Don’t shed tears for Ghanaba—He has gone home
On December 22, 2008 the music world lost one of the greatest drummers of our time when Ghanaba passed away after a brief illness at the 37 Military hospital in Accra, Ghana.
Metamorphosis: Ghanaba went through a series of name changes during his life time. Born as Kpakpo Akwei on May 4, 1923, in Accra, he changed his name in the late 1940s to Garry Warren and then in the 1960s to Ghanaba. His parents were from prominent Ga families in Accra. His late father Richard Akwei was a great educator in Accra and a founder and the headmaster of the Akwei Primary and Middle school in Accra. His late mother, Awula Abla Moore, was a very successful trader in Accra.
Oxford or not? The young Kpakpo Akwei successfully completed his early schooling at the Accra Government school and then at the Famous Achimota secondary school. His brother, Richard Akwei, Oxford educated, and then Head of the UN Civil Service and a career diplomat told me some time ago in a conversation about Ga families and their achievements that: “my brother chose drumming to going to Oxford because music was his calling”.
Early Carrier: Drumming as a carrier paid very little money in the Gold Coast/Ghana in the 1940s and so the young Kpakpo Akwei was a journalist in Accra while he played the drums in a local band at night. It was at this time that he changed his name from Kpakpo Akwei to Garry Warren. He would soon leave the Gold Coast/ Ghana to Liberia and England where he still played the drums but also worked as a Reporter, Journalist and Disc Jockey.
America Here I come: It was in America that Garry Warren (Ghanaba) gained prominence as one of the greatest drummers of his time. Master drummer, Max Roach, once stated that Ghanaba “cross fertilize African Music with African American Music” In 1950 Ghanaba introduced African Percussion into American Jazz. It was in the United States of America that Ghanaba recorded several albums which sold millions. Some of his best Albums are “Africa Speaks America Answers”; “Happy Feeling”; “Themes for Africa Drums” and many more. He played with almost all the Jazz Giants in America—Charlie Parker—John Coltrane ---Dizzy Gillespie--Thelonius Monk—Lester Young— singers Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.
Conversations with Ghanaba: In the fall of the year 1999 I was fortunate to have had a one on one conversation with Ghanaba in his dressing room prior to a performance in honor of President Jerry Rawlings in New York City. He was wearing as usual a white simple cloth wrapped around him like a Buddhist monk and in dark eye glasses; his entire body painted in white clay. There was incense burning in the dressing room and in deep thought but asked me to sit down when I entered the room. Our conversation centered on growing up in Accra, world affairs and music. He described to me how his “fontufrom”, African massive drums, were made, and was honored to have come to play for his personal friend, Jerry Rawlings, the then Ghana’s President. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was his favored African President. After about one hour with him, the speeches by Hon. Kofi Annan, Mayor Dinkins of New York City, and President Rawlings ended, and so I asked him to take the stage for his performance which was spectacular. During this performance, vibrations from the two massive “fontufrom” shook some tables close to these African Drums. A standing ovation concluded his performance.
Ghanaba Transcends Racial Barriers: In 1960 Ghanaba converted to Buddhism. Having adopted a White American President’s name, “Warren”, his name would again change to Ghanaba in the 1960s. In New York he introduced to me a White American with a Ga name,”Odametey “’ as his closest friend. During his life time, Ghahaba braced Asian Religion. He had friends and associates across racial barriers. He united Africa and America through his drumming.
A Well Deserved Tribute: Ghanaba, I am honored to pay this tribute to you-- as one of the sons of Africa—Ganyobi-- because of the legacy you left us. You were one of greatest drummers, musicians and composers in the world of music --African, African American and Jazz. We thank you for opening the world of African drumming to America that other African drummers would get the opportunity to bring their musical talent to the World of drumming and Jazz. The tears that have been shed for you by your family, associates, friends and fans across the globe after you left us were tears of Victory and Joy because you have gone to your final resting place in the universe. The gates of Heaven have welcomed you with drumming and music which transcended racial barriers. Well done. Rest in Peace. “Obo Mo Denn” “Yaa wo dzo gbann”
Benjamin D Dodoo, MD
Chairman, Board of Directors
National Councils of Ghanaians Associations Inc, NY
Interim Chairman, Gadangme International USA/Canada
“Ceremonial” Ga Mantse (New York, USA)
January 12, 2009