Kofi Ghanaba: Drummer who pioneered Afro-jazz

Too radical to be properly appreciated during his artistic peak, Guy Warren, or Kofi Ghanaba,was one of the most influential and well-travelled Ghanaian musicians of the mid-20th century.

An early member of E.T. Mensah’s highlife band the Tempos, and later part of the American jazz milieu that included Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Warren was also a key inspiration for the Nigerian Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti. He sometimes worked as a DJ, journalist and newspaper editor, and lived in both the UK and the US, pioneering Afro-jazz, an idea based on the reuniting of African-American jazz with its African roots, which was only later taken up by others.

“He was so far ahead of what we were all doing that none of us understood what he was saying,” said the drummer Max Roach, a colleague of Warren’s. “He knew that in order for Afro-American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilise with its African origins.”

Fascinated from infancy by music – in particular traditional Ghanaian percussion and jazz drumming – he took up kit drums and led his high-school band before joining the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra in 1940. Under Yebuah Mensah, the older brother of E.T. Mensah, they played ballroom music, highlifes and ragtime, soon catering to British and American servicemen in wartime bars.

According to the Accra-based writer and musician Professor John Collins, he was named Gamaliel after Warren Gamaliel Harding, the 29th American president, and later adopted the“Warren” part for his first stage name. In 1943, he was recruited by American military intelligence, travelling briefly to Chicago where he encountered a thriving jazz scene.

Back in Ghana, besides witch-hunting homosexuals in the military for his new employers, he joined the Tempos alongside E.T. Mensah in 1947.

In 1950, he spent nine months with Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists in London, where he also DJ’d for the BBC, played with the all-Ghanaian band the Afro-Cuban Eight and mixed with West Indian musicians at Piccadilly’s Caribbean Club.

Reuniting with the Tempos in Accra, he brought fresh musical ideas such as calypso to their nascent highlife sound. However, Warren soon left over musical differences (thus missing out on the band’s massive success of that decade) and formed his own band, the Afro-Cubists. In 1953, they left for Liberia, where Warren also worked in radio.

He returned to Chicago in 1955 and soon immersed himself in the jazz scene there and in New York, releasing his first album (with Gene Esposito and Red Saunders), Africa Speaks, America Answers the following year.

It sold more than a million copies worldwide and spawned his bestknown hit, “That Happy Feeling”, which was also covered by the German artist Bert Kaempfert.

He followed this with a string of groundbreaking (though now unavailable) albums for Colombia, Decca and EMI, such as Themes For African Drums (1958) and Emergent Drums (1963). However, by the mid-1960s, tiring of the racism and critical response he had experienced in the US, he returned to Accra. Once there, he published his autobiography I Have a Story to Tell, and his music returned to traditional African roots, as the 1969/70 recording The Divine Drummer (released on the RetroAfric label in 2002) demonstrates.

During the 1970s, he changed his stage name again, to Kofi Ghanaba (“son of Ghana”) and began playing a kit constructed from enormous fontomfrom and atumpan drums. He reunited with Roach for a 1986 performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and also appeared in Haile Gerima’s 1993 film, Sankofa.

In 2001, he made his last UK appearance, in the musical Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen, alongside the Pan African Orchestra and the UKbased dance company Adzido.

Although increasingly reclusive and eccentric, he maintained his African Heritage Library and continued to perform in Ghana until a few months before his death.

Jon Lusk

Gamaliel Kpakpo Akwei (Guy Warren or Kofi Ghanaba), musician: born Accra, Ghana 4 May 1923; married (four sons, two daughters); died Accra 22 December 2008.



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Web Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Web Designer is required to join a f...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Business Development Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to develop an ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor