Music does wonders for the soul, that is why the music of Africa’s old masters should not be lost. They should be digitalised and made freely available.
I have heard so much music in my life that if it was all put on to a giant vinyl record, I think its size would stretch from here to the surface of the moon! A good idea to bring the moon in, for it was during the moonlight hours that the girls of my childhood sang their most lovely songs. One I remember best was sung after they had asked us boys to line up, and they sang around us, saying: Look amongst them/And pick your own lover!
Because of the implication of the song, it sounded sweeter than it really was. If one of the girls danced around you and put her arms around your neck, it meant you had been selected! Whether you liked her or not didn’t matter: the fact was that you had been chosen by one of the angelic ones. Of course, you’d probably had your eye on someone else, but … Half a loaf, right?
My father had a gramophone and so we heard all the songs of the time. One question that was often debated by my father and his friends was this: Was “Sam” – alias Kwame Asare – a greater guitarist than his contemporary, Kwasi Manu?
Both guitarists could use their strings to play almost the entire melody of their song before using their voices to sing it. But whereas Sam used his strings as an accompaniment to his vocals, Kwasi Manu kept weaving chords with his guitar, as he sang. So, in terms of the intricacy of his artistry, I would put him slightly above Sam.
But, on the other hand, Sam’s melodies and guitar renditions were more catchy and thus more memorable. His guitar chords were simplicity itself. My father favoured Sam, because Sam tapped into a melancholic streak in him.
Something happened in my village which was completely out of a storybook, as far as we music-lovers were concerned. My father travelled a lot to buy supplies for his shop, and so he knew almost every driver who plied the routes between Suhum and Koforidua as well as Nsawam and Kumase. One of his best friends was a driver who lived at Kyebi and whom we kids called “Papa ‘Sei” (for Osei).
One evening, Papa ‘Sei came and parked his truck near my father’s shop. Papa ‘Sei stepped out of the truck. And a smallish man stepped out with him. They came into the shop and my father greeted them cheerfully and offered them seats. He opened a beer and I served both Papa ‘Sei and his guest. After taking a sip of the beer, Papa ‘Sei said, with a mysterious grin, “Agya Kwaam, do you know this man who is with me?” “No?” said my father, intrigued. Papa ‘Sei then announced: “This is the famous musician, Kwasi Manu!”
We all shouted out in disbelief. For, Kwasi Manu was, in our terms, the equivalent of a member of the Beatles in England circa 1970! Now, my father was quite a tease, and although Papa ‘Sei wasn’t someone he would normally challenge, he said with mockery in his voice, “Kwasi Manu?” I must repeat his words exactly, for they were quite close to being rude: “Na ne ho he n’ese Kwasi Manu?” (Which part of him makes him look like Kwasi Manu?)
Papa ‘Sei was not vexed by my father’s remark. He probably expected precisely such a reaction. The man purporting to be Kwasi Manu too didn’t say anything. He must have been used to being received like that by strangers.
Then Papa ‘Sei whispered something to him. The man got up quietly and went to the truck. When he came back, he was carrying something wrapped in a piece of cloth. He unwrapped it. It was a guitar! We all held our breath and waited.
I don’t know exactly how news spread so fast in our town, but before the man had strummed a single note on his guitar, the shop was surrounded by a crowd of our fellow townspeople.
The man looked at my father and asked, “What song would you like me to play?” The crowd that had gathered answered for my father: “Yaw Ampoma!” they all shouted. Yaw Ampoma was Kwasi Manu’s greatest hit.
As soon as Kwasi Manu struck the opening chords, we knew it was him all right, for no one else could possibly play a guitar like that. And even if they could have played the guitar, they could not have imitated that opening sequence. It was uniquely beautiful and as soon as Kwasi Manu completed its performance, everyone fell absolutely quiet. You could hear a pin drop. We all realised that we had been privileged to hear a master perform some an absolutely fantastic piece of music.
As I have intimated, this Yaw Ampoma number was extremely distinctive among the songs we usually heard on records at the time. It was in the style of a dirge – the singer began by mentioning the names of valiant people he knew who were no longer alive and praised each of them with a pithy phrase. His voice was distinctive, for he sang almost entirely “through his nose”. So good was his nasal twang.
Suddenly, he changed the tempo of the song and turned it into a danceable rhythm. So it was both music to be listened to, and also danced to. It was magnificent. The only problem was that the lyrics were sung in two dialects – in both Asante Twi and (I think) Bono.
We didn’t understand the Bono bits, which formed the majority of the song’s words. But we could tell from the tone that he was expressing heart-felt melancholy sentiments. After singing in Bono, he interjected a sentence in Twi that was perfectly intelligible to us: “Yaw Ampoma na wawu asei kwa yi? Ewiase asei.” (“Is this Yaw Ampoma who has just died and become nothing? The world is ruined!”)
Then he went back to singing and mentioned Yaw Ampoma’s name a few times again, and said something that was repeated in a chorus a few times. And all this was sung in that nasal tone usually associated with palace dirges. In other words, Kwasi Manu had married the palace dirge with ordinary street music and come up with Yaw Ampoma. And the guitar accompaniment was something else.
The music was so good that even the parts of the song we couldn’t comprehend communicated deep emotion to us. Indeed, if we had a problem with the lyrics, we had absolutely no issues whatsoever with the guitar introduction with which the song opened and took the song along. It was played as if by two or three guitars, each instrument melding into others harmoniously without any apparent effort.
And the man with Papa ‘Sei rendered it faithfully in the same way it was on the Kwasi Manu record we knew! The only difference was the absence of the chorus and a rhythm section. But Kwasi Manu’s ultra-melodious voice made up for that.
When the song ended, we all yelled our delight. My father opened some more bottles of beer and entreated them to stay and play a few more songs for us. But Papa ‘Sei insisted that they had an appointment somewhere and must go. He disarmed my father by saying: “Now that you’ve got to know him, I shall bring him back and you will be able to hear some more of his music.”
I very much wanted to ask Kwasi Manu about the sentences in the song that I didn’t understand. But off they went. I hoped Papa ‘Sei would bring him back one day for a full session, following which I could ask him some questions about the unintelligible parts of Yaw Ampoma. But we never saw him again.
Sometimes, I think of the event as if it was a dream! What? Kwasi Manu just walking in on us like that? It was as if a boy in Britain had experienced a live performance by Paul MaCartney or Eric Clapton, or if he were in America, by Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. And in his own father’s shop at that! I enjoyed bragging about the experience for many years afterwards.
I entertained the notion, for a time, that my father would be able to bring Kwasi Manu back to sing for us, such songs as the one in which he used such memorable phrases as “The eyes don’t recognise what is sorrow, otherwise I would nod off as I sit down!” or the one in which he reproached a young man for being “too much of a man-about-town to go to the farm in order to bring food to eat!”
I didn’t hear of Kwasi Manu again. Then rumours spread that he had died. Up to now, I don’t know where he was from, where he lived most of the time, and how he died. But he has been part of me all my life. How many of our modern musicians are working to make such an impression on the young ones who are listening to their music?
Once again, I appeal to the Arts Council of Ghana: please find the music of Sam and Kwasi Manu, Kwaa Mensah and E.K Nyame, Otoo Lartey and the other greats of our early years, digitise them and make them freely available nationally. You can go to the archives of Decca and other record producers of the time and acquire the stuff. Those companies don’t care about the music put out by our geniuses of the past. But we must find their music and leave it to our children. I know private collectors, like Prof Collins, have worked hard to collect some of them. But music is a national treasure, and it should not be the responsibility of private individuals to preserve it for us.