Friday, March 23, 2012

Kakraba Lobi: Live, 1994

Today's post marks a first for me: I have never before posted an album that I do not physically own. In fact, this album is so rare that I could not even find an image of the cover online, so I put up a random picture of the musician instead. This is also the first time since the early days of this blog that I'm sharing a CD rather than a vinyl disc, but the music on this album is so deep, moving, and incredible that I can't help myself. It was recorded by James Koetting, part of a series of Ghanaian recordings that he made, and released by a Tokyo-based label called Conversation.

The solo artist featured on this album is Kakraba Lobi, one of the foremost (many say the foremost) ko-gyil (Ghanaian wooden xylophone) players in his lifetime. A great bearer and innovator of Birifor music, Kakraba taught at the University of Ghana in Legon, a neighborhood of Accra, for 25 years and toured the world extensively, popularizing Ghanaian music in many countries. At one point he even came to Southern California, but at that time I was unfortunately unaware of his existence. His technique is unparalleled by any artist whose recordings I have ever heard, and his technical mastery and rhythmic and melodic creativity completely saturate every track of this CD. Right up until his death, he accepted a great number of students from Ghana and around the world who would travel long distances to spend months or years studying under him. He died on July 20th, 2007. An informative and well-made video by Brian Hogan about his funeral and his life is viewable here. His contributions to the musical forms of his instrument cannot be understated, and as far as I am concerned based on the limited exposure that I have had to his music, he was one of the deeper musical thinkers of his time from any corner of the globe.

I found the 17 minute opening track of this album was the most musically striking, but the fifth song, Africa Unite!, which is actually mentioned in the funeral video, gets stuck in my head as often as any of the others. The song is a simple plea for African unity, and in it Kakraba intersperses the names of different African countries with the word "united" as he accompanies himself on xylophone. Only recently did I start to think about the song outside the context of this particular album and in the context of Ghana's history as an early and vital global center of Pan-Africanism. W.E.B. Du Bois famously became a citizen there shortly before his death. Ghana has since become something of a Mecca to Pan-Africanist Black people from around the world, especially the United States and Jamaica. Rastafarian culture, notable in part for its message of the common interests and cultural bond between members of the Black diaspora, has caught on among many in Ghana, although Jonathan Tanis, the author of this article, argues that Ghanaian Rastafarianism is more a broad category of anticonformism than an ideologically rigorous social institution. Under independent Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana became a charter member of the Organization of African Unity, an organization which Nkrumah himself would go on to chair late in his presidency. Marcus Garvey, who famously advocated the repatriation of Black people to Africa because he believed that they would never escape their status as second class citizens in white societies, is respected and admired by many Ghanaian intellectuals. Ghana's list of Pan-African credentials goes on and on, but the point is that Ghana is a crucial site of the global Pan-African movement. Kakraba Lobi played a part in this history in his own musical way, not just by performing this song but by spreading African music all over the world and forging connections with musicians in neighboring countries. As the narrator of the funeral video says, his students perform in groups that integrate music from multiple Ghanaian ethnolinguistic traditions and he blazed a trail that allowed other performers on indigenous African instruments, especially xylophones, to earn international recognition.

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