Dobet Gnahore and Acoustic Africa

Last night, one of my favorite West African musicians, Dobet Gnahore, an Ivoirian singer, songwriter and dancer, performed at Alliance Francaise. She has an amazing voice and range and her stage performances are wildshe’s known for her leaping dances and passionate drum solos in addition to her incredible vocal work.

Dobet dances so fast you can’t even see her. Kareyce Fotso is behind her.

She was onstage with two other West African divas – fellow Ivoirian singer-bassist Manou Gallo and Cameroonian singer-songwriter Kareyce Fotso – along with several other amazing musicians as part of “Acoustic Africa,” a show which has toured the world a few times.

The malaphonist is Aly Keta, also a famous musician

It was incredible to watch these women – all three extremely talented and famous in their own right – perform together onstage. Here’s a little sample:

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for commentary; check out these ladies and support their music if you dig it!

Chale Wote Street Art Festival

I’d be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Chale Wote, the annual street art festival started last year by Accra[dot]Alt, a collective of young and entrepreneurial artists based in Accra who are doing awesome things to promote the arts in Ghana.

The Chale Wote festival is an extravaganza of collaborative art-making, music, and performance held in Jamestown, a historic and relatively poor area of Accra. I love their philosophy that art has an important place in public space and that it should be accessible to everyone.

I went to the festival with my roommate, Rich, and our lovely and talented friend Jojo Abot, who also sang at the festival. (Seriously, so lovely. So talented. Check out her music.)

As promised, there was cool art.

"Women on Bike"

Street art by Zohra Opoku, a Ghanaian/German artist. She was riding around on her bike all day looking awesome.

Street art

And impressive performance art.

BMX performers

BMX performers doing their thing. We met this cool group of guys from Brooklyn who are making a documentary about them.

Also, lots of art activities and workshops for the swarms of children.

Kids getting down.

And great food and drinks. (I had an amazing veggie burger! Not an easy thing to find in Ghana..)

And Rich and I took a tour of the Jamestown Lighthouse, with its spectacular view.

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown from above

Jamestown from above

Chale Wote from the lighthouse

Chale Wote’s main stage from the lighthouse

Generik Vapeur was the feature act, held at the end of the afternoon. I’ve never seen artists work with performance space and audience participation in the way they did; they used the street, barrels, shipping containers and the onlookers themselves to create performance space and manipulate the response of the audience, doing things like rushing forward with the barrels in front of them like battering rams, forcing the audience to  run alongside, moving the entire performance space down the street at full clip.

Generik Vapeur

Generik Vapeur

This may be a stretch, but some of the imagery they used – like the men carrying the barrels in single file, hunched under the burden, and one man lashing a barrel that had been made to resemble an animal with a chain and shouting orders – reminded me of images of slavery. Jamestown is the location of one of the most significant slave forts from the Gold Coast slave trade, and the arc of the performance itself seemed to suggest some of the contours of the slave trade’s history.

After Generik Vapeur’s climactic finale and a couple of hours of messing with uncooperative electronics (the power went out), Jojo performed three beautiful songs. Here’s one that I recorded, an original called “Heavy On The Inside”:

And I found out that Ghana has a rock band, or so say the members of Feint Medal, which is as far as I could tell sort of a party onstage with a sort of Limp Bizkit sound, plus some rap, some emo and some awesome Ghanaian cultural references.

Feint Medal

Feint Medal, Ghana’s rock band.

This is a good post to mention that there are tons of amazing bloggers here in Ghana, and many of them also featured stories, photos and video about Chale Wote. Check them out if you want to see more:

Rough Cuts: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

This will be the first installment in a series of very rough audio clips from interviews I’ve done with people here in Ghana. I’ve been privileged to have a number of fascinating conversations with wonderful people here, and I’m working on cleaning them up just a bit to share with you.

Rough Cut Number 1: Anansi and Ancestral Wisdom

Most have you have probably heard of Anansi the Spider, the trickster character in children’s tales.

Anansi actually comes from the Akan people, the name for several related ethnic groups in Ghana, including the Ashantis. He is an important part of the Akan people’s heritage of folktales. These stories were passed on from generation to generation, often dramatized in traditional oral storytelling practices.

Oral storytelling at Auntie Esi's house

In August, one of my professors – Auntie Esi – invited us to her house to see some traditional storytellers interacting with Ghanaian children.

Later, I spoke with one of the girls who attended the event, Richlove, and her father, Clement.

Richlove and Clement

Clement and Richlove were a wonderful pair. He is a pastor in a Pentecostal Church near Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra, and had some amazing insights. He told me about the long walk to the fields in his rural village as a child, his grandmother telling stories along the way.

