Interview with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy, 2010 NEA National Heritage Fellow

Yacub Addy. Photo by Enid Farber
Interview by Josephine Reed for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

NEA: Yacub, you come from a long line of talented and well-respected musicians. Tell me about the music you heard when you were growing up.

Yacub Addy: The first music I heard was from my mother. (Singing) Ta ta te. Ye ye ye. Afi aya ba. Ya ya Akuo. My mother sang this for me starting when I was about three weeks old. As a baby, sometimes I’d cry, and she would sing this for me to be quiet and feel good. As time went on and she continued singing it, I started jumping to the music. My senior brothers and sisters would respond and clap the rhythm, and I learned the clap from them. This was my first music.

NEA: Tell me about your mother and your father? How did they relate to music?

Addy: I got my rhythm directly from my mother, because she carried me on her back. You have to understand that music — rhythm — is our life. Even when she’s pounding fufu for the family to eat, the rhythm has to be there, or she will hit her fingers. And my mother was a lead singer for my father’s medicine practice in those days, so every time she sang or moved with the rhythm, because I was on her back, that rhythm came straight to me. I have never known a mother like my mother.

My father is a medicine man — an Okonfo — he’s a wonderful man. An Okonfo is like a medium for a spirit, what the Arabs call jinni or plural, jinn. My father had three jinn, each of them different. He went through a long training before he was spiritually married to these jinn and then he officially became an Okonfo. His given name was Jacob Kpani Addy, but his medicine title was Okonfo Akoto. I was named after him — Jacob — but I changed it to Yacub when I accepted Islam at 16. I was the first Muslim in the family.

You see, the rhythm calls the jinn, so that my father will go into what you call a trance, and he takes the behavior of that particular jinn. He will bring the song — the song lets the drummers and singers know which jinn is present. My mother will immediately take the song from him and lead the song; the drummers will play the rhythm, and my father dances. He’s an amazing dancer. I think that’s how he got so many wives — 10 of them — and so many children — there were over 50 of us. There were also times he displayed his power — his spiritual power — doing miracles. Thousands of people attended a display he did for a rally for our first political party.

You need to understand that we Africans believe in Almighty God — He is number one — we all know that there is nothing compared to Him. But we also know that God created spirits or jinn, just as He created us. Through them, medicine people are able to know and do things ordinary people can’t, such as look into the heart of a person, or tell the future. Medicine people study herbs and they can cure.

During the colonial days, when Ghana was the Gold Coast, the British doctors would invite my father to the hospital to cure cases that were beyond their knowledge. So an Okonfo is like a traditional priest, a doctor, and a musician and dancer, all in one. He or she is a leader in their community.

My father’s village was Avenor, which when I was young was outside the city of Accra. My maternal grandmother was also an Okonfo — Okonfo Ablabah — so I got the culture from both sides of my family. My grandmother lived in Manhean in the Gbese area of Ga Mashi or Central Accra.

NEA: Can you tell us how your family became a traditional drumming family?

Yacub Addy. Photo by Frank Stewart
Addy: You see, Okonfo need the drummers before they can do their medicine practice. The drummers know this, and sometimes they like to show us how much we need them by being late. Everyone is there waiting and nothing can start without them. Originally my father had senior drummers — most of them were not from our family. One day when they were very late, my father lost patience with them, and told his senior sons to start the drumming.

My senior brothers had never drummed for one of our father’s rituals, but he knew they knew the rhythm. When my father’s drummers finally arrived, they were really shocked, because my brothers could really play. The music was kicking and everything was rolling, and they were not needed. From there, no drummer played games with my father again, because his sons could do the job.

Amina Addy: Who were the drummers in your family playing medicine music for your father?

Addy: My senior brothers. Tettey Kojo (AKA Zaa), Tettey Aku, Mankattah, Tetteh Coblah (AKA Akwei Wejei), Emmanuel Tettey, and me. So many people claim to have played for or learned from my father. Only these are the people who played.

My father’s medicine rhythms are called Akom and Otu. They are very complicated rhythms and difficult to play. The master drum is obrenten, played with hands. Then there is the difficult supporting pretia drum, played with two sticks, which exchanges phrases with the master. And the supporting adowantsre drum, also played with hands. And two bells.

