Up-Up-Up and More Up
An Appreciation of Koo Nimo
by Andrew L. Kaye
Since about the mid-twentieth century, with the independence of African nations, and the arrival of new technologies, African music has undergone a remarkable evolution which continues at an ever increasing tempo. The past few years have been especially exciting. African musicians have asserted themselves on the world music scene, injecting a new sense of life and possibility into the development of a cross-cultural popular music, called by some "world beat."
This new music takes on myriad forms: resonant choral harmonies of the remarkable Zulu group Ladysmith Black Mambazo; radical reggae highlife of the Ivorian Alpha Blondy; Arabo-African 'cratch rhythms' of Khartoum and the mbalax of Dakar; Malagasy accordion trance music; the fluid Afro-Cuban grooves of Boncana Maiga, jazz flautist of Mali; the "new wave highlife" of Ghanaian George Darko, a popular blend of West African highlife, American funk, and Caribbean soca; and much, much more. Then, of course, coming from another angle, Caribbean and North American music groups such as Talking Heads and Kassav have created distinctive blends of rock, new wave, and dance music with infusions of African influence, including the light and lilting soukous or Congolese of Zaire and Cameroun, and the percussive and polyrhythmic styles of Nigerian juju. In Paris, the collaboration of the griot-inspired Malian nightingale Salif Keita with French musicians and high-tech studio technology has resulted in the record "Soro," a thrilling example of this new genre of musical cross-fertilization. Make no bones about it, the new African music has arrived! The world's ears are perked up, its feet hardly able to stand still. One of the most remarkable individuals in this new musical wave is Koo Nimo, the Ghanaian guitar wizard who Afro-Pop music commentator John Collins has portrayed as a kind of Homeric Bard of West African Palmwine Guitar, and who the Ghanaian journalist Kwabena Fosu Mensah has dubbed "The Repository of Asante [Ashanti] Music and Culture." Others have called him the "King of Up-Up-Up." Up-Up-Up!!?? This refers to a pulsating mix of melodious and intoxicating guitar patterns, harmonious vocals and mesmerizing percussion. It is Koo Nimo's distinctive fusion of indigenous Ghanaian musical forms and instruments with a wholly new and very personal aesthetic sensibility. Up-Up-Up is about a music with a youthful and buoyant rhythmic appeal, with lyrics of noble beauty, infused with elegant and powerful Asante poetic imagery.
Koo Nimo developed Up-Up-Up back in the mid 1950s, during the heady days of African liberation. During that time, Koo Nimo had moved from his native village near Kumasi to Accra, where he became a successful guitarist in the booming popular music scene. This was the heyday of the now vintage High Life music of groups such as E.T. Mensah's Tempos and King Bruce's Black Beats. After Ghanaian Independence in 1957, Koo Nimo had a vision of creating a new kind of African music. He formed a new group which he called the Adadam, or "Back-to-the-Roots" Ensemble. With the Adadam group, which consisted of acoustic guitars, a three-pronged bass sanza called the prempresiwa (relative of the Caribbean "rumba box"), the dawuro bell, African percussion and vocals, Koo Nimo revived older indigenous musical forms and infused them with a sense of style and purpose consonant with the optimistic spirit of his generation.
This spirit lives on and thrives in the music and musical personality of Koo Nimo, which has deepened and sweetened over the years. It is not just the music which makes Up-Up-Up so alive and fulfilling, but the man himself. Whether at an intimate setting, among friends, at an all-night wake-keeping, or at a special concert at the State House in Accra before an audience of thousands, Koo Nimo never fails to captivate audiences with his seemingly unlimited resources of musical artistry and personal magnetism. All are silent as he enters the scene with his proud and noble bearing, draped in the regal red, orange, gold, and green colors of the famous Ashanti kente cloth ("the end of art" as the Ghanaian cognoscenti call it), his gray beard marking graceful maturity and generosity. His kente and his ensemble of traditional percussion instruments are vivid and dignified symbols of enduring African values. His guitar, and his polished, meticulous approach to performance add a personal and distinctly modem touch. His image is that of an Ashanti Segovia, proud of his heritage and of the instrument he has adopted.