Now his life is more focused on the Bible, prayer and his congregation. But Richlove’s participation in Auntie Esi’s events has made him think deeply about the importance of their ancestral roots, and he’s even begun incorporating traditional stories in his sermons.

The events have also changed Richlove’s sense of life and connectedness with her family. Plus, she says, they’re fun.

Powerless

The power and the water have been on and off all week. After the water went out for the first time, I started keeping a full bucket in the bathroom. But when the power goes off, it’s just a minor inconvenience. I can’t boil water or turn on my fan. No problem. So it wasn’t until last night, when the darkness fell, rapidly, that I really took notice. I was sitting on the balcony, eating my bowl of rice in the waning light. In the time it took me to finish, it became totally dark. Small lights began to go on in the windows of the dorm across from mine. I sat outside in the darkness for a few minutes. The group that stands and chants beneath a nearby tree every night began gathering, their voices slowly swelling.

I went inside to chop the vegetables I’d washed earlier for a salad. I chopped in the dark, slowly. I was thinking about the power outages of my childhood. After a storm, usually.  We would light candles and gather together as a family in the living room.  Those nights had a sacred quality; the darkness brought us together, the candles making a flickering circle in a cradle of dark. I wondered, as I stood there chopping, if Ghanaians here in Accra gather like that in the candlelight, if there is something special to them about nights without power. Or is it too commonplace?

Thinking of the togetherness of those nights of my childhood, I paused in my chopping. I walked down the dark hallway. It looked endless, like a hall of mirrors stretching into black. I knocked on Sarah and Lesego’s door. I told them to bring their bowls. They brought their light. Sarah made some dressing. I chopped more lettuce, cucumber and tomato.  And we ate and we talked and then they left.

I was in Madina market when the power went out. I had just purchased a small used refrigerator, which the owners were cleaning for me. I went to look for a few more things while they finished. After about five minutes, I received a marriage proposal, from a surprisingly well-dressed young man. I laughed and told him I was already married, which is generally the easiest way out of such suggestions. “Second husband!” he said, also laughing. “And second priority!” I shot back. We both laughed and I continued on my way, walking into the heart of the market. I was standing in a cloth shop when the lights went out and the fan stopped whirring.

It was my second time at Madina in two days, and my second trip to a market of the day. I had been to Madina the previous day, Friday, at 6 a.m., on an assignment for my class, Drama in African Societies. The five of us met to observe the real-life dramas at the opening of the market. People lining up to catch tro-tros. A church service. Early-morning transactions. A woman sleeping in her vegetables. A man with a new shipment of used clothes calling out, One cedi! One, one cedi!

Headed to work

Or school…

Having a chat

Praying

Carrying stuff on your head

Getting in a quick nap before the day begins in earnest.

We even had a little real-world drama of our own…

Mariama (far left) was taking issue with the fact that Zablong (far right) had reprimanded her earlier for trying to buy fish while we were working, and was now buying women’s clothes. (For his daughter, he told us.) Margaret (next to Zablong) and I were amused, while the guy selling clothes (next to Mariama) just kept trying to sell the clothes.

After we finished our observations, I went to buy a small hotplate. Almost on impulse, I also bought a small battery-powered radio, which, I discovered later, has an LED flashlight (“torch,” they call it, like the British) on the end. It came in handy last night, though the fridge and the hotplate were totally useless. The fridge got up to my room thanks to David, a young man who does odd jobs around the hostel. He saw me getting out of the cab, and came over to help.  The fridge went on his head and up the stairs and down the hall to my room. I gave him all the cedis left in my wallet.  Which sadly was not many thanks to the fridge and the temptations of the cloth shop.

Then I went to take my sheets off the clothesline outside the building. Some Ghanaians have washing machines, but they’re fairly uncommon, and we don’t have one in or near or building. You can hire someone to do your laundry for you or just do it yourself and hang it out to dry. I’m no stranger to washing clothes by hand, especially after my six months of travel with only a few items of clothing. But every time I mention laundry, the Ghanaians I’m speaking to seem amazed. “By hand?!  You know how to do that?” As I was hanging my sheets, two guys who were “having brunch” on their porch at ground level called out to me. They were amused by an obruni doing her very own laundry. “It’s your first time, though, right?” they asked, when I told them it wasn’t so hard. One of them, Raza, told me he can’t do it – laundry, that is – so he bought a washing machine to keep in his room. I told him we were now friends.