I started playing adowantsre when I was a teenager — that became my role. My brother Akwei Wejei taught me to drum. Our culture is based on seniority. All my senior brothers have passed, so today I am the eldest drummer in the family. But when my senior brothers were alive, no matter what I am able to play, if I’m playing with them, I will play a supporting role. I show them respect, and because of that respect, when I make a mistake, they correct me. This is how we learn.

NEA: Can you tell us about the style of drumming you do? What is distinctive about Ga music?

Addy: We Ga are unique among Ghanaians. We love human beings, no matter where you come from. We are very social. We welcome strangers. We are also independent, proud, and we don’t take nonsense. Our music is also unique. We are very creative. We play drums with our hands more than the other ethnic groups in Ghana.

It’s more difficult to play with hands than with sticks, and you get more tones. Our medicine music and royal music is complicated. And we have many different styles of social music — music played just for enjoyment. Rhythms such as Ali, Koyi, Tumatu, Ayika, Boade, Konkoma. Most Ghanaians today have never heard of these. Also, we play the music of other ethnic groups, but not many of them can play our music, especially our ritual music.

My family plays Ga medicine music and social drumming. The medicine rhythms we play are Akom, Otu, Kpele, and Tigari. Tigari came in the 1960s from Northern Ghana and one of my nephews, Aja Addy, became a Tigari medicine man. Tigari became hot in Avenor in the 1960s. The social music was always there — when the moon came out, we would play whatever rhythm was happening at the time.

Avenor drummers were the champions of Oge, the predecessor of Kpanlogo. My senior brother Akwei Wejei would go village to village and bring the latest rhythms back to us, and we would improve them and add our own styles.

Amina Addy: I think I have to talk about Yacub’s personal style. He’s too humble to talk about himself.

Addy: Humility is part of my culture and my religion.

Amina Addy: That’s it. Humility. Yacub is humble. And he’s not selfish. Many musicians today are all about promoting themselves, about creating an image of themselves as superior to others. Yacub will play any part in the ensemble so that the music will be good. And he listens. He tells his students that listening is the most important thing in music. He listens, he responds, and he plays his part without showing off. He plays what is appropriate culturally in the particular situation. And he advises. That is what an elder is supposed to do. Yacub also has very good hand technique. He enunciates each technique clearly and distinctly. This gives him a sound different than other drummers.

NEA: You grew up in Ghana under British Colonialism. Was it difficult to maintain Ga musical traditions?

Addy: Yes and no. Yes, because if you lived in the city of Accra, you had to buy a pass to be able to have an event with drumming. In villages, you can play. In the villages, they left us alone to do our thing. But the British didn’t like our drumming and our culture. They thought it was evil. They wanted us all to become good little Christians and adopt their ways. They didn’t understand that our traditional rhythm was good music. They only liked music that used western instruments like our Ghanaian contemporary highlife.

Ghanaian highlife musicians would play at a club called European Club for them. The musicians had to enter through the back door and could not sit at the tables out front. We called that music no sweat, because the musicians would stand still to play for the Europeans. They weren’t allowed to show their feelings and move with the music.

NEA: How was music used by Ghanaians during the liberation movement? Tell me about Kolomashi? What does it mean?

Addy: Kolo Mashi — colonials get out. Kolomashi is played in a procession on the street. It uses tamalee drums — frame drums built by carpenters. And many songs. The rhythm is so good. When you hear it, you can’t resist — you will run and join the procession. Ga drivers created it in the 1940s, and Ga fishermen changed it. When the drivers played it, they played the rhythm slow, so the procession moved very slow. When the fishermen took it up, they improved it and played so fast. You would hear the music, but before you could get there to join them, they were long gone.

Kolomashi was used for protest during our independence struggle in the 1940s and 50s. Ghanaians would play and march to the Castle, the headquarters of the British colonial administration. The police would come, break their drums and beat them. They would go home, make more drums, and do it again.

NEA: You were the first to stage traditional music and dance concerts in Accra in the mid-1950s. What do you remember about those concerts? How did the audience respond?

