Pan African Orchestra breaks new ground

Issue 

Opus 1
Pan African Orchestra
Real World through Larrikin Entertainment
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

This brilliant, ambitious and beautiful recording is a welcome reminder that it is crude and inadequate to bunch the complex and varied musical cultures of a vast continent, with a population exceeding 500 million people, under the convenient but less than enlightening label of "African music".

Mention that term, and most people will immediately think of the entertaining fusion of west African and Western pop of Youssou N'dour, Angelique Kidjo or Papa Wemba and/or the beguiling sounds of traditional musicians playing as they have done for centuries. The music of Ghana's Pan African Orchestra is something else again.

The PAO is the brainchild of Ghanaian musicologist and composer Nana Danso Abiam. It is also a product of the cultural and political renaissance which swept Ghana after independence in 1957 and again after the coming to power of the radical governments led by Jerry Rawlings in the 1980s.

Abiam was a student activist during the rule of Ghana's first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah, and studied at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, which undertook to rediscover, study and popularise traditional music, drama and art.

In 1985, the government found a paper written by Abiam in those turbulent days proposing the establishment of a national orchestra that would concentrate on the works of African composers and the use of African instruments. Abiam was invited by the Rawlings government to take the reins of the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra and implement his ideas.

He soon resigned, however, citing the orchestra's "colonial mentality" and its resistance to moving away from its European instruments and compositions. Abiam instead began scouring the villages for musicians expert at playing traditional instruments and cooperated closely with Ghana's folkloric groups, to realise his dream of an African orchestra, which was at last consolidated in 1988.

"We play a new form of African classical music", Abiam told West Africa magazine in 1992. The PAO's music is modern music derived from traditional forms and inspired by the Pan African movement's vision of a united African continent, he said.

"This is a nationalist project which seeks to represent the wealth of African culture in music. Before the foundation or welding together of African nations into specifics like Ghana, Senegal, etc, African cultures evolved and devolved quite independently of each other. The challenge of modern African life makes it imperative for a constant demonstration of the potential and beauty of unity in diversity."

The PAO performs "recompositions". "Already existing material is collected, analysed and broken down", explains Abiam. "It involves a lot of experimentation and is a creative experience that does not negate heritage for the sake of creating something new."

Another goal of the PAO is to explore, preserve and develop Africa's indigenous musical instruments. "Some say that the violin is based on the gonje [a one-stringed fiddle], so why don't we use it?", declares Abiam.

The foundation of the PAO is the choir of atenteben bamboo flutes and the gyile or woodblock xylophone. Added to these are the gonje, the powerful fontomfron and atumpani drums, many smaller drums from the Ewe people of Ghana, bells, rattles, shakers and the west African kora, a 21-string harp-like instrument.

While the instruments are ancient, their use in a large ensemble is completely modern. Prior to the PAO, many of these instruments had never been played together before. This posed problems such as how to standardise the pitches of the instruments. The PAO meets and reaches consensus on common-tuning, although not to the extent that most Western ears would be used to. A degree of "out of tuneness" is considered normal in Africa, and total uniformity would be considered odd, says Abiam.

The PAO also has pioneered the use in performance of the startling mmenson — huge ceremonial horns made from hollow elephant tusks — previously reserved for chiefly functions. The number of mmenson players has been dwindling as older musicians die and are not replaced.

Not content with the PAO's remarkable achievements as exemplified in Opus 1, Abiam hopes that the PAO will grow from its current 28 members to 108 and include musicians, instruments and techniques from throughout the continent.

From its opening track — Wia Concerto No.1, derived from a song from northern Ghana that protests against colonialism and the press-ganging of Africans into the British and French armies — Opus 1 is a challenging, exciting and rewarding experience. The sounds of many unfamiliar instruments in unison is at the same time fascinating and unsettling.

This wonderful CD highlights the innovation, talent and history that lies neglected and untapped due to decades of slavery, colonialism and imperialism.

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