The real wonder begins when Koo Nimo puts, his knowing finger to the strings of a guitar and does his magic, bringing together both the past and present within a wonderfully propelling rhythmic framework. Koo Nimo likes to compare his guitar to a beautiful woman, and the music he creates on it can only be described as loving. Solo, or in duet with Kofi Twuniasi, his musical partner for the past twenty-five years, Koo Nimo produces a sweet and limpid texture of gracefully overlapping melodies set in undulating cross-rhythms which create a sparkling symphonic atmosphere that simultaneously appears new-born and ageless.
This extraordinarily appealing guitar work, however, is only one layer of a musical texture that is incredibly multi-layered, while always maintaining a crystalline clarity. Several indigenous percussion instruments, including the prempresiwa (rumba box), dawuro bell and apentemma drums played conga-style, create the impression of an infinity of overlapping rhythmic planes, with patterns alternately rising and falling below a smooth surface. Floating above these interlacing rhythms and harmonies is Koo Nimo's gentle voice, which soars in broad melodies, or speaks in "lip improvisation," a kind of rap of Ashanti wisdom, in which the singer recounts proverbs old and new and creates that environment of articulate meaning which is so essential to an African audience.
Koo Nimo's words are given reaffirmation and resonance by the other musicians who sing, in harmonized choral response to his verses, as well as by many members of the audience, who often like to sing along sotto voce, bouncing with the rhythms and smiling in a common understanding of the underlying meanings. At a certain point in a performance, Koo Nimo might choose to veer into an extended solo performance, for example, a medley of highlife rhythms and tunes based on the basic highlife musical pattern called "Yaa Amponsah." During these solos, Koo Nimo may spontaneously engage the audience in a dialogue, provoking laughter with his knowing comments on male female relationships, or sighs in response to his ironic tales of problems of daily living which face common people. Or, he may introduce praises of friends or well-known members of the audience, who sometimes respond by climbing on stage to grant the ultimate compliment, to dance to the music. Other people spontaneously go on stage to dance, throwing a handful of cedi (the local currency) notes on the stage, another customary and demonstrative form of gratitude.
At a full Koo Nimo performance, the songs are complemented by a vivid display of the old, venerable and dynamic polyrhythmic dance and drum music. Koo Nimo directs the group and plays the donno squeeze drum, but the key figure here is Koo Nimo's son "Little Noah," master drummer and musical prodigy who Koo Nimo adopted when he was just a small child. Noah is a dynamo on the atumpan talking drum pair, and when he gets carried away by the spirit he threatens the limits to which an individual drummer is supposed to be accorded, the limits which the culture imposes, usually governed by a musician's self-restraint. But it is this very temptation of crossing cultural limits which seems to excite the admiration and awe of Noah's audience. It is even said of Noah that his drumming once brought one of the great chiefs to tears. It is perhaps difficult for us to grasp the complete power of the drums, as the meanings of the rhythms are best understood by those with long training, but Noah is persuasive even to the uninitiated. Noah seems especially stirred to greatness when he accompanies another young artist of great promise and excellence, Nana Yeboah, great grandson of a famous Ashanti chief and a brilliant dancer of Ashanti kete and adowa. Their interaction can be compared to the virtuoso duets between an Indian kathak dancer and his/her tabla accompanist.
Certainly one of the elements which gives Koo Nimo's music a strong indigenous flavor are his lyrics, which show a great deal of attention to the use of court language and subtle proverbs, many of which he gleans from the local elders who are knowledgeable about Ashanti traditions, "libraries on fire," Koo Nimo likes to call them. He uses the proverbs to pepper lyrics centered around messages dealing with contemporary issues of African life. Koo Nimo's lyrics, like his rhythms and entire performance format, are multi-leveled. In "Abena Mesuro Wo Gya Mu Fite" ("Suspicion"), for example, one of Koo Nimo's most popular songs, the surface story about the scheming complicity of a woman and her lover, has powerful undertones of a political nature. In another song, "The Old Man Plants Coconuts," Koo Nimo adapts the format of a traditional anansesem (Ananse the Spider-cf. the Caribbean "Aunt Nancy" stories) story-song to carry a message to Ghanaian youth to work for their nation's future. "Naa Densua," an international favorite because of its rhythms and harmonies which compel happy feelings, is lighter and more humorous in its lyrics, about the efforts of a married couple to achieve sympathy and understanding while working out the day-to-day difficulties of making ends meet. Extremely reflective is the song "Okomfoh Anokye," about one of the key figures of Ashanti history, a traditional priest and advisor to Osei Tutu, founder of the Asante nation. It is set to the moving and otherworldly harmonies of the rural odonson form, borrowed from seperewa music.