Addy: First, I had a very hard time putting the tradition on stage in the 1950s, because Ghanaians had adopted colonial attitudes by then. When Ghanaians take white people’s ways, they do it more than white people. They were brainwashed to believe that all drumming is witchcraft, which is nonsense. They also saw our culture as something that belonged in villages and back alleys, not in downtown Accra. And families didn’t want their daughters to dance on the stage. So it was very difficult because I had no backing and much opposition. Even members of my own family told me to stop. But I was determined that our culture had value and that it deserved to be on stage in Ghana and around the world along with other cultures and traditions.

We started small, but in 1956, before independence, I organized a big concert of traditional music and dance at Accra Community Center. That was where Ghanaians began to see what I was trying to do. They were surprised and there was a good response. And in the 1960s I had a large ensemble called Ashiedu Ketrekre.

NEA: What does that mean?

Addy: It means, “When we say ten, it is ten.” Ashiedu Ketrekre is also the name of an area of Central Accra. The group had two units, an adult 40-member ensemble of drummers, singers, and dancers, and a children’s group.

Ashiedu Ketrekre was the first traditional group to play at hotels, including the Ambassador, Ghana’s top hotel at the time. It was the first to play at funerals of major political and cultural figures. This is common today, but was unknown then. And the children’s group was the first traditional group to play on Ghanaian television — they performed in three weekly television series in the 1960s.

We did major concerts for police officials and military officers, and expositions of Ga cultural games and educational cultural fashion shows with music for the Arts Council. The last was presented for a visit by America’s First Lady Pat Nixon. Once I got the ball rolling, others jumped into the field to follow my footsteps. Some of them would hide themselves to watch our rehearsals and performances. Many got their ideas from me, but I was not credited. Too much tribalism in Ghana. Today, only a few older people know what I did.

NEA: You were the first, as well, to bring Ga traditions to an American stage. Tell me about that experience.

Addy: I created a small group in 1968 made up of a few of my brothers, myself, and a friend. I asked our King, the Ga Mantse, to select among three names for the group, and he chose the name Oboade. We were the first professional traditional Ghanaian group to visit Europe. Our first concerts were at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and we got a terrific response.

The group was based in London from 1972-75 and we toured a lot in Europe — so many places — sometimes we didn’t know where we were. Those were the hippie days and we had fans who followed us all over Europe. My younger brother Mustapha insisted on leading Oboade for a while, and for the sake of unity, I allowed it. He left in 1973 after less than a year, and the group operated from there without an official leader. We made three tours to the U.S. between 1972 and 1975; we played in Maryland and Chicago, but mostly in the Northwest, especially Washington State.

And there was an early interest in African music in Seattle. Again, we got a great response. Our culture was new for Americans, and the power of it was overwhelming for some of them.

NEA: You stayed permanently in the U.S. beginning in 1975. Why did you emigrate?

Addy: I married an African American woman in London and we had a son there. When we returned to the U.S. in 1975, she wanted to stay. And business was booming for me. There was lots of work, especially in arts-education and teaching. Oboade broke up and I stayed in Seattle.

NEA: Within seven years you formed the ensemble Odadaa! What’s the significance of the name? What does it mean?

Addy: We Ga have a six-week ban on drumming every year. The ban ends with a ritual festival called Odadaa. That day the Gbese Mantse – he’s one of our three most important Ga kings — he plays the odadaa rhythm on two royal obonu drums that are hundreds of years old and kept only for this one day every year. When he plays the rhythm, the people cheer, “Odadaa-oh! Odadaa-oh!”. The ban is broken and everyone is free to play music and enjoy themselves. So we translate Odadaa — “Let the music begin!”

NEA: Many people have noted the significance of your collaboration with NEA Jazz Master, Wynton Marsalis. When did you first meet Wynton?

Wynton Marsalis, Yacub Addy and band on stage. Photo by Frank Stewart
Addy: I met Wynton at President Clinton’s first inauguration. They had a festival on the Mall. His group and Odadaa! performed on the same stage. We met in the dressing rooms and we liked each other right away. I told him with confidence that we would work together.

NEA: Can you talk about working with him, your group, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, to help create the beautiful album and DVD Congo Square? Why Congo Square? What was the genesis behind this unique partnership?

