Artist Profiles: Obo Addy

Obo Addy

Obo Addy was born January 15, 1936. He was a prominent member of the first generation of African musicians to bring their traditional and popular music to Europe and the United States of America. This versatile magician of the drums embodied the past, present and future of Ghana’s musical culture. He celebrated past traditions while embracing new ideas and foreign influences. Internationally, Obo Addy’s contribution can be measured by the fact that he was one of the key originators of the seminal musical movement now known as “Worldbeat.”

His musical background was a combination of the rigorous standards of ritual music he learned from his father, a Wonche Priest (A Wonche Priest of the Ga culture is a traditional spiritual healer, herbalist, community adviser and conflict mediator. His skills include complete mastery of music and dance as used in rituals he performs for the community.), with the flashy international pop music he performed as a young professional with big bands in Accra, Ghana. After moving away from performing Western standards on the nightclub circuit, Obo Addy joined the National Arts Council of Ghana, becoming a master in the traditional music and dance of the many cultures in Ghana. He later moved to the United States where he created two colorful performing ensembles, each expressing one of the two closely-related sides of his musical personality: traditional and popular.

Okropong, meaning “eagle” in Obo Addy’s native Ga language, performed traditional Ghanaian music using a variety of hand and stick drums, talking drums, bells and shakers. While the musicians built layers of driving rhythms and singing, the dancers, clad in colorful West African garments, engaged in an energetic physical “conversation” with the drummers and the audience. Occasionally, Obo Addy complemented the drummers by playing the Dzili or Giri (a marimba-type instrument) in a manner which demonstrated the strong connection between traditional African music and jazz improvisation.

Bringing the jazz connection into the fore was Obo Addy’s second ensemble Kukrudu (Ga for earthquake’). This eight piece ensemble of African and American musicians performed a rich synthesis of musical styles on Ghanaian percussion and Western instruments including saxophone, trombone, guitar, electric bass and drum kit.

Not only was he a percussionist of consummate skill, but Obo Addy was a singer and vocal arranger of unique character whose harmonic ideas and expressive vocal tone demonstrate for audiences the very real connections between West African and African-American singing styles. The musical compositions performed by both Okropong and Kukrudu were are frequently preceded by stirring polyphonic vocal introductions which displayed these characteristics.

Obo Addy – Photo by Tom Pich

In addition to his performing activities, Obo Addy gave instrumental and dance residencies at academic institutions and was the founder and artistic director of the annual Homowo Festival of African Arts in Portland, Oregon. This festival showed American audiences how the music and dance performed by Okropong fits into its broader cultural context. Obo created a strong residency program titled “Rhythm Explosion” aimed at high school age students and not only showed the evolution of traditional to contemporary music but builts in several lecture-demonstrations for music students.

Since his international debut at the 1972 Munich Olympic games, Obo Addy toured extensively in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Australia, throughout the seventies with his brothers in Oboade, and since 1980 with Kukrudu and Okropong.

In 1992 Obo Addy was commissioned by the innovative classical music ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, to compose “Wawshishijay” for their chart-topping album Pieces of Africa.

In 1996, Obo Addy was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship Award by the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the highest honor a traditional artist can receive in the United States. Obo was the first African born artist to ever receive the award.

Obo Addy died September 13, 2012.

Discography:

Kukrudu (Cascade Recording Studios, 1981)
Obo (Avocet, 1984)
Okropong – Traditional Music Of Ghana ‎(EarthBeat!, 1990)
The Rhythm Of Which A Chief Walks Gracefully ‎(EarthBeat!, 1994)
Let Me Play My Drums (Burnside, 1997)
Wonche Bi (Alula Records, 2001)
AfieyeOkropong (Alula Records, 2003)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.

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