For most musicians, the impetus to create comes from an early and perhaps intuitive mind / ears / hands relationship in response to appealing melodies. As in “I want to do this!”
For African singer-songwriter Okaidja Afroso, however, the mind / ears part of the equation was originally tied to his feet. Coming from a family of musicians and storytellers living on the west coast of Ghana, Afroso says he was fascinated from an early age by… dance.
“Yes, my first introduction to music was through dancing – even though my dancing was not good at all! Afroso laughs, on the phone from Portland, Oregon, where he has lived for the past 20 years. “There was nothing in mind, musically, other than it caught my attention and I just wanted to dance to it. Eventually, of course, I started to pay more attention to the music itself – the writing, singing and acting. But even now, I still approach music from a dance perspective. “
Afroso is internationally recognized for its fusion of West African palm wine music – a percussive and highly melodic style of acoustic guitar that has evolved over the centuries from local sailors and fishermen – with other types of world music. The last of his four albums is actually called “Palm Wine Music,” and Afroso is appearing as the backing for tonight’s release at Connecticut College. The concert, which is part of the school’s guest series performances, is open to the public.
To hear Afroso’s music is to be transported. There are confluences of ever-thrilling rhythms, trippy acoustic guitar figures and inventive chord highways, and her voice – often in her native language – is a warm tenor given to a floating melody. Prior to his solo career, he started professionally as a singer, percussionist and dancer with the renowned Ghana Dance Ensemble, then spent precious time with the influential Obo Addy, whose successful attempts to intersect African and Western musical styles have found an echo around the world.
In conversation, Afroso’s vibrant personality and dynamic accent exudes goodwill, and his thoughtful responses and passion are often accompanied by laughing exclamation marks. Here are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and space.
Q: Obviously, despite your erased comments on your first attempts, you eventually got better at dancing. Talk a bit about how it got you to write and perform your own songs.
A: I still approach music even now from a dance point of view. “What would that dance be like on a drum or a guitar?” I had to figure it all out because that’s how it started with me. Dance first, then music. I had no choice. And I have to say I’m glad it worked that way.
Q: A lot of musical artists find a niche and they are happy to stay there. Others undergo a process of maturation or natural growth from album to album. How would you describe your artistic development over four LPs?
A: It’s funny. I have to say, in every project that I do, there’s always a change – a little bit of a lag with each one where I’m refining myself – and there hasn’t been an album where I think, “Well, I’m going to stay. on this style for a moment. ” And I’m finishing a new album called “Jatu Monor”, which in English means “ancestral spirit”, and it’s a project that explores in music, video and words the phrasing, language and sounds of the fishermen who made this music originally. I’m excited about it.
Q: You have lived in Portland for two decades. For me, I perceived a slowly emerging awareness and influence of African culture through its music. From your perspective, do you feel the same?
A: Yes, I think so, from a broad perspective. When you think of highlife (West African musical styles) or Afrobeat, a lot of it has crept into American music. But there is a contrast to what we do with palm wine music, where we use traditional percussion with new songs to write and sing the same stories of generations older than me. I want to elevate and introduce these traditions for new audiences and share a light and airy feel and sound.
Q: In that sense, has living in Portland, which is a hotbed of creativity and very influential musically, have a big influence on your art?
A: To be honest, I wouldn’t say much, because I’m not trying to get anything out of this music scene. I always try to explore my roots and those of similar scenes – Afro-Peruvian, Afro-Haitian and so on – so even though I’m in an exciting city, I’m still focused on a lot more of my past and the roots I want to connect with.
Q: Thanks to streaming and social media, we can now access more interesting artists in a wider variety of musical styles than at any time in history. At the same time, the record companies, the press and the radio all focus on a very rigid and stereotypical model that excludes most of what is happening. Obviously, your music doesn’t fit the model for the mainstream – at least according to consultants and labels. And you manage your next release independently. To this end, there are many avenues for delivering your music. Is this the easiest and the best way now?
A: I wouldn’t say it’s easier. It’s doable. There’s a reason labels are mainstream and can push music to the right places, but it can be positive and negative. They have large, recognizable platforms and can reach audiences you wouldn’t have on your own. But a lot of labels don’t really aim to elevate the artist in the long run. They take a lot of artist rights (editing and performing) and I think I would only sign with a label if I could find one that cares about my career as an artist and protects my rights.
Q: You spend a lot of time working with young people and visiting colleges. Is it fair to say that these are ideal target audiences in terms of openness to new musical and cultural ideas?
A: I touch wood because I have been very lucky in general because the style, genre and cultural aspects of my work have been received with warmth and enthusiasm everywhere I go. People want to know more and hear more and maybe they make it their goal to visit Ghana or Africa. When we go to higher education institutes or children’s schools, they are very enthusiastic about what we are doing and are open to it.
It’s so rewarding because as an artist and creative person, we don’t just create songs or albums to listen to in the moment and then put away, but we try to create work that would make someone want. ‘one to explore beyond and discover the cultural and historical aspects behind it all.