I was intrigued to hear that Mr. Amponsah, the chief technician of the Biochemistry Department, was none other than Ghana's foremost exponent of acoustic guitar highlife - the famous folk musician Koo Nimo.
He has now recorded more than one hundred songs in his native language, Twi. Even in 1968, his songs were heard several times a week on Radio Ghana.
A sample of the titles of some of these early songs shows how wide ranging was the choice of topic about which Koo would sing:
|Twi Title||English Title|
|Owuo Ton Ade a Tobi||Buy when death sells|
|Owusu Se Mamma||The driver's lament|
|Mesuro Wo Gya Mu Fite||I suspect you fanning the fire|
|Odonson||Let love prevail|
|Asew Aye Me Bone||Father-in-law offends|
|Damfo Mabre Kwa||I have worked for nothing|
|Agyanka ye Mmobo||The orphan needs sympathy|
|Nii Ba Yaro Ba||Neither young nor old|
|Eden Asem na Aba||What is the matter?|
|Kwae Ye Sika||Poverty in the midst of plenty|
This was done first as a series in the local newspaper - the Ashanti "Pioneer" - with the enthusiastic support of the Editor, Albert D. Appea. Then a booklet was produced containing twelve of the Ballads in both English and Twi. When I returned to Britain, at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, I kept in touch with Koo through correspondence and occasional contacts. More ballads were translated. The 1988 edition of ASHANTI BALLADS, now on this web site (Ashanti Ballads) is an expanded version of the 1968 booklet and contains English versions of 21 ballads.
In this way, a chance co-incidence brought together two strangers to produce a work that neither could have produced on his own. The Ballads try to give the meaning of Koo Nimo's folk songs. For there is much that is worth telling after the melody of the music and the beat of the rhythm have been removed from the original performance in Twi.
The story of Koo Nimo begins in 1934 when Daniel Amponsah was born on 3rd October in the village of Foase, in the Atwima District of Ashanti. He comes from a musical family. His father, Opanin Kwame Amponsah, was a trumpeter and a guitarist. His mother was a chorister in the Methodist Church. His sister had married the brother of the Asantehene (King of Ashanti) and at the age of eight he lived with her in Kumasi. Koo Nimo says of this period that, as a brother-in-law to the Ashanti Royal Family, he was "irradiated with tradition".
At the age of 19, Daniel Amponsah was teaching brass band music, drumming and the guitar in his village. When entertaining, he would tell jokes and stories between songs. It was at this time that he adopted the stage name of Koo Nimo. 'Ko' is short for Kofi - Friday born. 'Nimo' is one who takes the blame for what someone else has done.
It was in 1957, when the former British colony of the Gold Coast became the independent country of Ghana, that Koo Nimo first received national acclaim through the formation of the Addadam Agofomma ensemble. Recognition came through his performances, at festivals and on Radio Ghana, of folk music using traditional instruments. The spirit of Africa is enshrined in his ballads, which are appreciated as much by the illiterate farmer as by the staff and students of the University.
Although music has always been his main interest, Koo Nimo turned to science for his professional career. He worked first as a hospital technician in Accra before moving to Kumasi in 1960 to join the staff of the University of Science and Technology. From 1962 to 1965, whilst on study leave in Britain, he was able to attend classes at the Len William's Guitar Centre in London.
Koo Nimo says: "I studied the classical style, learning scales and arpeggios. But I didn't want to be a Segovia. I wanted to be an African guitarist, using my technique to do justice to my own music, which, of course, I understand better."
During this study period, he came to appreciate the work of other black musicians, in particular the jazz musicians Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Thelonius Monk. After returning home, he had a chance meeting in Kumasi with Jacqueline Smith Bonneau, a jazz pianist who was a niece of the great American jazz pianist, Thelonius Monk.