Addy: To talk about this, I have to go back to the 1940s. I was a teenager. American jazz came to us through radio and movies. We would stay up to the early hours of the morning to listen to it on transistor radios. We also heard it and saw the dances in American movies.

Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Louis Jordon. We loved them. Record stores in Accra played albums on loudspeakers on the street. So many of us would gather to dance, we would block the street. The colonial police would come and beat us. We would run away, but after they left, we’d come back and dance more. Not all the music, but in some of the music, I heard connections to our tradition.

In 1953 and again in 1956, Louis Armstrong visited Ghana. He kept talking about New Orleans, and I wondered why. I told myself that if I ever got the chance to come to America, I would visit New Orleans so I could understand what he was talking about.

In 1984, my group Odadaa! was invited to appear at The New Orleans Jazz Festival for the first time. They took us to a radio station in Louis Armstrong Park and from there to Congo Square, which is just an open area in the park. We were told that this was the place the slaves played on Sunday afternoons for many, many years. My first question was, “Where is the music, the rhythm, they played here in those days?” No one I asked could tell me.

I first saw Wynton on television in 1981 playing with a symphony orchestra. I heard he was from New Orleans; I listened to him play and I told my wife Amina that I was going to work with this man. She was very surprised.

Amina Addy: Because he was playing classical music. Classical music seems unconnected to what you play and what you like.

Addy: I could see his spirit and his dedication.

Amina Addy: So they met in 1993 at Clinton’s Inauguration. And then Wynton came out to see two of Odadaa!’s concerts at Symphony Space two years in a row in New York City for the World Music Institute. Finally, in 2003 he came to our house to begin working on Yacub’s first project with him, “Africa Jazz”, a collection of Yacub’s pieces and jazz pieces that were performed by JLCO and Odadaa! at Columbia University in New York. That’s where we found out how difficult it was to combine the two groups and our very different kinds of music and ways of playing.

Addy: When Wynton walked through the door — you know, at my house, you have to take off your shoes. He was bending down to take off his shoes and I asked him, “Where is the music they played in Congo Square?” He said that no one really knows that music. But he was sure they could bring that spirit. I said, “If you can do it, let’s put it together.” That’s how the project began.

Amina Addy: After Africa Jazz was presented, we worked with Wynton and Jazz at Lincoln Center to plan the Congo Square premiere and the tour. They announced to the press that the premiere would take place in New Orleans during the French Quarter Festival in April 2006, and a few days later, [Hurricane] Katrina struck. We were all devastated, and Wynton’s time was consumed organizing a concert to raise funds for the musicians affected by the storm. When that project was completed, we decided together that no matter what, we would go ahead with the Congo Square premiere.

NEA: Amina, Wynton found the rhythms of the Ga challenging, didn’t he?

Amina Addy:Yes. The first day they got together to begin working on the music — it was at The Egg in Albany in early January 2006. Wynton, Yacub, and Odadaa! members. Wynton told a reporter who was observing that Yacub’s music looks so natural, so easy, but there’s nothing easy about it. He was sitting at the piano, shaking his head, trying to get the rhythms, trying to figure out how he was going to count them.

At one point, Odadaa! was playing Obonu, which is a complex royal rhythm. I was standing next to Wynton near the piano. He whispered to me, “Amina, I can’t. It’s too far away from me.” I responded, telling him that Yacub told me that Obonu was connected to jazz. He said, “This is connected to jazz?” I said, “Yacub said so.” He dug down, went over to the group, asked them to show him how to play the bell and played with them.

That’s when he realized how far he was going to have to go to do this music, and that’s when he made the commitment. The next day the Albany Times Union said — I’m paraphrasing — “the great Wynton Marsalis was perplexed.” But Yacub and I knew at that point that the project would work artistically.

Over the next weeks, Yacub sent tapes of music he wanted to include to Wynton. Wynton spent long hours with his bassist Carlos Henriquez and his drummer Ali Jackson while they were on tour trying to figure out the rhythms on the tapes. We did a long weekend of sessions at his apartment. Then three days of rehearsals with JLCO and Odadaa! in the City, and six days in New Orleans before the premiere Sunday afternoon April 23, 2006.

NEA: Yacub, what was that first performance in Congo Square like?

