Happy New Year!
After the successful completion of the 2016 General Elections, 2017 was a year of fresh beginnings in Ghana's political sphere. 2017 also turned out to be an outstanding year for Ghanaian art musicians with some significant achievements, an award ceremony and the launch of some inspiring initiatives that helped make this musical tradition more relevant to contemporary Ghanaian life.
Right off the bat, Ghanaian art music showed itself as central to the incoming administration. The ceremony that saw Nana Akufo-Addo begin his presidency featured an “Oye” march played by the military bands on parade. This happened to be the first march played while the new Commander-In-Chief inspected the ranks of the armed forces at the Independence Square. On 6th March, during the President’s Independence Day address to the nation, special mention was made of the contribution of Ghanaian artists, including art musicians, to the development of the nation's culture.
We saw this theme of explicit patronage of the arts by the government throughout the year. Among the many moments we noted included the private celebration of the President's birthday with Harmonious Chorale in attendance. The famous choir’s founder, James Varrick Armaah, also received the commission for the music which backed the government's Free SHS marketing campaign later that year. The work was a unique collaboration between the government minister in charge of Education and the talented composer.
Nana Akufo Addo, whose presence at significant moments of Ghanaian art music celebration is already a familiar affair, also graced a number of events in his capacity as President. These included the revival of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance and a charitable night of Classical Music organised by the Infanta Malaria Prevention Foundation at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra. That event saw the Thomas Dobler’s New Baroque ensemble perform with singers from Extreme Productions and the Afro Maestros Orchestral Ensemble.
In a much less publicized event, two musical giants, Mr Derkyi of the Winneba Youth Choir and Newlove Annan were commissioned to set the political history of our country to music. In the concert dubbed “Mirrors of our Times”, the Winneba Youth Choir, the National Symphony Orchestra and the National Dance Company collaborated to bring the past to life in one of the highest profile events held at the Accra International Conference Centre. This was held to mark Ghana’s 60th anniversary celebration.
Another episode that showed the government’s commitment to promoting the arts occurred in early December. The Accra Symphony Orchestra, founded by Dr Mensa Otabil, signed an MOU that elevated the private ensemble to the role of the official orchestra for the city of Accra. This decision by the city to adopt the ASO was made to help place Accra “on the cultural map of the world”. By emulating the greatest cities on the planet, Accra can also boast of an orchestra that performs some of the best orchestral music available in the country at the moment.
Although we genuinely think there is much more work to be done in orchestral music in the country, we were excited about the prospect of a city-orchestra. We think the move by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly to adopt a private orchestra is a much better model than that of a state or city-funded institution which will only be sucked into the bureaucratic inefficiencies of government.
The move, we learned, was the latest in a string of public-private partnerships in the arts that the new mayor of the city was pursuing in his broad vision of making Accra a cultural force in the world.
The other big story of 2017 was the year-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of Harmonious Chorale.
A number of concerts related to this celebration were held by the choir. Of these, we found the most significant (from a musical perspective) to be the staging of Handel's Joseph and His Brethren oratorio. This was the first time the largely ignored work had been performed in Africa. Like everything put together by the choir in recent years, the event was very well attended and grand in almost every aspect.
The production had a few things going against it, since music of this style, length and seriousness is still underappreciated in the country. There was little to laugh at and dance to, and the most relatable aspects of the drama seemed to be the actors themselves and, perhaps, the general outline of the familiar Bible story. Still, this was a Harmonious Chorale event, and the hope was, other choirs will follow this lead and venture into the not-often-performed works of Handel (and, perhaps, other composers.)
The other major event was the Nyame Ye Concert, the “Anniversary Concert”. Like the previous one, this was completely sold out. Unlike the previous event, the Nyame Ye Concert was a more familiar celebration of music along familiar themes, featuring classical and highlife performances, a short documentary screening and notable costume changes by the host choir.
During the year, the choir launched an Android app. While Gramophone Ghana takes the name as the first (as far as we’re aware) of the current crop of prominent choirs to engage with Ghana’s tech community with the creation of DreamOval’s Yiimo app, Harmonious Chorale’s own branded app was quite the initiative.
The app currently allows users to listen to a small selection of Harmonious Chorale recordings, donate to the choir via MTN Mobile Money, and read about the group. While the ambition for the app is evident from its interface, there’s very little currently available on it to make it more useful to fans of the group, or lovers of Ghanaian choral music. There’s certainly a lot that could be done with this, and we will be revisiting this effort in the future to see how committed they are to bringing their music and brand to smartphones.
On the theme of dramatic productions, a third event, not yet captured here but of equal significance, was Gramophone Ghana’s production of JW Peterson’s “No Greater Love”. This Easter-time performance seemed to initiate a year of high profile musical drama that continued with Joseph and His Brethren and culminated in the Pirates of Penzance revival.
The year also recorded two unfortunate losses in the community. The first was the death of JG Koomson, a prominent composer, whose “Aseda” our volunteer Nii Adjetey remembered when he wrote on his demise. A number of high profile composers, including Mr. George Mensah Essilfie and Dr. Kenn Kafui shared their thoughts on the passing of their colleague.