"My music career and outlook took a different turn since that meeting. I play traditional guitar, but listen to jazz a lot at home, because the roots come from Africa. There is no record played by either Thelonius Monk or Wes Montgomery which I haven't listened to." He is proud of 27 hand-written compositions which Thelonius Monk personally presented to him. It was a great honour when, in 1982, Koo Nimo was invited to New York to take part in a film dedicated to the memory of Thelonius Monk
Koo Nimo had a second period of study leave (1969-1970) in Britain, which was spent at the University of Salford studying laboratory instrumentation. This gave him the opportunity in his free time to study harmony and the classic guitar at the Manchester School of Music. But even for a musician, life is not only music. The difficulties and disillusionment faced by an African living in a foreign land are described in the popular ballad Aburokyire Abrabo Overseas Life which he wrote on returning home.
To counter the ever-growing pressure of Western "pop", Koo Nimo organised and directed the Kumasi Adadam Agofomma Group (translation: Going Back to Roots) which promotes traditional music, drumming and dancing. The group received international recognition in 1976 when it represented Ghana in the Festival of Folk Music organised by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. This was followed by a coast to coast tour of the United States, playing to audiences of thousands.
In 1984, the Adadam Agofomma Group, led by Koo Nimo, found themselves in London. They had been invited to represent Ghana in the "African Music Village", organised by the Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. During rehearsals, a telegram arrived saying that the Uganda delegation could not attend. The Adadam Agofomma Group gave a double performance, filling the gap in the programme, much to the delight of the public. But I heard a few comments about the dawn rehearsals made necessary by the extra performances. The beating of African drums is not often heard in Kensington's fashionable High Street at 6 a.m.!
In 1979, in recognition of his services to Ghanaian music as performer, teacher and administrator, Koo Nimo was elected President of MUSIGA (the Musicians' Union of Ghana). His countrymen appreciated not only his music, but his love of and respect for tradition.
Through MUSIGA, a series of negotiations was conducted with the popular British musician Mick Fleetwood, which led to an international album called "The Visitor" (RCALP 5044). In 1981, Mick Fleetwood and American guest artists came to Accra to make the recording, and worked with Ghanaian professionals. Several of the tracks involve amateur backing groups, such as the Accra Roman Catholic Choir.
Following from these successful negotiations, in 1985 Koo Nimo was appointed interim chairman of COSGA, the Copyright Society of Ghana, More recently he has been made an honorary life member of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, along with such distinguished names as Professor J.H.K. Nketia and John Collins.
Koo Nimo welcomes and assists any student of African culture. Over the years he has travelled to many villages to talk to old folk, learning guitar styles and stories that only the old folk know. These must be recorded before they are lost for ever. Koo Nimo some- times refers to old folk, with good reason, as "libraries on fire".
Though Koo Nimo's professional training is in science, in 1980 he was invited to accept an appointment as a visiting Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana. He taught traditional music, with special emphasis on the seperewa, a six- stringed 'lute' played by the Brongs, Sefwis and Ashantis. The appointment was a singular distinction in a country where it is customary to place great weight on formal paper qualifications.
By now Koo Nimo was a well known and respected public figure. In 1980, he was invited to serve on the Board of Directors of G.B.C. (the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation). In 1984, he was asked to join the Education Commission of Ghana, on which he still serves. Koo Nimo is also one of the African musicians whose work is studied in the West African Examinations Council syllabus for music.
British television viewers had a chance to see Koo Nimo at work with his group in the programme on the music of West Africa in the series entitled "Repercussions" (Channel 4, 11th March 1985). The programme starts in a forest glade, with the group singing whilst Koo Nimo plays his guitar - with occasional refreshment from a pot of palm wine. This is fermented sap drawn from a newly felled palm tree. In the heat of the afternoon, the farmer likes to relax under a shady tree with a calabash of palm wine, some company and music. The musicians would argue that music is food of the soul. Just as you feed your body, so you must feed your soul. The Adadam Agofomma Group specialise in playing what has come to be known as "palm-wine music".
The links between Africa and the Caribbean are revealed both in music and in oral and folk traditions. The Ananse (Spider) stories of Ghana are re-told in the West Indies. The board games known as oware in Ghana and ayo in Nigeria are played with the same rules in the islands of the West Indies, where local culture has much in common with Africa. In particular, Ghanaian high-life relates closely to the calypso.
