#24. Growing Through Music

Music has played a major role in my development as a child, throughout my education, in my life as a Christian and in my development work across Africa. My early memories of music go back as far as when I was between 4 and 6 years old. I would wake up early in the morning still lying on my mat (my childhood version of a bed) and the music will drift into my ears from the local kitchen where my mother would be grinding millet for the day. She would normally sing a song to provide the rhythm that will accompany the grinding on the stone. During that same stage in my life, local stories told to the children in the night usually had a song to accompany them. 

From the age of 6 years onwards, I became more aware of the music produced by praise singers(“Baambaam” in Kusaal and “Laalorr” in Bissa)  during funerals and festivals. The Bissas played a two-stringed guitar that was built on a specially shaped calabash and skin called “Konni” while the Kusassis played a single-stringed violin called “Duruung” also built on a calabash and skin. It is also played with a string attached to a bowed stick. Although the string of the Duruung looked as if it was single it was actually several strands of horsetail that was used. The praise singers tuned their instruments and blended it with their voice at the same key. The most unusual situation that I marvelled at was a Bissa musician who played and sang in Kusaal. Praise singers generally sang in their mother tongue. In my maternal uncle’s house near Bitu in Burkina Faso (Upper Volta in those days), I saw several musical instruments and went to gatherings where these instruments were played and accompanied by the singing of praise singers. 

Praise singers (or Griots) can be found across West Africa. They are oral historians who can narrate the histories of families and clans. They are also gifted at singing the praises of anyone they encounter and are paid to perform at events and functions. In the past (and even now), they play an important role in the community because they are a repository of history and tradition. 

One of the praise singers who impressed me and had a deep impact on my life was called Doma. He seemed to know the history of every Clan and could narrate family histories with amazing accuracy. He could play and sing for hours on end, starting in the early hours of the evening until sunrise. With music all around me, I automatically wanted to become a musician. In 1963 I came home from my uncle’s house and persuaded my father to make a traditional musical instrument called “Jengira” for me. This instrument is made by bending a stick that is about 1 m long and holding it in that bent position with a wire connecting both ends of the stick. The bottom of a small calabash is then attached towards one end of the bent stick. The open end of the calabash is placed on the abdomen to help produce the deep sound emanating from the instrument. The longer side of the stick should be on your right-hand side. With your right hand, you then pluck the string with your right middle finger. The stick runs across your right palm. The left-hand changes the sound of the instrument by placing your left forefinger and thumb on and off the string.

I realised that nobody else around the community knew about this instrument. At the same time on the shepherd grounds with the other boys, while looking after sheep and cattle, I learnt how to make a wind instrument using clay. The Bissas call this “Ferr” while the Kusassis call it “Wiig“. It can be likened to a clay whistle with up to six different sounds that can be produced. There is actually a wooden version of this instrument made by craftsmen but I never got the chance to own and use this version. Then there was another wind instrument made from the stalk of sorghum. The length of the stalk is usually such that it had only one joint between both ends. This instrument is called “Bungkaare” in Bissa and “Nankpak” in Kusaal. It is usually made at the end of the third part of the rainy season, that is around October/November, but it will normally be abandoned and broken by the beginning of January the following year.

In 1965 I built my first two-string guitar. I quickly found out that this guitar could be tuned to play with 5 notes. I managed to learn several categories of Bissa music including the hunter’s dance, war dance, funeral dirges etc. I will sit in my mother’s yard and play all these types of music while my half-sister danced to them with pride. I perfected the use of this instrument throughout my education and for much of my life. 

My last two-stringed guitar must have been thrown away in the year 2003 when my family was moving out of Ghana. Parallel to the use of this instrument I discovered the harmonica when I was in Ghana College in Tamale. I quickly learnt how to use the harmonica and became proficient in using it to play different Christian songs. I became so attached to the harmonica that I took it into an examination hall in Navrongo Secondary School in 1975. The invigilator could not believe it and it was taken away from me. It took some time before I got it back.

