Interview with KWABENA BOAH-AMPONSEM Le Griot Vol. III, No.2, 1995, pp. 15-19

(AGYA KOO NIMO)

Picture of Koo Nimo

Guitarist and Folk Singer

by Christiane Owusu-Sarpong

Translated from French into English by Joe Latham

LE GRIOT
Agya Koo, Ghana celebrates in you a contemporary singer and musician who has sought to preserve Akan culture. The university community in Kumasi (UST) has known you for many years in the Biochemistry Department where you are the chief laboratory technician. In 1992, during the graduation ceremony, the University honoured you with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Recently, the United States has acclaimed you as the "repository of Ashanti music and culture" and Radio-France called you the contemporary "troubadour" of West Africa. A.L. Kaye, an American ethno-musicologist, chose your biography as the subject of his doctoral thesis. Agya Koo, in a word, you are a famous man. When you stop and think of the past, to what do you attribute such success?


KOO NIMO
I attribute it first to God, to my parents and my teachers, but also to my critics and my musicians, whose collective participation in my work has allowed me to reach where I am now. It seemed to me that Africa was being assailed by the West and that we were about to lose what gave sense to our life and to our people. So I decided to re-discover our cultural roots and to help Ghanaians to reject imitation. In order to do so, I have sought out the elders of our society and have had discussions with them. This was really necessary so that I could understand our culture better. Then I could describe it. I am greatly touched that my efforts have been recognised.

LE GRIOT
You do not much like being called a "traditionalist".Yet your music, the words of your songs and the values that you defend are, without doubt, "traditional". How do you explain this?

KOO NIMO
I do not object to the word "Tradition". I do not like to make use of it because it has heavy connotations. I prefer people to consider me as a folk-singer rather than as a "traditionalist". Moreover, I am convinced that all culture which is not inspired by its past to fill present cultural needs and lead to the future, is a dead culture. It is at times very difficult to resist outside influences. In the artistic field one could list numerous young painters who were inspired by Picasso and the great masters. I wish, for myself, to remain deeply African, whilst using modern techniques, for example, to preserve my music.

LE GRIOT
There is, however, a kind of "hybridisation" in your music, as you have explained yourself in the journal "The Monitor" in 1989. Your voice and your words plunge us into oral Akan literature. But your guitar, whose sounds are sometimes accompanied by those of very ancient Akan instruments, often evokes the Antilles and, above all, Brazil.

KOO NIMO
When slaves were transported to America and the Antilles, they took with them certain elements of our cultural heritage, in spite of being forbidden to use drums. They remembered songs that their ancestors sang. And today all African musicians who sing and drum do not fail to notice in the Antilles and in Brazil what has survived and what has been altered in the musical rhythm. The melodic contour there is more shrill than in West Africa. Music undergoes alterations. The calypso, in this sense, plays the same role in Trinidad and Tobago as the samba does in Brazil and "high-life" does in Ghana. In the film that I made called "Crossing Over", I have tried to see, with Ghanaian eyes, the difference in the music of the Antilles, and to find the manner in which changes have been resisted.

LE GRIOT
Amongst your songs, which is the one that you best like to sing? And why?

KOO NIMO
It is the song called "Obi awuo, obi nna - Onipa daberemu" (a song about the destiny of Man in Akan religious thought). It tells us of the different aspects of human personality and of the transformation of the human being in the course of his development, and finally, of the fact that one day the end comes. This song comforts me each time I sing it. It deals with human destiny between birth and death.

LE GRIOT
What is your most popular song in Ghana?

KOO NIMO
I think it is "ohia ye ya, Yare ye ya, Adesua ye ya" (poverty, illness and troubles are sources of misery). Indeed, it reflects real situations with which people in Ghana can identify. It is very painful, for example, to be forced to borrow money; the person who borrows is a beggar and poverty provokes rebellion. When illness grips you and you are penniless, your very life is in danger. Finally about studies. Most of my student friends, or researchers, agree in saying that to learn is a difficult task: to understand and comprehend, to trace out a path in the intellectual world, are all very difficult. This is, without doubt, what makes my song so popular.

