Guitarist Koo Nimo savours the Highlife
by Paul de Barros Copyright © 1999 Seattle Times Company April 26, 1999
Highlife is a lilting West African popular music that has a lot in common with the Trinidadian calypso.It was carried all over the world - like seeds blown in the wind - by black sailors during the early years of the century. Highlife's latest port of call is Elliott Bay.
Ghana's foremost exponent of Highlife acoustic guitar - Daniel Amponsah, who goes by the stage name Koo Nimo - is teaching in the University of Washington ethnomusicology department. Along with fellow visiting artist Ray Holman, a steel drum player from Trinidad, Koo Nimo presents a concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow in Meany Theater. Like jazz, samba, and rumba before it, Highlife evolved from the cross-fertilization of African and European approaches to music. In the 1920s, dance bands on the coast of Ghana adopted the jazz front line of trumpet, saxophone and trombone.
"This music was played for the upper part of society," explains the gentle, bearded, 64-year-old master guitarist, sitting comfortably in his house by the upper reaches of Lake Washington. A clipped accent and explosive phrasing, along with the jars of Marmite and orange marmalade on the kitchen table, betray his British/Ghanaian background.
"The common people were not allowed. So they looked in and said, `Ha! Those people are living the high life.' "
Koo Nimo - or simply Ko, as his friends: call him - plays a style called palm-wine music, a thumb-and-forefinger picking style with infectious rhythms from a six-string harp called the seperewa. At the University of Washington, Ko teaches not only guitar, but the drum patterns that inform the palm-wine cadences, and the folklore surrounding it. Like calypso, palm-wine songs deliver morals, messages, gossip, warnings and complaints - a sort of village bulletin board.
"In the afternoon, when the work was finished," explains Ko, "the men congregated around a big tree in the shade - like in an English pub - to tell stories and talk. A palm wine tapster would come with his pot, and the men would drink the wine and someone would begin to sing."
But never mind the wine. The delicate, buoyant melodies and rhythms of this man's guitar are intoxication enough. (Ko himself is a teetotaling Methodist.) Koo Nimo sings in Twi, the language of the Ashanti people, in a voice that is soft, throaty and resonant. His lyrics, however, are in an old and formal dialect, the language of the Ashanti court.
"In the court," he says, "we speak what in the British Palace they would say is the Queen's English. We use a lot of metaphors and proverbs and witty sayings. This is a mark of scholarship."
Koo Nimo moved to the court when he was 8 years old, after his sister married the king's brother. Though Ghana shed its British colonizers in 1957, the country retained its Ashanti monarch.
"As a small boy around the palace, I would hold the umbrella over the head of the Queen Mother when she left the official house," he recalls. "On festive days, all the musicians would come to the palace. There would be ceremonial horns, minstrels, drum orchestras and in the evening, around about 7, on Saturday, the master drummer would play attributes and appellations of all the kings that have occupied the golden stool (the Ashanti throne)."
Ko learned to play organ in the Methodist church in his village, and took up guitar at university, in 1951. He also had extensive exposure to jazz and classical music. (He is an avid fan of Thelonious Monk, whose niece once presented the guitarist with a photocopy of 27 of Monk's manuscripts.) But it was a later incident that made him realize he had a special calling for music.
"I joined the University of Science and Technology (in Kumasi), in 1960, as a chemistry technician," he recounts. "One evening, the students had been called to the dining hall, but they refused to go, because I was singing and telling jokes. One professor Duncanson, a physicist, called me and said, `My son, this is your life. This is you.' I thought, `Why should this old man talk to me like this?' I don't find anything extraordinary in what I am doing! But then I had a second thought: This man has realized something that I should really make a seed for growth, so that other crystals will grow. I decided, I'll pursue this."
Koo Nimo continued to work as a lab technician at the university for 38 years, but began to devote all of his spare time to collecting and studying traditional Ghanaian music.
"I went to villages, sitting in with old people, making notes," he recalls. "The man who taught me to play the seperewa was 100 years old! These musicians are passing at such a speed that you have to try to record them, work with them, respect them, because they have so much to give. I call them `libraries on fire.'
The notion of husbanding today's resources for tomorrow finds its way into Ko's lyrics. In the song, "Akora Dua Kube" ("An Old Man Plants Coconut"), a youngster asks his grandfather, "Why are you planting those trees, old man? You are 90 years old," and the old man answers, "I am thinking of tomorrow, and you must learn to do the same."
Koo Nimo's conversation is studded with such metaphors, as well as African proverbs, parables and quotes from the likes of Einstein ("Either everything is a miracle . . . or nothing is a miracle") and Gandhi ("Light your little candle and stop blaming darkness").
"Sometimes," comments Valerie Price, who studied for a year with Koo Nimo in Kumasi, "it seems like he has so many rhythms, so much stuff in his head, he just can't get it out fast enough. He's kind of an intellectual philanthropist."
Ko's philanthropy has been recognized, at home and abroad. In 1976, he was invited to represent Ghana at the Smithsonian Institution Folk-life Festival. In 1988, UNESCO brought him to Trinidad and Tobago to explore the linkage between Highlife and calypso. In Ghana, he serves on the board of the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation and was president of the musicians union for 10 years.
Though he is by no means a pop star - reggae, rap and more modern sounds prevail on Ghanaian radio - Ko is well-known and respected.
"He's definitely a celebrity," says Price, who adds that on her last trip through the Accra airport, "just mentioning his name" gave her carte blanche through customs.
When he returns to Kumasi this fall, Koo Nimo plans to start an African music "village," to teach traditional Ghanaian culture to children. "My one prayer is that my creator will allow me to live longer. There are so many more things I would like to do."