The Western-style of music broke into my childhood sense from many sources. The first source was the houses of Agricultural Technical Officers based in the Manga Agricultural Station. Indeed there was one Agricultural Officer who owned a guitar and he would normally come to our house when my mother had the local alcoholic brew called “Pito” and play it. This instrument fascinated me. Then there was music from movies shown in is the Bawku Cinema Palace. The other source that influenced my life was music taught in school by my teachers from primary one up to middle school Form 3.  

In school, we learnt Kusaal songs and Kusaal translations of English songs. The most amusing one was the translation of “Mary had a little lamb, it’s fleece was white as snow “. This was. translated to “Assana Mori upebilla Ka u pelgi gat sakuga”. (meaning Assana had a little lamb and it was whiter than hailstones). The linguistic ingenuity of the teachers enabled them to “translate” Mary into “Asana” and snow into hailstones. Amazing indeed. How on earth would one translate a name!  Most of the songs we learnt in school were the English nursery rhymes, their translation into the local language or Christian hymns. For example, I learnt songs such as “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in the believer’s ear” in primary school. 

It was in the year 1964 that I saw an accordion for the first time. I was really fascinated but the clarity of the sound produced. It was played by one of the teachers in the middle school. He taught his class the song “They were in an upper chamber. They were all with one accord. When the Holy Ghost descended. As was promised by our Lord.”  I just followed the tune with amazement and never knew the meaning words or their meaning until I became a Christian. 

My small world of local and foreign music established in Manga exploded into a new world of contemporary music in 1968 when I arrived in Tamale. The shops along the streets of this town displayed record players and record changers on their windows and played loud music that came from huge speakers standing outside their shops. This was brought to reality in Ghana College on Saturdays that were designated for the “Record Dance Nights“. 

The music of those days was dominated by artists such as James Brown, Wilson Pickett and these were equally matched by singers with smooth voices such as Jim Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and the like. There was also the reggae music from Jamaica. Musicians who dominated this area included Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Johnny Nash and the like. As the years rolled on Africa was not left out of the show. In Ghana we had highlife music dominated by musicians and musical groups search us Nana Ampadu, K Gyasi and the Okukuseku band, Ramblers International Band etc. Congolese music was also a big dominant force with the famous Ok Jazz. Emerging African musicians included Alpha Blondy, Salif Keita, Lucky Dube etc. Then musical groups such as ABBA, Bonny M as well as The Beatles contributed to their part to contemporary music. Christian musicians of the time included Andrae Crouch and Jamie Owens. 

I took my time to assimilate all these genres of music over the years and picked up lessons from their lyrics as well as their performances. For example, Bob Marley says “in the abundance of water the fool is thirsty “. This is a philosophical thought that points to the fact that one needs more than resources to respond to a need. It requires intelligence and wisdom to recognise the resources around you that will respond to your need. Such philosophical thoughts spoke a lot to me and enabled deep reflection. Beyond the lyrics, I was also deeply interested in the melodies and harmonies produced by musicians even if I did not understand the language in which they sang. I remember playing Congolese music although I did not understand the songs. I also played Nigerian Juju music particularly music by Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade. My interest in listening to different instrumental combinations drew me deep into the love for classical music particularly from artists such as Mozart, Beethoven and Handel. 

In the year 1968 in Ghana college in Tamale, I saw a piano for the first time. This was also the first time I was taken through music lessons by the music master, Mr Thompson (A British volunteer). In those days it was very difficult for a Form One student to attempt to play on that piano particularly if he did not know how to do so. I can say that I grew up surrounded by all types of music and playing all types of musical instruments. 

Becoming a Christian and going to Scripture Union meetings and also attending church services significantly increased my use of music in all forms of Christian worship. The weekend Scripture Union meetings and monthly conferences at the Presbyterian Youth Training Centre in Vitin, near Tamale, provided huge opportunities for learning several songs. I remember that Sunday evenings after such conferences were really opportunities to showcase the new songs we learnt as we were brought back to the school. One particular driver called Ziblim took pride in driving us back to the school as we made a lot of noise, sang new songs and pounded on the side of the wooden truck (Boneshaker) that he brought to carry us.

Although I became a Christian in 1970 I have persistently refused to throw away any music that does not contain Christian or biblical lyrics. I believe that life’s lessons are not limited to the Bible or Christian songs. One can learn from Christians and Non-Christians because we all have common grace. Wisdom and knowledge is not the exclusive domain of Christians. And music as an art form helps us appreciate life experiences in all its various forms in a unique and important way.

