Opus 1

The Pan African Orchestra

Released 13 February 1995

  1. Wia Concerto No 1 First Movement - In Four Parts
  2. Yaa Yaa Kolé
  3. Mmenson
  4. Explorations - Hi-Life Structures
  5. Akan Drumming
  6. Sisala Sebrew
  7. Explorations - Ewe 6/8 Rhythms
  8. Box Dream
  9. Adawura Kasa

Liner notes

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 belongs who were students in the early euphoric days of independence. In the 80’s 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, still serves 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 still sometimes take place there with the musicians lining the corridor in two lines, while the bigger drums are banished to the balcony for lack of space. Danso Abiam is usually to be found wandering between the rehearsals, which he conducts strictly, and his office, where he checks batches of kente cloth for the smart uniforms, and fields 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.

The coreof the orchestra, and Danso Abiam’s first signings, were the atenteben bamboo flutes. Atenteben are key instruments in the Ghanaian traditional revival. He is a prodigious atenteben innovator himself, having developed a new system of fingering to extend the instrument’s range. He tells a story of an all-night music session with a distinguished elder colleague whom he astonished with a solo interpretation of Handel’s No.1 Flute Sonata when it was unheard of to perform Western classical music on this instrument.

Further Ghanaian melody instruments to be incorporated were the gonje one-string fiddles, the wia notched flutes and the gyile woodblock xylophones. Most spectacular is the mmenson- a septet of hollowed elephant tusk horns traditionally attached to the courts of kings or chiefs, whose stern foghorn blast is used to call down ancestral spirit in a cermonial fanfare. Split and patched after being passed down through several generations, the mmenson consists of a lead instrument blowing three notes, echoed by a harmonic chorus of the other six horns each blowing their own distinct note.

Although Presidents Nkrumah and Rawlings have used mmenson for ceremonial purposes, the ensembles are dying out as old players are not replaced. Danso Abiam obtained his players on extended loan from the chief of the village of Dzendzenadze, persuading him that the donation was a work of cultural conservation.

Percussion instruments include the tall thunderous fontomfrom and atumpani court drums, the Ewe astimevu, kidi, kankan, sogo and akroboto drums. Also assorted rattles and bells such as the ahatsee and gakogui.

The ensemble Danso Abiam has put together is unique in Ghana and it is also controversial as it groups instruments never traditionally played together: the xylophones and flutes, for example. Other instruments- the mmenson and certain drums which are brought out only for specific ritually controlled ceremonies- are used for the first time in a performance context (although the mmenson players still pour little libations of Schnapps, the Akan spirits’ favourite spirit, on the ground before playing their instruments).

The melding together of the disparate instruments posed considerable technical problems, primarily in the area of common tuning. Not only are the various types of instruments built in incompatible tunings, but no standardisation exists even within each type:atenteben markers in different areas make instruments in their own tunings. In fact, a degree of “out of tuneness” is considered normal, argues Danso Abiam, and microtone uniformity would be regarded as odd.

A standardised tuning has been adopted, but Pan African Orchestra rehearsals are still accompanied by much use of the Arion HU electronic tuner and sudden frowns from Danso Abiam at rogue notes. A further innovation has been the creation of a new system of notation, which 90% of the musicians have now learned, to permit village players from different areas to read the same parts for the first time.

Danso Abiam describes the orchestra’s repertoire as “re-composed” by which he means traditional themes collected at village level, reworked and expanded into neo-classical pieces, in some cases of symphonic length.

This album is a selection of the most popular items shortened from full concert duration

Listen

Reviews

  • A genuine African symphony from Ghana...with style and grace. Folk Roots (UK)
  • An epic project, ranging from sublime bamboo flute concerto to seismic drum ensemble. The Daily Telegraph (UK)

Further Listening

  • Gongoma Times

    Fatala

    Released 25 January 1993

    Exhilarating traditional dance music from Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa - displaying some of the deepest roots of blues, jazz and pop. Fatala is unique in modern African music as a band, formed in Paris, recreating the roots of the music of Guinea without synths or programmes.
  • Faso Denou

    Farafina

    Released 10 May 1993

    This electrifying West African percussion ensemble deliver a live session of breath-taking speed and skill. Farafina's music has a polyrhythmic structure that is complex and yet immediately clear, but above all the music is an irresistible driving force to dance.

More content

Society of Sound: Listen and You’ll See

This month’s Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound release is a celebration of 10 years of outstanding...

The Breath unveil new video, Let The Cards Fall

The Breath have unveiled the video for ‘Let the Cards Fall’, the title-track from their sophomor...

Live: Les Amazones d’Afrique at Brighton Festival

Les Amazones d'Afrique deliver a rousing, energetic set in the Dome as part of Brighton Festival.

7 Real World album covers re-created with Lego

Two 11 year olds combined their favourite things —Lego and world music— in this wonderful rainy...