Happy new year!
Like we did last year, our review of the choral and classical music scene comes a week into the near year. Also like last year, the same set of industry players continued to dominate the world of serious music in the country.
If there was one big winner in 2018, it was James Varrick Armaah and Harmonious Chorale. Following a glamorous tenth anniversary in 2017 which saw, among other things, a historic production of Handel's Joseph and his Brethren, 2018 was a year of significant highlights for the choir.
In response to many requests from their fans, Harmonious Chorale began the year by opening up to the public with a call for new members. Their first audition in two years was intended to last throughout the final three weeks of January.
The choir, overwhelmed with over 400 responses within the first 24hrs, cut the auditioning period down to two days. They may have set a record, were anyone keeping track of choir auditions in the country. Regardless, this definitely was a landmark recruitment drive for the choir, and it may have set the tone for the year's later events.
Their big announcement came at the end of the first concert of their “Harmonious Triad”. The choir had been selected for participation in the World Choir Games, one of the largest competitive choral singing events in the world. They were the first Ghanaian choir to be called for this event.
The first-time participants went on to win four gold medals, and earned a place in the next event.
Just a month after this international triumph, the founder of the choir enjoyed a small honor when a Chinese military band entertained the President of the Republic with “Oye” on his arrival for a state visit to China. It is common knowledge that James Armaah's most famous work to date is the president's “favourite” song, and his choir has made several high profile appearances at events of national import. We fully expect this trend to continue this year.
Another breakthrough for Harmonious Chorale was a partnership with Multimedia Group Limited, owners of Joy 99.7 FM, Luv FM and other significant media channels. Concluded just before the middle of the year, the partnership with one of Ghana’s largest media powerhouses brings the best choir in the country to hundreds of thousands of ears through regular promotion of their brand of music.
The choir also picked up seven awards at the GH Youth Choir Choral Festival and Awards event. Among these was the award for the best choir in Ghana, which they had won in 2016 and 2017.
Over all, the last twelve months have been blissful for Harmonious Chorale. The last two years seem to be the brightest in the choirs history since we started observing them.
Outside of the world of Harmonious, fans of choral music had quite a lot to look forward to. 2018 began with great anticipation for a new entrant into the scene: Chorale Africa. In late 2017, the news was out about an unheard-of choir promising to shake up the space, raise the bar in performance quality and create a brand that will be known as the leading choir throughout the continent “in the next five years”. Backed by two visionaries: Osah Thompson-Mensah, a finance professional and former member of Joyful Way Incorporated and Ebenezer Edem Beble, founder of the (now renamed DYC Choir) Dansoman Youth Choir, Chorale Africa’s “bold and daring” entrance into the music space was first realized at a really fun (and remarkable) maiden concert at the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel.
Choral Music Ghana spoke to Mr. Thompson-Mensah about his move into choral music, and joined them at that first concert. Our impressions were positive, and we looked forward to more events that the leadership of the choir had promised audiences.
Following that big splash last year, there hasn’t been as much talk about Chorale Africa outside of a few events they have graced. Later in the year, they made a push for new membership, and towards the end of the year, a Christmas concert at the founder’s residence was publicised.
By a good margin, this has been the most interesting new choir we have engaged with. The team behind Chorale Africa has great ambitions, and this drive for excellence crops up in such things as its positioning on social media and the rigorous audition process it followed last year. There are other initiatives in the works which, should things go well with them, will impress us once they are realised. Until then, the same anticipation with which we greeted them last year stays with us.
Speaking of “new choirs”, we had the pleasure of acquainting ourselves with Accragio, an “expat choir” based in Accra, around Cantonments. The choir is over fifteen years old, founded in 2003 by members of the British High Commission. It is currently directed by Witsfield Kwablah, violinist and founder of the WitsHarmonic Choir.
Perhaps due to its demographic makeup and history, Accragio is unconventional in a number of ways: its concerts are not usually held at venues familiar with most fans of Ghanaian choral music. Last year was the first time we on the team had been to Cuppa Cappuccino for a “choral concert”. Ghanaian choral music forms a small part of its diverse repertoire, which can include anything from Walt Disney classics and Enya covers to obscure late Renaissance motets from composers you may never hear of again.
