April 16-22, 2009Living the Highlife
Local professor Kwasi Ampene brings
West African music to Boulder
by Dylan Otto Krider
In Ghana, music is so connected to everyday life that they don’t even have a word for it. In one part of West Africa, they use the phrase “sing it” when they want to share a musical experience; another tribe says “let’s go drumming.” But whatever the lingo, it all means the same thing: singing, dancing and keeping the beat with drums, feet and hands.
“We don’t separate music from the human experience,” says Kwasi Ampene, an associate professor of musicology at CU.
The son of a music teacher and bread trader in Ghana, Ampene became a well-known musician in his homeland and appeared regularly on television and radio programs. A celebrity whose concerts once drew thousands is now content to teach enthusiastic students the music and dance of his country as a one-credit course in his West African Highlife Ensemble.
Ampene received his music degree from the University of Ghana, then went on to get his doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh, eventually joining the CU faculty in 2000. After reviewing the other African-music ensembles around the nation, he noticed that most focused on traditional religious drumming and music, not the everyday music Africans listen to for relaxation and enjoyment.
America’s knowledge of the continent tends to be limited to Kenya, Somalia and the Cape. West Africa is largely forgotten, despite the fact that it is where America got the bulk of its slaves. Most of the African art and culture that has influenced the United States comes from West Africa. For instance, the iconic instrument of the South, the banjo, actually originated in West Africa.
The images the media often presents of Africa are of the remote villages, still untouched by civilization, rather than the modern skyscrapers and cities that are now the norm for most Africans.
“The media does not do a service when they don’t show a factory instead of all this disease and poverty,” Ampene says.
The African music we often hear is of an Africa 2,000 years ago, performed by tribes who remain isolated from the big cities.
“Do you go to the Fox Theatre to hear mass?” asks Ampene. Plus, many of the instruments used by those tribes are reserved for religious rituals. “We can’t even bring those instruments into the club.”
West African Highlife Ensemble is a mixture of traditional drumming and the kind of music most Africans hear in the dance halls or on the radio as they commute to the office. Highlife is what we call Afropop, the modern stuff with guitars and electronic instrumentation. It’s actually a derivative of “palm wine,” a genre of music that combines storytelling and guitar. It’s named after a popular alcoholic beverage made from the sap of palm trees that has the added benefit of containing its own yeast, which can ferment the nectar into liquor within two hours.
Not that West African Highlife Ensemble doesn’t have the contagious African beats Westerners seem to love. Maputo Mensah was also recruited by the university to round out CU’s ethnomusicology department. In addition to teaching at the university, he runs a drumming/dancing class and leads a yearly month-long trip to Ghana to teach the art and culture of his home country. When Mensah heard CU had hired a new professor, he wanted to meet him, and it turned out, the two had been friends at the University of Ghana.
“He’s a very, very great man,” Mensah says of Ampene. “When he brought the Highlife to the music of college, I see what he been doing — he been able to teach Americans who have a different rhythm and background. I was like, ‘Wow!’”
Teaching these kids rhythm is impressive. Most students have never touched an African instrument before, so they’re basically starting from scratch at the beginning of the semester.
Mensah sees nothing remarkable about it. “If you walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.”
After all, in Ghana, to sit and listen to a concert is a bit like going to a restaurant to look at your food. Everyone sings. Or drums. Or dances. Talent has nothing to do with it.
There is no separation between performer and audience in the sense that even the most reserved people participate by clapping or
stomping their feet. Another thing: They don’t barricade the stage in Africa. If you are inspired to jump up and dance a little, then hop down in the crowd, that’s not unusual, or even discouraged.
“For us, music is a spiritual experience,” Ampene says. “We don’t have art for art’s sake. Art has a function.”
This year’s visiting musician will be Visu Mahlasela, who was featured in the 2002 documentary Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. Mahlasela was signed by Dave Matthews’ label, ATO Records, and has performed with Paul Simon. He is a poet-activist who began playing on a homemade guitar made of a box and fishing line. Mahlesela’s role in the anti-apartheid movement earned him a spot playing at Mandela’s inauguration.
Although there are many similarities to be found in the music of Africa, the culture of South Africa is quite a bit different from West Africa. However, the music is no less important.
“South Africa has quite a bit of choral music,” Mahlasela says. “We sing in church, at parties, when a baby is born or someone passes away.”
And music was no less important for the protests against apartheid. You can’t march without singing.
Ampene says his goal is to bring one of Africa’s greatest musicians to Boulder every year, so that students will have the opportunity to experience the diverse music of the continent firsthand.
The ensemble will perform some of Mahlesela’s songs, and Mahlesela says he’s learned something from the upbeat tempos of Ghanaian music as well. Hopefully, the audience members will also take something away from it.
That’s one thing all three agreed on: An event like this ought to teach people to tolerate and respect one another rather than attempting to control one another, something that has been historically detrimental for the African continent.
Africa has given the United States a lot over the centuries. Most of the unique American musical forms — jazz, blues, rock — are African in origin. Africa provides a large part of the world’s wealth in minerals and biological knowledge. The irony is that Africans rarely seem to benefit from their contributions as much as we do. So it’s not surprising that Boulder would reap the benefits of Africa’s top musicians and celebrities, who willingly travel halfway around the world to participate in a student ensemble, when they ought to be filling stadiums.
Ampene says he’s not trying to change our culture, but if the mood should strike you, for God’s sakes, get up and dance. “If you don’t feel it,” he says, “if the music doesn’t move you, you don’t get it.”
At press time, Boulder Weekly was told that Visu Mahlasela would not be able to perform at the Highlife Concert because his grandmother died, and he needed to return to South Africa. Our thoughts are with him and his family.
The 9th Annual Highlife Concert featuring West African Highlife Ensemble takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 17, at Macky Auditorium, CU campus, Boulder, 303-492-8008.