To Nana Danso Abiam

BY: Kwesi Appiah
Nana Dee (right) in a rehearsal session with Steve Wonder seated.

Nana Danso Abiam: This name served as a synonym for the Pan African Orchestra, known internationally for using only traditional and neo-traditional African instruments for symphonic pieces. The creator and director of this most unusual institution was typically called Nana Dee but I would simply refer to him as Nana.

I knew him through the years as a good friend and I was so sad to hear on Monday,  December 24, 2014 that Nana passed away at 1.30am, the dawn after his 61st Birthday.

Meeting Nana

My first encounter with Nana was in 1989 at the Ringway Estates, Accra (Bernard Telfer's Residence) where he was rehearsing an ensemble of young musicians playing very novel African sounds with indigenous African instruments - atenteben bamboo flute, gonje (traditional violin), gyile (wooden xylophone) and traditional drums (fontomfrom, atsimevu, kpanlogo and gome). 

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What gripped my attention further was the fact that the music they played was scored and they had printed manuscripts in front of them.

My mission to him was a one-off assignment — film the preparation of orchestra for its forthcoming first anniversary concert and the concert itself. This rolled on to many years of a working relationship and friendship with many exciting and enduring moments of adventure.

The concert, which came off at the W.E.B Dubois Memorial Centre was awesome. The 30-piece ensemble played "re-compositions", using traditional themes as the basis for their orchestral interpretations. The musicians appeared on stage chanting a fishing folkloric song from a work-song tradition.


They then moved into a medley with bells of all shapes and sizes, producing spectacular sounds as they intermittently cupped the opening of the bell over their thighs. Five of the musicians vacated the bells and moved to a four set piece fontomfrom and a pair of atumpan drums positioned at the rear of the stage. 

The atumpan drummer began a bitonal communication piece which ushered Nana onto the stage. He stood in front of the orchestra with a flying whisk, pointing and conducting the entire orchestra, who rose on their feet as he emerged on the scene.

At the point where the bells and the entire ensemble of atumpan and fontomfrom drums hit a crescendo of high performance, the music stopped abruptly and Nana signalled the orchestra to resume their seats. He then turned and bowed to the audience. The applause was deafening. The music was sweet. The audience was ecstatic.

Later on as I began filming and interviewing Nana, I found him as a person with lofty and ambitious ideals. He wanted nothing less than to integrate for the first time the different regional music of the continent into a 'new' classical synthesis. 

This would simultaneously offer an 'Afrocentric' system of symphonic music, as a substitute for the colonially established western classical repertoire in Africa, and move the cultural climate a degree or two in the direction of the grail of true pan-Africanism. His plan was to establish an orchestra with 108 musicians.

Getting hooked to dream

I got hooked to his dream. I spent several hours with Nana at his residence in the bustling Kokomlemle district.

Nana had a gift for managing crisis and was a natural risk taker. Sustaining a 30 piece ensemble of traditional musicians recruited from folkloric groups of Accra, with no endowment or line of credit was herculean. Apart from allowances, he catered for accommodation of the musicians as well as their families. 

When cash was low, the musicians would abscond. In some instances this was done just when the orchestra was preparing for a concert. Some orchestra members would go moonlight around Accra's flourishing live music scene. Others would migrate to neighbouring counties like Togo. Nana would then have to visit their homes, in search for the boys. 

Pan African Ochestra (PAD)

The Pan African Orchestra was where I cut my niche for proposal writing and thanks to Nana for such a discovery. He assigned me the role of writing proposals and organising fund raising. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Nana could not allow this historic event to pass without celebrating this great Pan-Africanist. 

He saw Mandela’s ideals as inspiration to his music. He got me combing the whole of Accra for corporate sponsorship for a Mandela concert. The concert came off at the Tip Toe Gardens, featuring his former reggae group Roots Anabo, led by Sammy Nukpese.

I cannot mourn Nana without his music. He was a master of many instruments, traditional as well as western. All his life, music swept and shook him and pleaded to be born. In designing this orchestra, Nana may have borrowed some of the structural principles of the symphony orchestra, but apart from this, the style of music that he writes for the orchestra is firmly rooted in African traditional culture. 

Simple African music, but expressive of all the living passion it felt about him. He was haunted by African rhythms. He slept and dreamt music and had absolute faith in his dreams. It was never within his power to give up music. It was as necessary as blood. 

He took pains to rehearse a piece of music over and over again, line by line, instrument by instrument, and even on individual musicians till the expected standard was achieved. I used to worry about his appetite for consistency and perfection, but I have grown to adopt and apply that wisdom to all my work and private life.

Interest in career

Nana took personal interest in my career and would occasionally surprise me with a visit to my office, when I was in town. The biggest surprise I had from Nana was when I welcomed him to a Breakfast Meeting of the Full Gospel Businessmen Fellowship International. 

He spoke at length about his new project, the Accra Symphony Orchestra at the International Central Gospel Church, which I found captivating but never had the opportunity to see them perform.

When I made time to visit him at his office at the Christ Temple of the International Central Gospel Church, Abossey Okai, that would be my very last encounter with him. He was very radiant and articulate about his future. He said that he had had a handsome offer for his talent and had seen a perfect place in ICGC. He was certain of winning.

Till that fateful Monday, I have come to learn that every bubble must burst. His death was senseless – motor accident. Since then I am haunted, not by his ghost, but by the remnants of his music, by the longing to recreate it, and by the sad sense that this is beyond my power to do; and by an unanswerable question – who and where would that true Pan-African neo-classical orchestra be established?

Should a man be born full of adventure and music? Full of rhythms yet without time and funds? Did the gifts he had die with him, save the few PAO sounds that still visit my memory?

Nana Danso Abiam’s ideals will continue to serve as inspiration in African music. I look forward to attending the vigil to celebrate him at the National Theatre on Thursday March 12, 2015 and the funeral service at the Christ Temple of the International Central Gospel Church, Abossey Okai, on Friday,  March 13, 2015. Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.

Farewell thee well Nana Dee! God knows when we shall meet again.