But when I went back that afternoon, my sheets were gone. My sweater and t-shirt that I’d also hung out were still there, but the sheet and the matching pillowcase were missing, just the clothespins stuck forlornly to the line. Washing them had taken me two hours and I was looking forward to fresh-smelling, sun-dried sheets. Next time, I’ll have to hire David to keep an eye on them. They were really ugly sheets; whoever stole them has terrible taste!

But the day ended well, with a meal with friends in the dark. And it started well too. I met Mel, one of the other Rotary scholars not long after dawn to run together to Dome market. Both of us are registered for the half-marathon next weekend. It was a great run through a part of the city I haven’t been to before, and we ended at Dome, a charming small market full of fantastic fresh vegetables. That’s where I’d bought the ingredients for my salad. Mel’s really great and very interesting. She served in the Peace Corps in Cape Verde Islands off Senegal several years ago, and her husband came with her here to Ghana. I’m excited to get to know her better, and I hope Saturday morning runs with her become another ritual.

And the day started and ended with music. Music is everywhere here, all the time. At 6:30 in the morning, four boys with guitars came to sing outside the hostel, right below my window. And at night, with the lights out, the praise-singers’ voices and clapping seemed to fill the air more than they usually do.

So, the beginning and the end of my day:

(Folks who get this by email may need to go to the blog to see this link.)

My first palanquin

We talked about palanquins in class. I was astonished. Delighted. Real palanquins?! I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to actually use the word, except when singing along to The Decemberists, so I had to be sure I had the right meaning; “A palanquin is a litter, right?”

Yes, it is. And last weekend, I saw one. More than one, actually. Regina and I went to Fetu Afahye, the big yearly festival of the Fanti people. The festival takes place in Cape Coast (Oguaa in Fante), which is both their main city and the site of the infamous Cape Coast Castle.

Women walking by Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

The symbolism and ritual significance of festivals in Ghana is rich, and unfortunately much of it is still lost on me. They have a ritual aspect and a public aspect, and the two are intertwined. They reflect and reinforce – but also sometimes invert and mock – the traditional social order, and often span days. Fetu Afahye lasts a week, events and rituals gradually building to a climactic procession on Saturday.

That’s what we went to see.

We got up early, having heard that the procession started at 7:30 a.m. We were informed otherwise by people on the street. So we had some egg sandwiches at Janet’s Spot. They were to die for. And then we explored.

The Main Square

The Main Square in early morning, all decked out with MTN advertising. MTN is a big cellular and internet provider, and they seem to be the dominant advertisers here.

Cape Coast street before the procession

Before the procession

Regina and clowns

These clowns were everywhere. They would ask for money and then either dance for you or do some stunts. Pretty much everyone would give them a coin or two.

After we’d found a good place to watch the procession, we fortuitously ran into a really nice young man who worked at our hotel. (Actually, there were no rooms available at our hotel, so we stayed in a tent. It was really very nice.) He invited us to join his clan. They were hanging out in a back alley, preparing to join the procession. We shook hands with a couple of chiefs, told the queenmother she was beautiful (she was), and asked lots of questions. Then suddenly we were all pouring out of the alley into the street, where everyone began clapping and singing and dancing.

The chief

Me with the chief of our adopted clan, and a stunned onlooker.

Queenmother

And the striking queenmother…

Enthusiastic man

This man really wanted me to take his picture.

And then came the palanquins. With spinning elevated umbrellas.

The chief in his palanquin

A big chief in his palanquin

The chiefs in our adopted clan were sub-chiefs, so they walked instead of riding in palanquins. Apparently, at social functions, status disputes sometimes arise in various symbolic acts (like arriving in a palanquin vs. a car) between chiefs; there’s a whole mess of protocol to be observed. That’s what we’d been talking about in class when palanquins first came up.

I was there!!!

Each chief has his or her (yes, there are some female chiefs) entourage. Women dancing in front, the chief’s linguist walking seriously with his staff, drummers walking behind.

Entourage

Part of the entourage. All of the dances, movements, gestures, clothing have significance. I’ll get into that later, as far as I’m capable.

There were all sorts of interesting characters. And way too much going on to begin to recount it all. Drums, dancing. Acting. Flag-spinning. A guy on stilts. I got a sunburn.

Flag dancing

Flag dancing. Among the Fanti, each clan (there are seven, I’m told) has its own flag. The applique tells a story unique to each clan.

Some kids dancing

This kid is awesome.

A vegan

There was even a hipster.

Revelry

A festival’s not a festival until you throw your hands in the air.

Photographer

The tables are turned….this guy saw me snapping him snapping me and started laughing, then came over and asked to take some together.

I couldn’t resist the urge to collect lots of sounds and pictures, so I’ll post more later, along with a (slightly) more in-depth look at the significance of some of aspects of this festival and Ghanaian festivals in general.