LE GRIOT
Which of your songs brought the most success in the United States and the Antilles?

KOO NIMO
I think it was the song called "Overseas Life" that I wrote in London, "where elephants drink champagne ...... to overcome the cold weather" - it is a song that is much appreciated outside Ghana.

LE GRIOT
One sees you more often on the stage than on television, and you have made very few records or cassettes; this preference for direct contact brings you close to the masters of traditional speech - the drummers, the kwadwomfo (minstrels) and the mourners, who keep their poetic texts for major rituals and ceremonial occasions, Do you think that Art is a social business, rather than an individual commercial enterprise?

KOO NIMO
To perform on the stage gives me great satisfaction. I cannot experience this feeling when I perform on television, which deprives me of the presence of an audience. A singer needs the reaction of his public; the participation of the audience in the performance is particularly important in Africa where people never remain seated, simply to listen in silence, as is the case in American or British concert halls. They take part in the performance and this encourages the artist. Moreover, the stage is freer and less constrained than the studio, where you are told "You have three minutes to sing your song". On the stage, the artist has time to reveal different aspects of his personality. As an artist, I have a vital need for an audience.

LE GRIOT
You are on the point of retiring from the University, but everyone knows that for creative people like you, official retirement becomes in fact the time when old dreams can be realised. Is that the case for you?

KOO NIMO
Several days ago, I talked with a friend about the seventy years on earth (according to the Bible) that our Creator has allotted to us; I said jokingly that if I could communicate directly with my Creator, then I would plead in favour of an extension. I would like to live, I must confess, as long as possible. In fact, my retirement is planned for next year, but there remain several tasks for me to finish. In the first place I must continue to prepare those who come after me; people like Noah and Osei Kwame - players of the seperewa. But I also dream of creating a village of African music, where I would give priority to young children. I would tell them what I know of our history, of our religion and of our art forms - in particular, the language that is spoken in the palace. Such is my dream, a dream for which I have prepared myself all my life - to retire to a place open to all and to teach.

LE GRIOT
Amongst the people you have mentioned most often are J.H. Kwabena Nketia, J.B. Danquah, Captain Rattray.... but also people like Noah's father - a story teller - or like Okyerema Opon, the drummer from the Asantehene's court. Could you tell us in what way these men have influenced your life and your music?

KOO NIMO
Dr. Danquah was a philosopher, a lawyer and a writer, but, above all, he was a patriot. What I admire about him was his tenacity of purpose. Like me, he had an apprenticeship in the royal palace where he was secretary. I have myself, grown up in the court. When I read Danquah, he inspires me by talking of "Africanism", in quoting proverbs like:
"Me fre ntoma, ntoma mma, me fre sika, sika mma"
(If I call cloth, cloth is silent, if I call money, money is silent- only Man responds to the call).
He sends us important messages like:
"Animguase nfata okaniba"(to lose face does not befit the Akan - or I should say, the Ghanaian or the African).

I take pleasure in re-reading his writings and his lecture notes, and I appreciate that Danquah was not only a great teacher and a great orator, but that he left behind him material evidence of his sayings.

Kwabena Nketia is a very great and very modest ethno-musicologist. He also has influenced me a lot, encouraging me, by example, to preserve the seperewa, one of the most ancient musical instruments of the Akan. He also inspired me to take part in numerous musical seminars. He has a big influence on all musicians and musicologists in Ghana.

As for Rattray, I am happy to quote him because I have always found it astonishing that a European of his period should come to Ashanti, install himself in Mampong, and having learnt our language, undertake research work on our culture. One of his phrases very much stands out for me. It is a message that he gave to the chiefs, to Panin Nuamah, to the Bantamahene. He said:
"You must at all costs guard the national soul of your race and of your nation and never be tempted to despise your past, for therein, I believe, lies the sure hope that your sons and daughters will make their own original contribution to knowledge and progress."

