Every day a surprise, another layer of complexity revealed, another little light shed on the Dark Continent of our ignorance about Africa. Our guest was Walter Blege, an 86-year old self-described rebel who is a composer in the Western sense of the word. That is, he individually gathers his thoughts and impressions and expresses them in sound that is notated on paper in the form of new styles of opera, church music and more. But one of his innovations was to included Ghanaian drums, bells and rattles, incorporate proverbs and pay attention to stylistic qualities of his indigenous “folk” music.
He told us some of his long and impressive history, including a schooling where we would be publicly whipped with 12 lashes if he was discovered singing his culture’s music. The missionary presence—at first German in “Eweland” (hence the Catholic presence) and later British—was intimately tied to the colonization of Ghana, the building of hospitals and schools and a Western style national government, all things that seem potentially positive and benign. Maybe. But in any case, the price was high. The trade-off was denying the value of the Ewe indigenous culture and accepting the European view that it all was the work of Satan. So just as the old Testament God insisted “You shall have no other idols before me” and combined religious rejection of native religions in Palestine and demanded obedience to the one “true” God—ie, the one that benefits the ruling class— there was no room for a deeper look at what spirituality really is and how many different names and faces it can have. It was “my way or the highway.” And the highway was going straight to hell in the after-life or a hellish life with 12 lashes if you dared to claim your cultural identity.
And therein lies the dynamic of Ghana to this day. Though northern Ghana is primarily Muslim, another take-over from the outside, Christian churches, particularly Catholic and Evangelist, are everywhere. The modern-day Ewe is faced with either choosing one and rejecting the other or keeping both in his or her life and all the shades of gray in-between. To me, it seems strange to go to a Christian service knowing the history of what they’ve done and continue to do and their attitude about a culture that seems to me many times more tolerant, genuinely spiritual, nurturing and wise. But because indigenous religions are polytheistic, I understand how they can view Jesus as just another one of a long list of divinities and add him to their playlist, so to speak. But in so doing, there are so many areas of confusion that include sometimes rejecting traditional music as the songbook of the devil. It’s complicated. (I hope to soon ask Kofi what he and others saw in Jesus’ message that he hadn’t found in Ewe culture. An interesting question! I’ll get back to you on that.)
But meanwhile, the conflict continues and seems to be escalating with the “Africa Rising” movement. On the surface, this movement seems like a very positive thing, Africans joining the global economy, participating in the technological innovations and global business practices and claiming their seat at the table of “first-world” cultures. But amidst the thousand and one things to watch out for when you enter that world of material prosperity at the center of one’s values— the loss of all the community connections I keep praising, the connection to the natural world, the rise of therapists as healthy life-styles begin to trade in their gifts for shopping in the mall and on and on— there is another problem here. It is the churches that are tying themselves to Africa Rising and seducing membership in the church by promises of making it in the world of material success. The only price, besides giving lots of money to the church, is accepting their doctrine, which of course, will include yet further rejection of your cultural identity.
All of this makes me yet again so proud of our Orff-Afrique presence here. We come as students eager to learn from Ghanaians on their terms, with nothing up our sleeves but our curiosity and our actually deep need to bring the gifts of this remarkable culture in our own disconnected lives. In other words, we need what they have to offer. We have to beware of the missionary or capitalist idea of using our privilege to just come and take it. “Give me that drum pattern and cool dance move! I think I’ll publish it in my country and get some money.”
So we tiptoe lightly and follow the lead of Kofi and his fellow teachers and work to understand how the music is tied so deeply to all aspects of the culture that it’s dangerous to simply lift a drum pattern out of context and put it in your shopping cart. And we also come happy to offer whatever we have that is of value. In this case, adapting Orff ideas and ideals to the interest some have in learning Western music. Unlike our hunger for dynamic and interesting material from around the world, the Ghanaians are not walking around thinking, “I need a cool Brazilian song! Can you teach me one?” They are open to hearing everything, interested in different songs and rhythms, happy to learn a new game or clapping pattern, but their own repertoire is so varied and rich and carries such deep meanings far beyond pleasing sounds that it is most definitely not a two-way exchange.
But some, like Walter Blege, have been intrigued by Western musical practices and entered that world on their own terms. By so doing, he has been and continues to be scorned by some Ghanaian music academics who frown on him using drums in the Western canon of composition. From the other end, he is criticized by traditional music groups for composing in the Western canon. Some churches still forbid his music to be sung by choirs. It has not been an easy road. But these are the kind of outlaw folks I like! So thank you, Walter Blege, it was an honor to meet you and I hope our Orff-Afrique course paves the way for a future kind of cultural exchange on more equal, respectful and intriguing terms. May Africa rise without losing its footing!