I got my first gadget that could play music in 1977 when I was in 3rd year at the university. It was a Trident Radio Cassette Player sent to me by a friend King David Amoah, who was studying Veterinary Medicine at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. With this Cassette Player, I gradually built a library of cassettes of all types of music but mainly Christian music, Reggae and other types of contemporary music that I liked. 

The biggest drama in my musical life happened in 1984. I sat down in the congregation in my local church in Tamale and watched in disbelief when three young men who were the main instrumentalists of the musical group in the church decided that they were no longer going to play the instruments. They were the bass guitarist, the lead guitarist and the keyboard player. Nobody else in the group knew how to play these instruments. This meant that the group had to abandon the use of their instruments and start training new people to play them. The group was called “Redemption Singers” and was the first of such a group to be formed in northern Ghana. This interruption of the work of the group really surprised me. I narrate the history of the Redemption Singers just for the documentation of historical facts and because my short experience with the group has had a profound influence on my life and will remain deep in my memories.

Redemption Singers as a Christian musical group was started in 1978/79 by Ransford Kojo Boakye. Their first instruments were made up of a set of drums, a keyboard with its accompanying amplifier, a bass guitar and a lead guitar. They were purchased from an Assemblies Of God missionary called Reverend Hockett. Funds for the purchase of these instruments came mainly from personal contributions from the group members and the Christian community at large. Some of the contributors were not members of the local Assemblies Of God church.

At one point, in their efforts to move the group forward, the leadership of the group decided that it should become independent of the church and run on its own. The church in seeing the determination of the group members decided to back them up and own the group. I believe that they might have been external influences persuading the leaders to want to become independent of the church. The idea of becoming independent of the church was not unanimous as some members preferred to remain as a church-based musical group. It was in this standoff position that the instrumentalists decided not to play the instruments again. 

For nearly two months church services went on without the use of modern musical instruments. During this time emerging young leaders decided to train to play the instruments. The three people I can remember where Daniel Ali, Ebenezer Tetteh and Joseph Kalari. A talented Muslim instrumentalist and musician, Ahmad Issifu, agreed to come and train the new hands from scratch. For me, this was simply ridiculous. For Christians to abandon service and a non-Christian to have the heart to step in and provide the service was really incredible. Ahmad was also a multi-talented musician. Although his main instrument was the lead guitar he could play the bass guitar and the keyboard and he understood the musical parts sung by the singers and guided them. He trained the team relentlessly and after two months these young people were back on the stage to accompany the congregational singing of the church. Ahmad became while working with and supporting the group. He is a lecturer in the University of Development Studies (UDS) in Tamale.

It was during this struggle to re-establish themselves that I asked a question “What is really so difficult about playing the keyboard “. From my background, I had grown up playing all types of instruments and I had listened to all types of music and I had developed a keen musical ear. This was the beginning of my learning to play the keyboard. The three young men Ahmed Issifu, Ebenezer Tetteh and Daniel Ali agreed to help me learn how to play the keyboard. They taught me the basic chords that accompanied congregational songs in general and songs sung by the group in particular. My eagerness to learn how to play this instrument was only surpassed by their determination to teach me.

I can remember some late nights when I had Ebenezer sitting on my left-hand side, mimicking the sound of a bass guitar while Daniel sang a song and clapped his hands and I tried to play along with them on the keyboard. My mistakes were many but their determination was solid. Ahmad taught me all the tricks of playing the right chords with songs by ear without the sheet music. He quickly recognised that I had a musical ear. I remember the first time I played what is known in music as a chord inversion he stopped and looked sharply at me asking who taught me this. I told him that I found out by myself. 

It was Ahmad who taught me the minors, the majors, the 7th and 9th chords. Nobody in the group knew about my earlier musical exploits as a child playing local instruments or as a student listening to all types of music and now as a worker wanting to become part of a musical group that was made up of mainly younger people. My engagement with the Redemption Singers lasted until September 1988 when I was transferred from Tamale to Accra. During the four-year duration when I played the keyboard for them I spent personal resources taking them to Assemblies Of God Youth camps in Yendi, Bolgatanga, Bawku, Tenkudugou in Burkina Faso and to a famous crusade in a village called Arigu near the White Volta organised by Reverend Samuel Tigah. Rev Tigah was a pastor in the Wulugu Assemblies Of God church.