Terms such as seperewa and odonson bring us to the cultural roots of Koo Nimo's music and to the general background behind all the glittery new technology of the Afro-pop explosion. To make a comparison, just as jazz has a multiplicity of roots which went in many directions before the term jazz became current-there was ragtime, blues, cajun and creole music, brass band music, bamboula, cakewalks and so on-behind the emergent forms of Afro-pop such as "highlife," juju, "Up-Up-Up" and mbaqanga lie an incredible diversity of indigenous popular and traditional forms of music for ritual, entertainment and recreation.
Ghana, Koo Nimo's home country, is particularly rich in indigenous musical forms, including song, dance, and drumming, usually in combination. The Ashanti region, where Koo Nimo was born, was the seat of a powerful empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, and boasts rich traditions of court music, music for kings, warriors, traditional priests and diviners, hunters, and also a remarkable repertory of women's music called nnwomkoro, which women may sing at dawn to wake the king. The most imposing Asante court music is provided by the huge tree-like fontomfrom drums which are carried in royal processions, but even more symbolic are the atumpan set of talking, drums, with which the master drummer plays the appellations of great figures of Asante history. Outside of the realm of the court, in the early part of this century, contemporaneous with the rise of early jazz and Latin American popular dances in North America and the Caribbean, musicians in the Ashanti Region as well as along the entire West African coast, not to mention other parts of Africa, were developing blends of their indigenous rhythmic and song styles in response to new styles and musical instruments introduced from Europe, including guitars, banjos, accordions, concertinas, organs, pianos, and brass band instruments. Songs and styles were traded by sea-faring guitarists and others up and down the African coast. In Ghana, some of the styles known were adaha, ashiko, atene, odonson, dagomba, mainline, fireman, and "highlife," as well as foxtrots, rumbas, waltzes and a local variant called "blues." Some of the new music was associated with the dance soirees of the urban merchants and elite, which favored a popular mix of European, American and African dance repertory using jazz band instrumentation, known as "High Life." Other music was associated with craftsmen and rural farmers who enjoyed the customary and simpler entertainment of a morning or afternoon by the palm wine tapper's dock-side or tree-side establishment. The sonas sung here, to the accompaniment of local drums, the indigenous, six string seperewa harp-lute, or to the guitar, were sometimes known as "palmwine songs" (nsafufuonwom in Asante-Twi). These old styles, and the seperewa harp-lute, seemed to be destined to obscurity in the 1970s and 1980s, overshadowed by the high-tech synthesizer arrangements of the contemporary West African groups. Koo Nimo grew up in at atmosphere in which he breathed all these different forms. As a youth, he would walk twelve miles from his village to the colorful courtly and market metropolis of Kumasi, ancient seat of the old Ashanti empire, to listen to great local poets and guitarists such as Kwame Esiar ("Sam") and Akwasi Manu. Later, after his sister became married to a member of the royal household, he had the rare opportunity of insight into courtly musical culture. These influences prepared Koo Nimo for his creative role in which he blends a variety of influences in something which is ever floating, effortless and Up.
Koo Nimo's music incorporates his African roots as well as the traditions of American jazz. His guitar sound is informed by the musicians he most admires, including Sam, Akwasi Manu and Kwabena Onyina, old-time masters of Palmwine Guitar. At the same time, Koo Nimo's ears have long been attuned to sounds coming from fellow musicians from across the Atlantic, including jazz greats such as Charley Christian, Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington, and above all, Theolonius Monk, a musician he reveres. From the influence of American jazz musicians, as well as from the innovative Ghanaian composer and guitarist Kwabena Onyina, Koo Nimo has injected new harmonies into the relatively simple tonic-subdominant-dominant or I-IV-V harmonic framework of much "highlife." He likes to describe the chord formulations he uses-flatted fifths, diminished sevenths, suspended fourths, major sevenths, sixth chords in second inversion, and so on. He has blended these with indigenous chord forms in uncanny ways, adding an extra dimension which makes his music continually fascinating.
Today, Koo Nimo is a musical figure of international stature. Perhaps
no other artist better represents the Janus-faced nature of the new African
music-looking towards a vibrant new musical future but keeping vigilant
that past cultural values remain very much Up and alive. He has achieved
this position through the force of his character, and the exciting, novel,
amazing and uplifting quality of his music.