Symphonies for a continent: The Pan African Orchestra uses native instruments to create a novel sound. Philip Sweeney met them in Ghana just before their first European tour

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The Independent Culture
Not only for lack of competition is Ghana a leader in the sparse field of African classical music. President Kwame Nkrumah was one of the earliest and most influential proponents of pan-Africanism and cultural self-sufficiency, and, in the years following independence in 1959, he created and nurtured key initiatives. The music and drama departments of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana advanced under figures such as Professor Kwabena Nketia, one of the continent's most eminent musicologists, and Dr Ephraim Amu, who developed teaching methods and composition for the local attenteben bamboo flute, and introduced it to a generation of schoolchildren.

In 1963, the Ghanaian National Symphony Orchestra was created, and its first director, Philip Gbeho, began the occasional inclusion of African elements, mainly attenteben and percussion, into its European classical repertoire. On Gbeho's death, the second director, Professor N Z Nayo, continued the process with mixed results: Nayo's Accra Symphony, based on the kpanlogo metal percussion of the Ga people, was described to me succinctly by a visiting British conductor as 'indescribably awful'. After the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966, Africanisation waned until the early Eighties, when the revolutionary government of former Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings gave it new impetus. Senior administrators swapped their Savile Row suits for African tunics, and local dishes such as foufou reappeared in the restaurants of Accra's big hotels.

Africanisation is still on the menu as far as the new director of the Ghanaian Symphony Orchestra, Dr Kwasi Aduonum, is concerned. The orchestra (50 musicians and a chorus of 35) operates from a single-storey concrete building like a village school, behind a naval compound on Accra sea-front. When I visited, a couple of violinists were practising desultorily in a small rehearsal room and Dr Aduonum was wading through paperwork in his office.

'The quality of the orchestra is low,' he told me. 'You'd cry if you heard us play today. But wait six months . . . I'm going to introduce more African instruments - drums, more attenteben, gondje traditional violins. The first half of our concert will be as before - Bach, Handel, Beethoven - but in the second half we'll play African music and the audience can dance . . . I made this a condition of my contract when I came back from teaching in Chicago to take over.'

The Africanising impetus is ironic because quite recently the orchestra rejected a major attempt in this direction. Ask members of the National Symphony about Nana Danso Abiam, director and would-be 'transformer' of the orchestra between 1985 and 1987 and a strained diplomacy descends: 'Well, it wasn't a good relationship . . . we don't want to go into it now . . .' said a bass player and a clarinettist relaxing under a tree.

''I wasn't with the orchestra then,' comments Dr Aduonum, 'but I have the impression Nana probably should have gone more gradually, rather than trying for a total change . . . As for the Pan African Orchestra, I haven't heard it yet, but I wish it well.'

To locate Nana Danso Abiam and his current project, the Pan African Orchestra, you search out the premises of the Statesman newspaper in the bustling Kokomlemle district, between the Tip Toe Garden and the White Spot Night & Day Club. Above the groundfloor office of the newspaper, which is run by his brother, is Abiam's apartment. When I arrived, the orchestra members were sitting on the floor of the passageway in two long rows with their instruments while Abiam wandered in and out of his office, simultaneously rehearsing bits of music, checking bits of kente cloth for the musicians' smart uniforms, calling the British High Commission to try to negotiate a reduced fee on visas for their impending UK tour, and sorting out somewhere better than his corridor for final rehearsals.

Abiam is not only musical director, in effect, but composer, designer, paymaster, chief prefect, accommodation officer and father figure for the 30-odd members of the Pan African Orchestra, which he set up from scratch in 1988 after his contretemps with the National Symphony. Abiam studied music under Professor Nketia of the University of Ghana in the early Seventies, wrote his own attenteben tutor, having developed a new fingering system to extend the instrument's range, and was doing educational research in London when he was called back to direct the National Symphony: a paper on the creation of a traditionally based orchestra he had written in 1983 came to the attention of the new revolutionary government's culture supremo, Professor Mohamed ben Abdullah. Abiam proposed that the musicians abandon their western instruments and take up traditional ones, which they 'strongly resisted'. Abiam resigned, and spent some time travelling with a reggae band, planning a new orchestra of his own conception. He was in Germany staying with a girlfriend when the first money came through, modest investments from friends, and he returned to begin hiring musicians and building a repertoire.

Abiam's triple conception for the orchestra was one part tradition - its instrumentation - but two parts major innovation - its totally new 'neo-classical' repertoire, 're-composing' and developing traditional themes into symphonic length pieces, and its pan-African nature (although as yet the two Senegalese kora harp-lute players are the only non-Ghanaian elements).

Abiam's first signings - the attenteben, gondje and gyile (wooden xylophone) players - came from the pool of traditional musicians working for the 20- odd folkloric groups of Accra. They included orchestra leader Kotey Amon, whose responsibilities extend to finding accommodation for the musicians brought from upcountry. Less easy were the players of the mmensuon, the seven hollowed elephant-tusk trumpets whose stern foghorn blast startles first-time listeners to works such as Abiam's Symphony No 2. Mmensuon traditionally provide the ceremonial fanfares of chiefs and kings, and are still used occasionally by political leaders including President Rawlings. Abiam had to persuade the traditional chief of the village of Dzendzenadze to release his mmensuon players to the orchestra on a long loan, using conservation arguments.

'There are only three or four mmensuon septets left intact now, and when the old players die they're not replaced. I told the chief we need to preserve these things . . .'

Some orchestra members still moonlight around Accra's flourishing live music scene. A group of attenteben players and drummers performing as 'Afrika' provide lively dance entertainment, along with an eccentric and captivating bugler, at Labadi beach on Sundays. Jerry McCarthy, the orchestra's unusually operatic singer, works both with the National Symphony chorus and on his own as a gospel artist.

Having obtained his musicians (including two of his sons), and collected and transcribed his 'raw material' around the country, Abiam faced the problem of imposing a uniform tuning on groups of instruments never designed to play together and not even standardised within their own sections.

'Attenteben-makers in different areas make instruments in their own tunings, and, in fact, a degree of 'out of tuneness' is considered normal.'

A standard tuning was adopted, and instruments bulk-bought to uniform specifications, but rehearsals are still accompanied by much use of the Arion H U electronic tuner and sudden frowns from Abiam at rogue notes.

The orchestra's financial survival is now underpinned by a grant from the Ghanaian National Commission for Culture, which covers half the basic monthly expenditure, absurdly modest by European standards, of 1.5 million cedis (just over pounds 1,000) to keep rehearsing. The British Council in Accra has also provided support, including the use of their smart modern auditorium for the orchestra's debut recital in 1988.

'It was after that performance that I knew things were going to be OK,' says Abiam.

Much prestige stands to be gained from the orchestra's first European concerts. Their music, in spite of occasional longueurs in the more static passages, is impressive and, above all, totally novel. Not the least novel aspect for British audiences will be sitting gravely immobile for an African recital just when everybody has learnt to get up and dance.

Pan African Orchestra: tomorrow , 7.45pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (071-928 8800)

(Photograph omitted)

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