Finally, A Pioneer Is Honored
In March this year, almost a decade after his passing, the Ephraim Amu Foundation, honoring perhaps the greatest Ghanaian musicologist of the twentieth century, was launched. The Foundation aims to promote musical creativity in Ghana and the rest of continental Africa. And this, needless to say, is as it ought to be. For Dr. Ephraim Amu was the vintage and consummate nationalist long before the term assumed the functional respectability that the country's immortalized founder, President Kwame Nkrumah, accorded it during the late 1940s and well into the 1960s and beyond. Of course, recognizing its atomistic and functionally hobbling ideological purview and thrust, President Nkrumah would globalize and cosmopolitanize African Nationalism into what auspiciously came to be designated as Pan-Africanism. For the American-educated Nkrumah recognized the systematic sociopolitical and cultural marginalization and domination of Africans as a global human rights issue. Of course, the modern inventors and philosophical theorists of this ideology were such Diasporic African luminaries as Henry Sylvester Williams, of Trinidad, the pioneering convener of the celebrated Pan-African congresses at the turn of the twentieth century, and the legendary Great Barrington, Massachusetts, denizen and ployglottal polymath Dr. W. E. B. DuBois. Among others, were also the great Martin Delaney, an accomplished physician, entrepreneur and, I have since recently learned, a generously endowed science-fiction writer. Interestingly, Dr. Delaney would give the lie, retrospectively, to the conservative raillery against Affirmative Action by becoming the first African-American student to be expelled from the Harvard Medical School, not on purely academic grounds, but simply to make way for a far less qualified white student, and also to meet what then constituted the abysmally low white comfort-level vis-à-vis the presence of African-Americans in our nation's flagship academies. Of course, among the Pan-Africanist standard-bearers was also the Rev. Alexander Crummell, of Pennsylvania.
I happen to have personally known Dr. Ephraim Amu. I got to know him while in the third grade as a pupil at the University of Ghana's Staff Village Primary School during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dr. Amu virtually constituted a one-man department of music at the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies and the erstwhile School of Music and Drama, now Americanistically called the School of the Performing Arts. Prior to that, during the late 1950s, the Peki-Avetile native had also pioneered the establishment of a department of music at the University of Science and Technology, currently known aptly as the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, after the latter's indefatigable founder. Interestingly, I would later learn, my eldest maternal aunt, Mary Baaduaa Sintim, had also studied music at the KNUST under Dr. Amu both at Achimota, before, and in Kumasi, later. Most importantly, for me as a little boy growing up and aspiring to carving a niche of scholastic social responsibility, was to be apprised of the fact that Dr. Amu had been my maternal grandfather's, the Rev. T. H. Sintim's, junior schoolmate at the Ramseyer Teacher-Training Center at Abetifi-Kwahu (Okwawu) between 1914 and 1918, or thereabouts. From time to time, particularly when any of his perennial musical classics, such as Yen Ara Y'asaase Ni (This is our ancestral land), hit the airwaves of Radio Ghana, my grandfather would recall a memorable moment or two that the two had shared. From my grandfather, for instance, I learned that it was the King of Abetifi who taught Dr. Amu how to play and interpret the traditional royal drums, particularly during such momentous occasions as the Adae and Odwira and Ohum festivals.
What made the preceding gesture significant was the fact that as an ethnic Ewe, Dr. Amu was supposed to be a suspect stranger, the last person that any figure of significant royal authority in the Akan nation would want or agree to tutor about the religio-functional intricacies of the culture. And here, it is also interesting to observe that while he was designated an Ethnic Ewe, and he unabashedly and proudly regarded himself as such, Dr. Amu, as even his name indicated, was actually of Akan descent. And so learning the Akan drum-script and the Akan language, and my grandfather told me that he contributed to Amu's latter endeavor, was just a matter of coming into his own, or coming full-circle, as it were.