I also sometimes quote Rousseau, Lincoln, Voltaire - without forgetting Descartes. I quote these men, because their life was a life of light which always illuminates us.

Noah's father, of whom I often speak is a very down-to earth man. He is a sculptor who has made my drums and a drummer whose son, Noah, I have adopted. He is a marvellous story teller, one of the old school, able occasionally to stop himself when his memory temporarily fails, and then resume the story. I often consult him when I am seeking to understand the significance of drumming or the role of particular drums.

Amongst the Ashanti drummers, there is one whom I cherish above all the others; he is okyerema opon, the husband of my late mother; who is now 87 years old. It is he who has taught me to drum and has told me all he knows about Ashanti drums, in particular the talking drums. Aside from him, one must not forget Akwasi Agyei, this other master drummer, who at this moment is the only one who knows how to play all the rhythmic forms of the adwoa (there are eleven) and who still remembers all the introductory procedures and all the calls that come before every individual rhythm.

Finally you have forgotten to mention Professor Albert Mawere Opoku, a great Ghanaian choreographer. He taught me to play the classical guitar; it is to people like him that one can apply the epithet of "libraries on fire". He remains for me a living legend, a walking museum.

LE GRIOT
Do you resent being interviewed for a Francophone journal and seeing the words of your songs in French?

KOO NIMO
I am quite delighted. I go to Martinique every second year and my great regret is not even to know how to pronounce one or two phrases in French. I often read in translated form the texts of French philosophers and I have discovered there a universality of certain moral concepts, which are present in my own songs. In the same way, by means of translation, the text of my songs could show our philosophy of life. Translated into French, our folklore provides a pleasant text for learning the French language in Ghana. French is essential for us, given the particular geographic location of our country. This translation seems to me to be very encouraging.

LE GRIOT
In Akan regions, the first question that one generally puts is the following: "Wo firi he"? (Where do you come from?) This is an important question for us. You have spent a large part of your life in Ashanti and you have sung many songs based on Ashanti history. However, while being Akan, you were not born in Ashanti. How can you resolve this dilemma. Where do you come from? This is an important question.

KOO NIMO
Let me tell you a story that I heard from the mouth of Professor Busia, who told it to illustrate the importance of greetings in Akan regions. He had to visit a friend and his friend had described to him the position of his house. On arrival in the neighbourhood, he left his car and walked in the direction he had been told. He found himself facing two houses . Not knowing where to go, he retraced his steps to ask an old woman who was doing her washing in the courtyard. He had previously passed in front of her and had not greeted her. So when he asked her "Nana, where is the house of ....?" she replied harshly "Wo firi he?"(where do you come from?) to which he replied "from Wenchi". She followed on with " And from what house in Wenchi do you come?" On learning of his royal origin, she did not congratulate him. "You are from a family of royal blood! And this is how you behave! You do not even know how to greet someone".

As for me, I was born in Foase in Ashanti, but my family is originally from the Denkyira kingdom, Nsuayen N.2 - a village near to Dunkwah (on the Offfin), and I have a Denkyira name Kwabena Boah Amponsem. Wo firi he? is an important question. I have not forgotten my origins, even if I have lived all my life in Ashanti because my sister married Nana Kwame Bonsu, the brother of the occupant of the Golden Stool, so that I grew up in the royal court.

In connection with this question of the importance of origins, I will tell you a last story. In 1976, I was making a singing tour of the United States at the invitation of the Smithsonian Institution. My group had taken with them clay, a mortar and a pestle. It was for decorating the walls of a traditional priest's house in the museum. After two weeks of sight-seeing in Washington, we could not carry with us all the clay that was left over and threw it to the ground before going to George Town University. The next morning, I saw our guide starting to gather up the clay and rub it on his body. I said to him "Ethan, what are you doing?" and he replied: "You do not understand... This clay is the soil of Africa" - showing that the soil of Africa had tremendous importance for him.



Translated from the French article by Joe Latham , Glasgow, May 1996