Addy: It’s hard to talk about. Even when I arrived at the airport in New Orleans, I got shivers, and I made prayers for all those who had died in the storm. When I arrived at the park the day of the premiere, I was thinking about all the slaves and free people who had played there so many years ago and passed away. And I thought about all those who had died in the recent storm. I walked over to the statue of Louis Armstrong with a couple of the guys in Odadaa!. We made prayers there.

Congo Square was a center for African religion, as well as music and dance, so I asked the jinn to let us do our concert there that day. It was a very hot day, but I was chilly. I asked the guys if they heard something. They said they didn’t hear anything. But I heard something like whispers. I went to our trailer dressing room. I didn’t feel like myself and I was very cold. Before I went on the stage, I went back to the statue by myself and prayed again. When I came on the stage, the voices became louder, telling me to drum. When I started drumming, they went away. The crowd was so responsive. The music was still developing, but the spirit of all the artists was so strong that day. It is love that made Congo Square work. If Wynton and I did not love each other, the music would never have worked.

Amina Addy: Later, on tour in North Carolina, Yacub was overcome with feelings on stage during the first half. It started during “Timin Timin”. Tears were streaming down his face and he was playing like he never played before. Only Wynton, Imani, our vocalist, and I, saw what was happening. Imani and I walked him to his dressing room for intermission. I helped him change his outfit for the second half and gradually he came back to us. Many artists have had experiences like that.

NEA: Is there a performance, in all your years of making music, that stands out? Why?

Addy: All the times I played with my senior brothers for my father’s rituals. That was true tradition, a very high standard, and my family. You can’t beat that. There was one day a few years before I first left for Europe when my brothers and I were playing in a village called Tswin. My grandmother Okonfo Ablabah had died, and my mother was holding my grandmother’s ritual yam festival for her one last time after she passed.

Tswin was the village where some of my father’s original drummers lived; they also played for my grandmother. The same thing happened again like many years before with my father. The drummers were actually there in the village, but they didn’t come out to participate. They kept us waiting too long, so my brothers and I started the drumming without them. We played all the styles of all the traditional Ga drummers and our own styles. One of them finally came out and congratulated us, because he was amazed how we could play. The rest, we didn’t see them. The first time this happened with my father, I was too young to be part of it. This time I was playing with my brothers.

NEA: Of course, you’re not only a musician; you’re a composer and an educator. You first began teaching westerners in Ghana in the 1960s in Accra, the capital of Ghana, correct?

Addy: Yes.

NEA: Can you talk about organizing your Five Hand Drumming Techniques to communicate with students unfamiliar with Ghanaian drumming. I understand the system has been copied by many instructors.

Addy: I assisted one of my brothers teaching at Lincoln School, the American high school in Accra, back in the 1960s. That was my first experience teaching Americans. I saw that to learn our drumming, Americans needed a system of teaching with more details and explanation. So I began creating the five basic techniques of our hand drumming in my mind. I first put the system into use when I came to the U.S. in the early 1970s and began teaching in schools in the Northwest.

Over the years I developed it more as I taught in colleges. You have to understand — in our tradition, no one actually teaches us in the way westerners are taught. We are expected to open our ears, listen, and learn by ourselves. The only teaching is correction when we make a mistake. As far as I know, I was the first to define a method of teaching our hand drumming to students from outside Ghana. I created the Five Hand Drumming Techniques. And yes, other teachers have copied my system.

NEA: You’re still working, touring with Odadaa!. You have a new CD coming out in the fall. Is performing always exciting for you?

Addy: Always. Performing gives me energy – spiritual energy. It gives me life.

NEA: Tell us about the moment you found out you were a Heritage Fellow.

Addy: Amina told me.

Amina Addy: Barry Bergey from NEA called me.

Addy: When she first started talking, I didn’t quite believe it. But as she went on, I realized it was true. I hugged her and we both shed tears. You know, I was nominated way back in the 1980s. I said to her, “Finally! America knows the value of what I’ve been doing all these years“.

Recordings and videos available: Congo Square, Children of the Ancients

Interview reproduced courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency supporting artists and arts organizations and bringing the arts to all Americans. Amina Addy also participated in the interview.

Related news: Ghanaian Master Drummer Yacub Addy Receives NEA National Heritage Fellowship

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