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!!

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