Getting to know Accragio introduced us to the musical side of the expat community, and drew us closer to the many impressive and diverse amateur musicians from that side of the city. The choir draws from this body of talent to add colour and interest to their performances. Our first Accragio concert would have featured a performance from Arcangelo Corelli’s “Twelve Trio Sonatas”, had the city’s traditional authorities not intervened to enforce their ban on drumming and dancing. Nonetheless we enjoyed the music from Mary Richard’s flute as she and Michael Dodoo accompanied the choir to sing Bach’s “Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude”.
Towards the end of September, a former board member of the choir, Veronica Bain-Derby, and friends organised “An Evening with a Touch of Class”, a classical charity concert that featured Trigmatic, the Accra String Quartet (performing one movement from a Haydn String Quartet) and several other classical and opera pieces. We were glad to help out with that event.
Accragio and related musicians also played a major role in the success of the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel in Accra. Among the performers that evening were the principal organist of Harmonious Chorale, Augustine Sobeng, performing on a made-in-Ghana organ from Olive Organs. We’ll return to classical music later.
Still on this subject, we’ve made special note of two choirs founded in 2018. The first, the Greater-Accra Mass Choir, is headed by Rev. Newlove Kojo Annan, one of the country’s most prolific composers. Elijah Gyasi, winner of the “Ghana’s Favourite Love Song” competition established “Harmochestra” within the year. His choir’s first concert took place in Tema on the first day of 2019.
The big headline for us in the first half of the year was the collaboration between Celestial Evangel Choir, based in Kumasi, and the Accra-based Gramophone Chorus.
In the run-up to this event, we spoke to the Public Relations Officer of the former, Mr. Jojo Arhin-Addison. The concert, which was intended to be his choir’s fifth anniversary event slated for 2017 had to be postponed to the next year for some of their guests to make it. These guests included the principal organist of the Grammy-Award winning Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Richard Elliott, Dr. Randall Kempton, a conductor and arranger, and other singers from the US.
For us, the highlight of the event was the prominence of American choral music, and music from the Latter-Day Saints church, a minority Christian denomination in Ghana.
In no particular order, other noteworthy events that took place last year included album launches by Harmonious Chorale and El Dunamis Minstrels, Ben Adjei taking his “Music as a Therapy” concert to Kumasi and Cape Coast, and a successful National Theatre Week, which saw the NSO in performance with Harmonious Chorale’s Leslie Carine and Joseph Quaynor. Within the year, those two soloists also performed at “Klassicals of the Season”, an Easter-themed concert from Seasonal House, a classical music production house.
We joined the University Choir of KNUST for “Laudate Deo”, where music from various works was brilliantly woven into a drama production. This took place in the choir’s fifty-fifth year. A few days before that, their Catholic colleagues from Pax Choir on the same campus delighted us (and their patrons) with “Second Adam”, their first pre-Easter concert.
The former president of the choir and head of the organising committee for that event, Benjamin Ansah, put together a fledgling orchestra of string, wind and brass players in a bold attempt to “do something different”. He led the ensemble in playing a number of arrangements at various times during the program. We’re yet to see if this effort will last long enough to earn Pax Choir KNUST the privilege and responsibility of appending “& Orchestra” to their name.
The Accra Symphony Orchestra celebrated six years of music-making with another outstanding performance at the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel. The invite-only event was graced by their chief patron, Dr. Mensa Otabil, and featured performances from their usual repertoire. They topped their year off with a return to their flagship event, “Accra goes to the Opera”.
The nation mourned the death of one of its young pop music talents, Priscilla Opoku-Kwarteng, better known by her stage-name “Ebony”. Her death, just before she turned twenty-one, moved many of us to reflection, and was met with tributes from a few of us in the choral/classical music world. Alfred Patrick Addaquay had the opportunity to play at her funeral. That occasion, much like the singer’s life, was not without controversy. Famously, his solo performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was cut short by an MC, generating a little conversation on respect for the arts as well as the appropriateness of the work for the occasion.
Later in the year, Robert Avafia, a former organist at the Accra Ridge Church lost his life after a prolonged illness due to the failure of both his kidneys. Weeks before his death, our team reported on the effort from the musical community to support Robert in his difficult condition.
President Akuffo-Addo also accepted a proposal to name the Ho Technical University (formerly Ho Polytechnic) after Ephraim Amu, Ghana’s national composer and founder of our indigenous art music.
