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Honouring Guy Warren Kofi Ghanaba - The inventor of Afro-Jazz 

Honouring Guy Warren Kofi Ghanaba - The inventor of Afro-Jazz 

HONOURING legends or people who have fought for the country in any way has always sparked varying concerns and debates.

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In most cases, people who have lifted the flag of the country high either through music, sports, movies or whatsoever feel neglected by the country mostly in their old age.

The works and names of most of these heroes are forced to die with them after they exit mother earth.

Kofi Ghanaba who recorded as Guy Warren is considered the founding father of the movement to reunite (in his words) “African-American jazz with its African roots”. 

His impact was recognised by musicians like Max Roach, Fela Kuti and Randy Weston, who took inspiration from Ghanaba’s approach to fusing jazz and African traditional music, producing many classic albums in the process.

Ghanaba: the Drum Spirit

One thing that made Kofi Ghanaba stand out for his creativity was his drumming skills, which was very essential to the Ghanaian and African society he was born and grew up in. 

Kofi Ghanaba, one of the most celebrated drummers of the 20th century, was born Warren Gamaliel Kpakpo Akwei in Accra, Ghana (the then Gold Coast) on May 24, 1923 to Richard Mabuo Akwei, founder of  Ghana National School and Susana Awula Aba Moore.

He was named after Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States. In 1943, he changed his name to Guy Warren while he was in the United States. Later, he changed his name to Ghanaba on July 1, 1974, Ghana’s Republic Day. He died on December 28, 2008 aged 85.

Over the centuries, drumming has developed to be a powerful art form and is commonly viewed as the root of music. As a discipline, drumming concentrates on training the body to punctuate, convey and interpret musical rhythmic intention to an audience, conductor of an orchestra, a band or the performer.

In the Western musical tradition, a drummer is a percussionist who creates, beats and keeps the time that accompanies the music. Most Western contemporary ensembles and bands for Jazz, R&B, Pop, Reggae, etc. include a drummer.  

It is worth noting that no musical form and influence have had greater impact on world and especially American music and dance than those of African origin. And no element of African musical heritage has been more dominant than what John Miller Chernoff has described as “African Rhythm and African Sensibility”. The symbol of rhythmic heritage in Africa is the drum.

In African societies, the textual contents of traditional music, in particular, are not just mere words but words that have mystical potency and can be used in many practical ways to produce concrete, observable results. 

The sound of the drum in combination with voice and other musical instruments can evoke laughter, joy, admiration, pity, tears, dance and love. 

Drums are basic to African music orchestra and they come in different shapes and sizes. Drumming is an ancestral tradition central to any concept of African music. Therefore, drums of different sizes and pitches are used together to produce a unique drum music that is distinctively African. 

In Ghana, many ethnic groups practice drumming as a spiritual or religious ritual and interpret drummed rhythm similarly to the spoken word or prayer. For us, drumming is a purposeful expression of emotions for entertainment, spiritualism and communication and has a history that dates back to several centuries in Africa. 

Over the years, the drum has been used to produce musical sounds in many African societies and is a symbol of power. Drummers have been held in high status in African societies and the position of a master drummer is inherited. Sons of master drummers are often taught their skills at an early age and spend their entire lives performing and perfecting their art.

Today, drumming has developed into a powerful art form and is commonly viewed as the root of music that is taught and learned, thanks to Ghanaba whose works created a good path for generations after to appreciate the craft.

Africans were generally not inclined to separate rhythm, spiritual dimensions of the universe into compartments. The Akan of Ghana in particular acknowledged that the drum had a spirit and character that were clearly observable and, therefore, traditional choice in the species of wood used for carving a drum was also observed. 

Only a few trees were considered proper for it. The Tweneboa tree was largely used for carving a drum. It was chosen because it was believed to have a supernatural character and spirit of its own. However, other trees such as Nyamedua and Osese are also used.

The Unsung Hero

Ghanaba is a great jazz drummer and a player of traditional Ghanaian (African) drums, particularly the Obonu or Fontomfrom ensemble. He was the inventor of Afro- Jazz and was among the earliest to exert African musical influences on world music and is considered the Founding Father of the movement to re-unite African-American jazz music to its African roots. 

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“Ghanaba was way ahead of what most of us were doing in music,” said the legendary jazz drummer, Max Roach ‘that in order for African-American music to be stronger, it must cross fertilise with its Afrikan origin.  We ignored him”.  

Guy Warren composed the following songs: Africa Speaks: America Answers(1957), Themes for African Drums(1959), The African Sounds(1961), Afro-Jazz(1969), African Rhythms: The Exciting Sounds of Guy Warren & His Talking Drums, The Divine Drummer(2002) and The African Sounds of Guy Warren  (2003).

Ghana as a nation has not done enough to honour the name, Guy Warren Kofi Ghanaba, in the cultural-artistic history of Ghana. Most of the young and up and coming musicians in the entertainment industry have never heard the name. And the older generation seems to be oblivious of his contribution to Ghanaian artistic-culture in general and music in particular.

The Highlife Institute thinks the time has come to construct a life-size bronze statue of Kofi Ghanaba in front of the National Theatre in his memory and to declare May 4 of the year ‘Kofi Ghanaba Day’.  

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We, therefore, appeal to all lovers of music, the Ga-Adangme community and Ga Mantse’s Palace, Culture Directorate of the US Embassy and non-governmental organisations to help and support us in making May 4 of every year ‘Kofi Ghanaba Day’.

The writer is a founding member of the Highlife Institute.

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