The greatest outpouring of grief from the community came after the announcement of the death of Ellen White, a self-taught composer who had earned the love of many people over the course of her short life and career as a musician. Ellen died a few months after getting married to a fellow musician. She was twenty-eight.
Last year also saw the birth of what we hope to be a new force in Ghanaian choral music: Corpus Christi Parish, a Sakumono-based Catholic church inaugurated their Children’s Choir in a small ceremony that became a sensation online. Since then, the Children’s Choir has been called to a number of events, including the opening of the Christmas celebrations at the Accra Mall.
During the Christmas season, the Corpus Christi Children’s Choir performed the first part of Handel’s Messiah. The choir is led by Blessed Yawson, founder and music director of The Living Choir.
One highlight for the Choral Music Ghana team was the uproar caused by a review of Ben Adjei’s “Music as a Therapy” concert. The event, which leaned quite strongly towards music as entertainment than as “therapy” in the medical sense of the word was quite successfully held at the Christ the King Parish Hall in Accra.
Ben Adjei, a former member of Harmonious Chorale, was interviewed by Choral Music Ghana at the beginning of the year. His interview turned out to be one of the most popular articles published by our organisation last year. As a young singer and music educator, Ben has quickly grown a passionate following through his solo work and the workshops he holds for choirs in the country. He has also benefitted from the patronage of some of Ghana's political elite, a relationship which has seen him grace high-profile events with his soothing tenor.
Our review seemed to evoke strong reactions from fans of Ben Adjei, as well as some critical (and disappointed) members of his audience that day. From the one side, Choral Music Ghana had no right to air any opinion that did not put the event in its best possible light. From the other side, calling the concert “Music as a Therapy” was unpardonable and misleading.
The most outrage came from the director of one of the participating choirs1. Posting from his personal Facebook account both publicly and in a private message to Choral Music Ghana’s Facebook page, the music director publicly denounced the work of our organisation, calling it “unmusical” and unfit to comment on any choir’s performance. He also brought to CMG’s notice that his choir was a ministering choir, and not a group that performed for awards and recognition.
His public message sparked a flurry of commentary online and several offline conversations, including calls to our organisation from prominent musicians, as well as friends of the offended director in support of the hardworking director.
Our official position has been to not publicly comment on such things, and rather focus on the work we do, so we cannot share what we thought about the entire affair.
Another highlight of Choral Music Ghana’s year was the welcoming of our latest volunteer. Kwaku Boakye-Frimpong, a Baroque & Renaissance music enthusiast, composer, music director and multi-instrumentalist (keyboard and string instruments) joined the team for its work during the last Classical Laughs event. Kwaku Boakye is also a bit of an expert on Handel, by far his favourite Baroque composer (and Ghana’s favourite, if we’re being honest with ourselves). Expect to hear his informed opinions on Ghanaian music this year.
2017 saw us dare to innovate in the competition space by requesting Ghanaian composers to come up with new music for a “Love Song” competition. The contest has seen slow adoption among its target - young composers looking to break the mould and try something new in the public arena. The response, though well below what we expected, has been quite encouraging, as it proves that there is some interest in branching out of the usual expression in our music.
The Love Song competition ends on February 14th, when the winner will be announced and the 500 cedi cash prize given.
Our year ended with a small increase in calls for sponsorship from a number of small choirs, including one major choir we were privileged to back. We expect to see an increase in such requests as we continue to realise our vision of helping musicians promote their work.
Choral Music Ghana is also proud to be involved in some amazing work that'll be talked about in detail in just a few weeks. This new project, the brainchild of one of Ghana's most important musicians promises to be an important resource for practicing musicians in the country.
Besides this work, our organization is exploring new media in its approach to promoting music and those who create and perform for our pleasure. We expect the impact of our new approach to be felt before the end of this year.
Throughout the last year, we have been honoured to receive the encouragement and support of some of the most important personalities and organisations in Ghanaian art music. Dr. Kenn Kafui has been vocal in his support for our work, and has cooperated with our volunteers anytime they called on him. Other persons and groups, including Kennedy Dankwa and James Varrick Armaah, Gramophone Ghana, Rev. Newlove Annan and African Glorious Chorale, have been open our work.
We also cannot forget the individuals who have been instrumental in bringing us closer to the Ghana Police Central Band and the amazing vision they have been pursuing in recent years.
We're particularly grateful for the love we receive from our friends at Pax Choir UCC, and Celestial Evangel Choir in Kumasi. Our team plans to increase its representation of music from other cities - including Tamale, which is experiencing its own musical renaissance - this year.
Although Celestial Evangel Choir celebrated their fifth anniversary last year, the big anniversary concert is expected in April this year. That's one event we're looking forward to.
There's a lot more we hope to roll out this year, and we're confident your continued support will see us through another successful year of presenting the best of Ghanaian art music to the world.
1 The director's name has been redacted in an update to this editorial.