene for about 20 minutes, I was playing one of the 7 rattles (maracas), trying not to mess up the rhythm I learned 10 seconds ago which might piss off one of the old guys playing next to me. The drummers were drinking shots from the cap of a bottle filled with a mystery liquid (it smelled like gin) that made you play STRONGER, and encouraged me to drink so I too could play stronger. 15 minutes later I was playing the kagan, one of the 7 drums which included 2 master drums over 8 feet tall. After some surprised stares and encouraging smiles, I was starting to relax and settle down.

Then someone grabbed my hand and passed me the huge sticks to one of the master drums, which was a signal. Before I knew it I was playing the variations of "Kinka" that I had worked on the past 3 weeks. The dancers started going crazy, surprised to see a white man playing Ewe music! Women came up to me and draped a cloth on my back. I was locked in, playing confidently and having fun. But it all came crashing down: I accidentally interrupted the other master drummer, and I became confused and hesitated, and soon the sticks were taken away from me. I felt a little sheepish, but I danced for a little bit, played some more kagan, and had another stint at the master drum later on.

This experience was the best day in Ghana I’ve had so far: the music filled me up and deeply moved me. And I still have so much to learn about the music here…next time I go to this society, I’ll be a better drummer and have a better idea what and when to play. I hope to experience many more performances of traditional music in my time here.

Everything else has been fine: I’m still teaching my orchestration class at the university, I’m teaching jazz piano to a group of three students which is going really well, and I’ve visited the Noyam Dance Institute twice. Noyam is a professional dance company about one-and-a-half hours away, and I’m hoping to study their versions of traditional music, and maybe even compose a piece for them to perform. I’ve also been hanging out with a honest-to-goodness Canadian, eh, who is visiting her dad (my neighbor) for 10 days. It’s been a real boost to have someone to talk to and hang out with, and to share the joys and frustrations of Ghana.

There are always a few daily frustrations: not being able to wash my clothes by hand that well yet (and the girl who is supposed to come and help me out never shows up), accidentally riding a bus that took over an hour to fill up when I could have taken a tro-tro instead, mistakenly giving out my phone number to a dude in the neighborhood who wanted to be my "friend", then receiving 6 phone calls from him at 1am (I'll never make THAT mistake again!), running water being gone for 2-4 days, and so on... but I'm so glad to be here.

Thanks for all of the comments, sorry I haven’t replied individually but I miss everyone! I have much more to talk about so expect another post soon… I'll be back in exactly 5 months!!