Dr. Amu's enviable reputation, however, and ironically, for a long time, rested on his dismissal from the Presbyterian Teachers' Training College at Akropong-Akwapim in 1933. And it was on the critical question of whether the colonial intellectual subject of British imperialism had a human right to maintaining his traditional African identity even while employed by the very institutional heart of Eurocentric cultural values. In short, the protocol was for the teacher-catechist to attend and deliver sermons during church services in a Western-style blazer and pants or trousers. Instead, Tutor Amu, as he was then called, opted for his trademark jumpers and shorts, with an African cloth or toga thrown over them for good, regal, measure. The white principal of the college issued this unusually recalcitrant colonial subject several warnings, after which he was summarily fired. Tutor Amu would spend a fortnight with my maternal grandfather, his good friend and one whom Teacher Amu considered his elder brother, on his way home to Peki-Avetile, or wherever it was that the recently decommissioned were bound. Decades later, when my grandfather related the preceding story to me, one of his self-confessed favorite grandchildren, it was with wistful pride; it was to emphasize Dr. Amu's inimitable ideological single-mindedness. For my grandfather had advised his dear friend to swallow some of his great cultural pride in order to maintain his post as tutor of the then-Gold Coast's premier teacher-training academy. For our subject, however, cultural self-worth superseded such purely mundane and visceral matters as one's socioeconomic status. In sum, temporizing his culture and being cannibalized by Western imperialism would be unacceptably tantamount to psychical suicide. In the end, needless to say, it was the immutable humanity of Dr. Amu which won the Herculean or, more aptly, the Promethean struggle against the juggernaut of British imperialism. Ironically, years later, the Royal College of Music would honor Professor Ephraim Amu with its coveted fellowship. The University of Ghana would also confer on him an honorary doctorate.
In more than a casual sense, Dr. Ephraim Amu is the Kwame Nkrumah of modern African music. He was also the first continental African to compose music in the traditional four pitches or voices as prevails in the West. Among his distinguished students was the Rev. Dr. Otto Boateng, of Akropong-Aku(w)apem.
In launching the Ephraim Amu Foundation, the chairman of Ghana's National Commission on Culture (NCC), Professor G. Hagan, poignantly recalled that over and above being a nationalist, a consummate teacher, an inventor and a genius – for our subject is credited with the invention of a musical instrument or two – Dr. Amu possessed an uncanny sense of cultural pride which he dared to flaunt at the risk of his job and survival. This, however, is not the greatest honor or tribute to be paid our subject.
Six years ago, while I was in Ghana to inter my late mother, who had died right here in the United States, I had the privilege of addressing my people on the most powerful privately-owned radio station (JOY-FM) regarding the way and manner in which we honor our distinguished leaders and citizens. The question back then revolved around the appropriate name to be given the National Theater in Accra. Some had suggested that the massive edifice, designed and constructed by the Chinese, be named the Ephraim Amu National Theater. I, together with others who knew a little more than average about the development of theater in Ghana, suggested that the National Theater be re-designated the Efua T. Sutherland National Theater. The latter argument was predicated on the indisputable fact that the late Efua Theodora Morgue Sutherland is the foremost mother of twentieth-century continental African theater. But what is even more significant is the fact that the location of the present National Theater, in Accra, was originally the site of the Ghana Drama Studio, founded by Professor Sutherland as a modern experimental theater in 1958; back then, it is significant to note, no institution approaching the level of a national theater existed anywhere in the West African sub-region.
Conversely, I suggested during my 1998 interview with JOY-FM that the most fitting tribute to our subject would be for the music departments of all the country's major universities to be named the Ephraim Amu School of Music. National and regional awards could also be established to foster a creatively competitive musical and esthetic spirit in the country. Six years later, I still stand by this contention. All the preceding is not unprecedented; the Russians, for instance, have named many of their academies of letters after Maxim Gorky, thus the plethora of Gorky Institutes; likewise, the Germans have their Goethe Institutes, as also their Wagner-ian academies. Needless to say, it has taken rather long for Ghanaians to arrive at such salutary recognition of our sense of national pride. But it is, as it were, better late than never. One hopes that an Internet web-site will soon be established, if not already, in order to enable those of us who want to make a difference to contribute to this unarguably noble endeavor.