The earlier mentioned awards scheme, the GH Youth Choir Choral Festival successfully held its third awards night. Led by Stephen Dougan, a young choral music composer, the event has been a major part of the musical calendar since 2016. It is by far the largest awards scheme within the industry, and has brought formal recognition to many groups and individuals who play significant roles in the community. Last year’s event was held at the National Theatre in September.
That same month, Mr. George Edzie and others inaugurated the Choral Musicians Union of Ghana, CHOMSUGHA, at the Holy Spirit Cathedral Hall in Accra. The event was graced by Prof. JH Nketia. The union aims to help meet the career and welfare needs of Ghanaian choral musicians.
Five young Ghanaian singers were selected by international jurors into the World Youth Choir, a UNESCO Artist for Peace, for the 2018 session in China. Joel Aidoo, Kwaku Baffoe Appiah-Ofori, Makafui Passah and James Obeng-Gyasi were selected to join the choir, while Esther Nkwantabisa made it to the reserve list. The auditions, managed by the Ghana Art Music Society and WYC Recruiters announced that 2018 had produced the largest contingent of Ghanaians at the WYC since the nation first contributed singers a little over a decade ago.
The year ended on an impressive note when French-Nigerian operatic superstar, Omo Bello, performed in Ghana for the first time at a charity concert held at Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel. She performed solo pieces from her repertoire, as well as some classical music with the Winneba Youth Choir and a special song written for her by the director of music for the night, Rev. Newlove Annan.
On the home front, the first online contest held by Choral Music Ghana came to a high-pitched end on Valentine’s Day, when Elijah Gyasi Nimako’s song, “Mɛ Dɔ Wo”, won the “Ghana’s Favourite Love Song” competition. His song beat the other shortlisted piece, “Stay with Me”, composed by Elikem Seake-Kwawu, an upcoming concert pianist, by a wide margin in an online vote.
The competition allowed our team to fulfill its mandate by encouraging originality in our composers, as well as improving the level of music appreciation in our readers and wider audience. Our competition brought to the fore two distinct influences of music in the country: the more Western-inspired music verses our indigenous popular music.
In the run-up to the Ghana Police Band’s centenary celebrations, we piloted an audio podcast with an interview with two members of the band. The response to the interview was encouraging, and there’s a good chance we will consider this format in the near future as we expand our team of volunteers.
The biggest news from the team last year was the successful launch of “Afro Classical Nights”, our flagship event held in collaboration with Presley Nii Black, a jazz and classical pianist and founder of the School of Piano and Keyboard Playing, a large collective of classical music enthusiasts and performers.
Afro Classical Nights is our second foray into the event space. Back in 2016, we first hosted a small audience at the British Council auditorium in collaboration with the Nigerian Philharmonics Company. That event was graced by Alfred Patrick Addaquay and Geir Henning Braaten.
Since the pilot in August 2018, Afro Classical Nights has drawn more people, audience and performers, with each month’s show. The diversity of performances is also on the rise. Our first show featured violin and piano duets, as wells as solos from both instruments. Since then, the show has included at least one singer, double violin duets, trumpet works and a piano-cello duet at the December 2018 show.
Afro Classical Nights has given audiences the opportunity to watch (and listen to) music they may not get to witness performed live elsewhere. Besides the standard Western repertoire from perennial favourites such as Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, our show has introduced a number of original Ghanaian works, including piano compositions by Kwaku Boakye-Frempong and Kenn Kafui, as well as Dr. Hilarius Wuaku’s trumpet music based on folk themes.
Afro Classical Nights was created to provide Ghanaian classical musicians the opportunity to showcase their remarkable talents, as well as bring audiences closer to musical experiences they will not have on the regular. So far, the response has been amazing. Although we’re long ways from proving wrong the assumption that there is no interest in classical music in the country, prospects for the show are great.
The level of musicianship displayed at each edition has improved since its inception, and with some big names already booked for future months, we’re confident that the show will be one of the most important events on the city’s musical calendar.
2018 has been a year of amazing strides for us at Choral Music Ghana, and some of the big players in our industry. As this new year begins, we can only look forward with one thought in mind: how do we top the successes of the last year?
We’re glad to have you with us as we explore the world of art music in Ghana!