The Pan African Orchestra

The Pan African Orchestra is a most unusual institution, founded on lofty and ambitious ideals. Nana Danso Abiam, the Pan African Orchestra's creator and director, wanted nothing less than to integrate for the first time the different regional musics of the continent into a 'new' classical synthesis.

This would simultaneously offer an ‘Afrocentric’ system of symphonic music, as a substitute for the colonially-established western classical repertoire in Africa, and move the cultural climate a degree or two in the direction of the grail of true pan-Africanism: the welding of the continent into a single African state.

Ghana is a natural place for such aspirations to flourish. Its first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was one of the most prominent of a generation of leaders who forged independence on a wave of self-sufficiency and African pride. Although these ideas have wavered, notably after the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966, they remain well implanted, particularly among the generation to which Nana Danso Abiam belonged, who were students in the early euphoric days of independence. In the 1980s the revolutionary government, installed by former Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, gave Africanisation new impetus, inspiring a second wave of ‘authenticity’ among neighbouring countries, and Accra is still something of a centre for these ideals.

The arts were among the first areas to benefit from Africanisation in Ghana. The music and drama departments of the new institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Lagon, where Danso Abiam studied, began the energetic investigation and classification of traditional music. It was during this period that Nana wrote a largely ignored paper proposing the establishment of a true Pan-African neo-classical orchestra.

In 1985, whilst Danso Abiam was in London researching in music and education, a call came from the government’s cultural supreme, Doctor Mohamed Ben-Abdallah, who having discovered Nana’s proposals, invited him to return to Accra to become director of the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra, with an open brief to transform it as he had proposed. This involved, essentially, the orchestra throwing away its violins and cellos and adopting African instruments which, Danso Abiam has written, was “considered a definite retrograde step” by the orchestra. Realising the impossibility of achieving his aim “within the stifling confines” of the orchestra’s “colonial mentality,” Danso Abiam resigned and proceeded to create his own brand new orchestra.

His initial blueprint, for 108 musicians, was soon whittled down to 28 by economic necessity. The first monies for salaries, subsistence and accommodation for the musicians came piecemeal in donations from friends; it was some time before a modest grant from the Ghanaian National Commission for Culture underwrote half of the group’s basic monthly expenditure. Danso Abiam began recruiting from traditional village musicians he had met during years of research and planning, and from the pool of players working for the twenty-odd folkloric groups of Accra.

Danso Abiam’s large first floor apartment in the bustling Kokomemle district of Accra served as headquarters for the Orchestra, competing against the sound systems of the neighbouring Tip Toe Garden and the White Spot Night and Day Club. Rehearsals sometimes took place there with the musicians lining the corridor in two lines, while the bigger drums were banished to the balcony for lack of space. Danso Abiam was usually to be found wandering between the rehearsals, which he conducted strictly, and his office, where he checked batches of kente cloth for the smart uniforms, and fielded numerous calls on anything from transport to ordering new instruments. Important rehearsals, prior to a tour or a performance, are held at the W.S.B.Du Bois Centre for Pan African Culture on the outskirts of Accra.

Sadly, Nana Danso Abiam died in a motor accident in Accra on 24 December 2014 just after his 61st birthday.

The Pan African Orchestra

Central African Rep.

Further reading

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A closer look at the phenomenon that is The Gloaming's annual sold-out residency at the NCH, Dublin.