In March 1988, Koo Nimo was invited to Trinidad and Tobago by UNESCO to take a leading part in a film exploring the social, cultural and historical linkages between West Africa and the West Indies. Here he met the legendary Lord Kitchener, Grand Master of the Calypso, and played with the world's greatest steel pan player, "Boogsie" Sharpe. The visit resulted in a film, called CROSSING OVER, which won first prize in 1989 for the best video documentary in Trinidad and Tobago and gained a similar award in 1990 in Martinique.
In July 1988, Koo was a star turn at a performance during the Serious Fun Festival at the Alice Tulley Hall in the prestigious Lincoln Centre in New York. In November and December of the same year, he was invited to attend the eighth International Conference on the Guitar in Martinique. Here he met and studied with great guitarists like Laurindo Alwerda (Brazil), Larry Coryell, Chet Atkins, Stanley Jordan, Sharon Isbin (U.S.A.), Manuel Barrueco, Marcel Dadi, Jean Felix Lalanne (France) and Leo Brower.
A somewhat unusual invitation came from UNICEF in March 1989 to attend a conference of Artistes and Intellectuals in Bamako, Mali. This was to find ways of using artistic talent to help in the crusade for child survival and development. Koo performed an odonson song on the six communicable diseases of polio, tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles, whooping cough and tetanus. The song was used in a BBC interview. Koo is deeply concerned about the environment and the future of our children. While flying back from Mali he saw mile after mile of land denuded of trees. So on returning home, he sang songs about the trees and what we are doing to our planet which, he says, is "like a spaceship without a captain".
Koo Nimo has always been concerned about the least fortunate amongst us. He has caused great delight by performing to the lepers. An important interest is giving guitar lessons at the Institute for the Disabled at Jachie, Ashanti. This Institute is now producing acoustic guitars for local sale as a major feature of its activities.
In 1990, eight of Ko's songs were released as a compact disk entitled "Osabarima" (Adasa Records ADCD 102). This was the first work by a Ghanaian artist to be put on CD. In the words of High Fidelity Magazine (September 1990, 103)
"The absence of a major artist in recent years has limited the attention paid to Ghanaian highlife in the World Music boom. Koo Nimo has the talent. He plays acoustic guitar with a grace and finesse and sings with a rich mellow voice."
In February 1991, in recognition of his services to music and to his country, Koo received the prestigious Asanteman award from the Asantehene. In March, he received the "Flag Star" award from ECRAG (Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana).
In the same month he was invited to be Guest Speaker and Guest of Honour at Adis-adele College, Cape Coast - his Alma Mater.
Also in 1991 came the invitation to serve on the National Folklore Board of Trustees These were fitting rewards for a lifetime devoted to the promotion of traditional music and the culture of his native land.
1992 was a momentous year in Koo Nimo's career. In January at Columbia University, New York, USA, Andrew L. Kaye presented his dissertation entitled "Koo Nimo and his circle: A Ghanaian Musician in Ethnomusicological Perspective" and was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree for his work.
The University of Science and Technology, Kumasi formally recognised Ko's achievements by awarding him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa on 25th July 1992. This was followed in September by an extensive tour of Australia. In addition to performances, assisted by drummer Kojo Noah Owusu, he conducted workshops and master classes to great acclaim.
Retirement from full time work from the University in 1994 has liberated Koo to devote his efforts to consolidate his remarkable achievements.
In March 1997, the Ghana government celebrated the fortieth anniversary of independence by awarding gold medals to forty of its distinguished citizens, one of whom was Koo Nimo. This was in recognition of his efforts to preserve traditional culture. In the next month he received the Konkoma Award for his contribution to Ghanaian Highlife Music. Later in the year, Koo participated in the 35th anniversary celebration of Sister Cities' programme in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.
In spite of all the public recognition he has received, Koo Nimo remains a man of the people. Wherever he goes in Ashanti, he is greeted with a joyous shout of "Ko" - and a hand-shake from a well-wisher. Yet he gets the greatest pleasure from listening to his collection of early highlife records on an ancient wind-up gramophone. His one main aim is to ensure that Ghana's priceless cultural heritage is preserved, not as a lifeless specimen in a museum, but as a living art form.
This story of Koo Nimo was written by
Joe Latham and
it can be found on the World Wide Web at