The conversation between sound and step, beat and body, drum and dance has been carrying on since the earliest of human civilizations.
Before the written word, dance and percussion served as text and subtext of religious rituals, hunting parties, puberty ceremonies, and wedding celebrations.
From hula to pow-wow, the drummer and dancer were the receptacle for the cultural history of a people, the library of story and the keepers of memory.
With the sponsorship of Aloha-Africa, for five months, two dancers and one drummer from the West African country of Ghana, are filling the island’s air with these rhythmic words, sharing their cultural wealth with local students and the community.
Ghana is located on the Gulf of Guinea and what British colonizers named “The Gold Coast” of West Africa.
Like the rest of the diverse continent, Ghana was used by European traders to bring wealth to their home economies by assimilating a country, her peoples, and her natural resources.
The countries in this region were divided, not by the natural borders of existing ethnic groups and tribes, but by the territorial conquest of the colonizers.
Ghana is the home to the Ashanti, Fante, Ga, Twi and nearly 80 separate ethnicities which speak different languages and practice different cultural traditions.
Ghana led the wave of independence in West Africa in 1957, after 80 years of British rule. Though the legacy of colonialism has devastated the economy, health and food security in the nation, Ghana has survived through the fortitude of their culture, their musical traditions and their dances.
Three ambassadors of Ghanian culture are currently visiting Kaua‘i to hold workshops and performances — Isaac Allotey, Michael Osenda and Ernest Borketey are considered master dancers and drummer respectively.
Allotey has won two national dance championships in the past several years and has performed internationally throughout the African continent.
Osenda, also an accomplished dancer, has won awards in hip-hop dancing and has supported his 26 family members with his talent since a very young age.
Borketey is a master drummer, whose royal family lineage has given him access to sacred religious and artistic knowledge that he uses in village ceremonies to help and protect his clan.
The path of the drummer and dancer must begin at a young age in Ghana.
Each of the visiting artists recognized his own talent as a child, and pursued it out of his own will. Like in America, to choose a creative life, with very little guarantee of making a living with one’s craft, is a difficult one, full of sacrifice. Yet for a dancer as talented as Osenda, other alternatives were not viable.
Celebrating his 26th birthday on Kaua‘i this week, Osenda reflected on his childhood and the beginning of his life as a dancer, “When I was a little boy, old enough to know that my mother had no money, I decided to become a fisherman. I told her I could go fish and make money for school fees and food for my brothers and sisters. But fishing is difficult for someone so young, I didn’t have the experience to always bring home a fish. One day I was at a wedding in my village and I began to dance. People looked and said I was so good and they gave me some food to take home. Then I knew I had to pick it up and start learning.”
At first, Osenda learned the style of hip-hop dancing because teaching and performing to American and Ghanian rap music was extremely popular. “I would go get Ernest (Borketey) and we would go to the beach and dance for money.” It was later, as he matured as an artist, that he realized how important it was to also learn traditional Ghanian dance.
Like Osenda, Allotey expressed the value of perpetuating cultural traditions, “That’s why traveling and performing ar so important to me. This is when we can share our culture and country with other people. These days so many people are influenced by modern dress, modern trends, that people forget about what came before. I want to use music and dance to spread our culture to the world.”
The movement to gain world recognition through Ghanian culture began with the visionary leadership of Ghana’s first president after independence. Allotey explained, “It was President Kwame Nkrumah who helped other West African countries see that the music of our countries could bring us fame in the world. He visited Guinea and told them that was the thing they had to do to lift everyone up.” Nkrumah’s leadership in cultural diplomacy influenced the region and has continued to bolster Ghana’s identity as an artistic and musically rich society.
One of the greatest pioneers in modern Ghanian music is Reggie Rockstone — the godfather of “hiplife music.” This was the first cross-cultural evolution of American hip-hop and traditional language and sound. “Reggie is from the Shanta region,” Allotey said. “He brought the two styles together to form a new type of music. Reggie raps in Twi and English, and for awhile that’s the only language used in hiplife. But now they’re starting in other dialects too, to reach other people.” While great innovation in contemporary music is a hallmark of Ghana’s culture, there is also a firm desire to keep traditional forms of culture and art alive, “Now they teach traditional songs to school children and there are mandatory language classes in native languages,” Allotey said.
Ghana faces what most post-colonial African nations continue to struggle with — troubled economies and corrupt leaders. The artists expressed hope for their country despite rampant “nepotism among elected officials and a huge black market.”
Dance and drumming is deeply integrated into the society, Allotey explained, “During the Independence Day celebration each year, a celebration of fishing dances and rhythms is performed all through Accra. This is the way to honor the bounty of life, through the bounty of the fisherman.” This week was the 50 year anniversary of independence in Ghana, with celebrations and rallies filling the streets of Accra, the country’s capital and the city from where Kaua‘i’s visiting performers hail.
While the three have been on Kaua‘i they have had very little time to visit typical tourist spots, instead they have gone to the heart of Hawaiian culture by learning hula from Jessi Jardin.
Isa-Maria, visual and performing artist and founder and director of Aloha-Africa, is completely responsible for bringing this unique cultural exchange to Kaua‘i.
She writes, “In both Hawai‘i and Africa, dancers and musicians are the keepers of tradition, history and spiritual practice. We believe that our project provides an authentic means to preserve and transmit deep indigenous knowledge … dancer to dancer, drummer to drummer. Our guest artists have been honored with invitations to exchange dance and aloha with several respected halaus. In these collaborations, the African dancers will learn hula choreography and protocol as well as share some of their own. They will then join the halaus in a performance of these ancient sacred traditions as a ritual of world peace, celebrating the interconnectedness of all life.”
In West African traditions of djembe drumming and dance, there is a blurred line between the “performers” and “audience” — there is no true stage, only a circle of bodies responding to the talking of the drum. While recorded Ghanian music is wonderful to listen to, it cannot be compared to actually being in the presence of the making of music and dance. These master performers are presenting this tradition at island schools and venues through the spring — with the tradition of Hawaiian hula and chant, Kaua‘i’s community is primed to share in this rich dialog.