During this program, we had the awkward situation of having to sleep on mats. Some members of the group who had never had this experience before were impressed that I could quickly adapt to the situation. They had no clue that I had lived in worse conditions during my childhood. The group provided musical support in other Christian programs including funerals, weddings and special programs organised by other groups. 

I can never forget this program organised by a new Christian musical group called “Steward’s Incorporated ” outside Tamale Cultural Centre. Members of the “Redemption Singers” arrived for the program in white T-shirts and black trousers for the men as well as black skirts for the ladies. The host group came on the stage gorgeously dressed up in northern Ghanaian regalia made up of heavy gowns sewn from a northern traditional material for the men and the women equally dressed up with the same material to match their male counterparts. It was a real display of pomp and pageantry. Then the “Redemption Singers” were invited onto the stage. We walked up onto the stage rather timidly. I cannot remember whether we played two or three songs. I just remember that the last song was entitled “Jesus Christ died for me “. On the keyboard, I played the introduction to the song using tone called “bells” very slowly. The lead singer then followed by singing slowly. Then we all stopped for just four beats. The four beats look like an eternity with the audience and all waiting in anticipation. The drummer performed a series of “rolls” on the drumset and went into a quick highlife beat, joined by the singers and instrumentalists and everybody to sing the song in a highlife style. We got every member of the audience on their feet and dancing. It was difficult to stop playing at the end of the performance because of all the dancing. Finally, in the end, the applause went on and on.

I have always reflected on the issues that led to the difficulties that confronted the Redemption Singers and the local church in Tamale and come to the following analysis. Development workers engaged in conflict work usually carry out what is known as conflict analysis. In this process, it generally true that every conflict situation has underlying causes that remain dormant and the actual conflict normally arises because of a trigger. In the case of the conflict that arose between some members of The Redemption Singers musical group and the leadership of the local church, the underlying causes could be related to the attitude of church leaders towards young people who offer their skills in music to the church. Church leaders tended to look at such young people as “kids”. Even when adults joined musical groups in the church they tended to be treated like children. Although I was a member of the leadership of the church, the moment I joined these young people to play music, I could feel the perception that I had compromised my maturity. This was the underlying cause of the problems in the church. External influence on these young people could have been the trigger that brought about the conflict. This perception has gradually changed over the years and musical groups in churches are taken more seriously. 

Learning how to play the keyboard from these young people significantly influenced my development work for nearly 30 years. I have had the opportunity to play in several environments across the African continent including a musical band in the French Cultural Center in Zinder, Niger; playing with a musical group to entertain hotel residents in Serekunda in the Gambia; playing for a Ghanaian church in London, UK; playing with a local group in Bujumbura, Burundi; playing for Tarab musicians at the White Sands Hotel near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In all these circumstances, identifying with the entertainers always brought me closer to the common people who are always overlooked in society and made me appreciate the problems confronting them. 

In 1988 I was transferred from Tamale to Accra and had to part ways with the Redemption Singers. My last meeting with them was very emotional. I, however, encouraged the members to build the group around their belief in God, rooted in the local church and not around an individual. Thirty-two years down the line the evidence is that the Redemption Singers still stands strong as a group in Tamale. This is an output of the initiative by Ransford carried forward. Some of the lessons from my experience with this group that leadership of musical groups should work to train several people to play musical instruments. This will ensure that a few people will not take the group hostage. The leadership of musical groups should be convinced about their calling into the music service and ignore the question of status. Church leaders need to understand that being a musician has nothing to with maturity. 

I thank God for enabling me to be part of the music ministry to the church. Above all, I thank God that my two sons have developed musical skills and play at a higher level than I did. My daughters also sing beautifully. They also serve in the church.

My next blog is entitled “Commonwealth Games Medallist“. Get on this blog on Sunday the 25th of October and discover what it is all about. 

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