Ghanaba, the music legend is no more

The Late Ghanaba
The Late Ghanaba

The world of music lost one of its most illustrious practitioners when the Divine Drummer, Kofi Ghanaba, died at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra Monday night. He was 85.

Ghanaba was the main African influence on jazz in the USA and Europe in the 1950s and is regarded in many circles as one of the founders of the Black Pride Movement for his insistence on a positive projection of Africa at all times.

His son, Glen Ghanababa Warren, confirmed to the Daily Graphic that his father was taken ill on Monday morning and was admitted to the hospital where he died in the night.

Ghanaba created his own profoundly African music and was known for his powerful pounding on the unique set of fontomfrom drums which he switched to after abandoning the usual Western drum kit.

The usual set comprised two large fontomfrom drums, placed on their sides with foot pedals attached. He played the fontomfrom with his feet, while playing a set of smaller drums arranged around him with sticks.

“He was in a class of his own,” veteran trumpeter Mac Tontoh said yesterday after hearing of the death of the man he knew very well. “It is sad to miss someone like him who opened international doors for African musicians. He brought the world’s attention to the ability of African musicians to create world-class music.”

Ghanaba was born Kpakpo Akwei in Accra on May 4, 1923 to Richard Akwei, an educationist, and Susana Awula Abla Moore, a trader. His fascination with America made him adopt the name Guy Warren, after Warren Gamaliel Harding, the 29th President of the US.

He attended Government Boys’ School and Achimota College, both in Accra, before joining the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra as drummer around 1940.

Apart from being a musician, Ghanaba worked variously as a reporter, newspaper editor and radio disc jockey in Liberia and England.

His big break came in 1955 when he went to Chicago in the US and joined Johnny Esposito’s band as co-leader, percussionist and arranger.

He recorded his famous Africa Speaks, America Answers album in 1956 with that band. The album contained his best known composition, That Happy Feeling. His other great album, Themes for African Drums, was recorded in New York.

Ghanaba met and befriended many of the leading jazz musicians of the time, including drummer Max Roach, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Lester Young and singer Billie Holiday, when he worked in the US. Many of those musicians admired Ghanaba’s tenacity to push ahead with his African approach to jazz.

Roach, who visited Ghanaba in Accra in the early 1970s, wrote, “I met Ghanaba in Chicago in 1956. He was so far ahead of what we were all doing that none of us understood what he was saying — that in order for Afro-American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilize with its African origins.”

A very outspoken person and keen follower of politics, Ghanaba was close to Dr Kwame Nkrumah and dedicated his autobiography, I Have A Story To Tell, to him. He was also a close pal of former President Jerry Rawlings.

Ghanaba’s last public performance was at the Goethe Institut in Accra last September where he appeared on a programme called The African Presence in Jazz.

“He was a good friend to us and we will miss him dearly,” the Director of the Goethe Institut, Mrs Eleonore Sylla, said.

Source: Daily Graphic

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