For the Power of Culture Ghanese journalist and photographer Nana Kofi Acquah made a portrait of Ghanaba, the founder of African jazz.
During and after the era of the transatlantic slave-trade, jazz as a music form with deep African roots morphed into the many styles of African- American, Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian and Dominican jazz , generally losing its African-ness, as time passed, in the diaspora.
Warren Gamaliel Akwei (Guy Warren, later to be commonly known as Ghanaba) in the midfifties became the talking drum that sounded African American jazz musicians and music lovers back to their roots. A move that could possibly be the summary of his life's work, which can be summed up by the one Ghanaian proverb he still stands by 'Sankofa, wonkyir' ('There’s nothing wrong with going back to your roots'.)
I met Ghanaba on a Saturday morning in the village where he hides out for a photo-shoot on the occasion of his son Glenn’s upcoming album. I was excited. I had heard so much about this 84 year old who lives in isolation and yet touches many hearts with his life's work. The click of the camera and popping of the flash seemed to awaken the star in him. He came alive, opened up to me and started to share his story with me.
Ghanaba was born in Accra. As a student, in 1940, he joined the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra as a drummer. After this period, he worked as an undercover for the Office of Strategic Services, a United States Agency dealing with overt and covert operations during the Second World War. He also worked as a DJ, a reporter and he did a series of jazz programmes for the British Broadcasting Service
He was a founding member of the Tempos, where he played drums. The Tempos was considered by many the epitome of an African jazz ensemble. In 1955 he moved to Chicago and joined the Gene Esposito band. This ensemble recorded his best known album, Africa Speaks, America Answers in 1956 for Decca Records. In 1957 he moved to New York City where he formed the Zoundz ensemble, and continued developing a musical style which he called African jazz. He performed with such greats as Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Thelonious Monk.
Today, the New York University intermittently marches their students to sit at his feet and to learn from him. His message of Sankofa continues. It seems he has been deliberately forgotten for political reasons – he was a mentor of Jerry John Rawlings - but someday soon, Ghana will go back, dig through his work and learn from the living legend.