Saturday, 11 July 2009

Ghana Goes Gay For Obama

Ecstatic crowds greet President Obama in Ghana. Ghanaians are ebullient and "go gay", as they used to say in the 1950's, when they have something to celebrate. And they've got lots to celebrate. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan nation to gain independence. It's one of the more prosperous countries in Africa, with good standards of education, health and security. So it's not surprising that Ghana´s musicians have been writing songs of welcome ("akwaaba" in the Twi language) for President Barack Obama, and for what he represents beyond himself. For the most prominent of these, Blakk Rasta's "Barack Obama" click here and then on "barak obama" button on the web page)

Obama is not the first head of state whose visit to Ghana has been celebrated by Ghanaian musicians. Bill Clinton and George W Bush seem to have been given a miss, but when Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited in November 1959 Ghanaians "went gay" with King Bruce & The Black Beats´ track "The Queen´s Visit".

Yet what Ghanaians are celebrating has world significance. It is symbolic because it connects the people of all Africa with those in North and South America, and the Caribbean, whose ancestors were taken as slaves. When Michelle and his daughters visit the old slave fort, it will be a spiritual akwabaa, homecoming, for millions who never returned.
But the visit is equally important as an expression of the diversity of cultures around the world which have sprung from the African diaspora. Where would North American music be without jazz? Or Brazilian culture without African influence? Or the Caribbean, and Black Britain ? There is an African sensibility that spans regional divides.

This song "The Birth of Ghana" was recorded in London in November 1956 by Lord Kitchener. The name's wryly ironic. This isn't Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, the imperialist, but a Trinidadian calypso star who lived in postwar London, as did Kwame Nkrumah. So non-West African musicians were involved in the celebration of Ghana´s independence.
This clip is a classic example of the important crossovers in styles and personnel between black musicians from the Caribbean and Africa in London in the 1950s so carefully documented in the four-part "London is the Place for Me" series of CDs issued by
Honest Jon´s Records.
Nkrumah was, of course, a passionate advocate of Pan-Africanism. So it's wonderful to mark the Obamas' visit to Ghana with this song. Watch out in the video for snaps of Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno and WEB DuBois. The post-colonial era was full of idealism. Nkrumah would be proud of what modern Ghana has achieved.
Ghanaian popular music has often touched on social issues or noteworthy political events. In the 1950s the highlife pioneer ET Mensah and his band celebrated the Ghanaian independence struggle and its heroes with "Ghana Freedom" in 1957 and Kwame Nkrumah´s pioneering attempts at pan-African union with "Ghana-Guinea-Mali", another song popular at the time.

Linking popular music with political comment did not always come easy: when the government got wind of the fact that "Ghana Freedom" name-checked among the heroes of independence politicians who were in opposition and out of favour with Nkrumah´s Convention People´s Party, Decca was forced to pull a run of 10,000 discs (big sales were to be expected in West Africa) and its engineers did a hasty edit, deleting the offending sections.
(Selections of ET Mensah and King Bruce were re-issued on the RetroAfric label a few years ago and are stil available at

1 comment:

duriandave said...

Thanks for the history lesson and the wonderful songs!