This is the story of Nana Kwame Ampadu I – the man, the music and a life brought to us on four 75-minute VCDs by Stebo Records. That is five hours of interviews, music videos, anecdotes and other tit bits.
We are informed in volume one of his beginnings. Born in Obo Kwahu, Ampadu was christened Patrick and took “Steel” as a “guy name” which explains his original artist name “PSK Ampadu” found on his earlier records. He held on to this name until he was crowned “Nana” as a result of a country-wide competition he won among guitar bands in 1972. He was formally invested with the title at a ceremony at the Arts Centre taking the official appellate: Nwomtofuohene, Nana Kwame Ampadu I. There has never been a second.
He took to music early forming his first band in 1963 at the tender age of 19 after finishing Obo Kwahu Anglican Middle Boys. There were no recording studios in Ghana then. In a desperate search for a career start, he showed his compositions to Jerry Hansen who was already an established act with the Ramblers. Jerry took two of his compositions – a collaboration which eventually resulted in the Ramblers recording eight songs the young Ampadu gave up for free not knowing he had to be paid for them. Too bad Ampadu did not mention all the eight songs but Ramblers hit it big with Agyanka Dabre, Mpae bo na ehia and Obra rehwe me with the words “Mereye den na m'agyina mpoano”. You may also want to compare Ramblers’ recording of Nea Waye Mi with Ampadu’s. But Ampadu acknowledges his immense debt and gratitude to Jerry who introduced him to Philips Records where he made his first 45 with Agyanka Dabre and Suminaso Ntonko.
Nana Ampadu composed more than 700 songs – a record in Africa, if not the world. That is a lot of songs but it necessarily means not all of these are great songs. Some of them sound similar and his many stories about animals, mmoatia and sasabronsam can become boring at times. Fortunately, the selections on these videos are among the very best things he did. These include the much beloved and funereal Akwantifi Wuo (Ao mother ye... Odo na wo gyaa me sen ni? Adwoa Foriwaa...) and for you in the diaspora: Aaa ye ba pa, Kwadwo (... Enfa emmaape nkosi w’ani so). Oh, Emeeelia is there too. And many more.
Among the highlights of the videos are the places where Ampadu talks about the stories behind the songs. “Agatha” was actually a beautiful girl with whom he had a short-lived marriage. “Ebe te yie” was a story told him by one Kwasi Adu of Kumasi. He was then very young and didn’t see any political undertones in that song. Nana revealed that, contrary to common belief, he never had any problems with the NLC over that song and Afrifa never called to upbraid him. He added that he had never had any political problems with any of his songs. The Driver song was what he had worked on the longest. The research took him six years as he personally collected 150 “car ho ntwereye” on his tours around the country, 70 of which eventually made it into the song. Ampadu’s best friend was Kwame Frimpong, late tailor from Sunyani, mentioned in the song: Annuanom mmoma ye nnodo yehu oo/ Enam owuo nti/ Onnipa nse whee... “Kakra Yinti” was for Caro, the Akuapem girl, who was in coquettish tears when Ampadu was only teasing (mekaa no agoro...). Perhaps the most wonderful of these stories is the one behind the hit “Oman Bo Adwo” – a song he also called “Paul amba ntem” (the latecomer who became the greatest of them all). It came by accident after a concert at Apedwa. The boys were practising and joking with a beat he overheard and asked where they got it from. It was a Nigerian beat heard by one of the boys who had gone there. He asked the boy to sing it out and “like joke like joke” they made Oman Bo Adwo. They liked it and at their next recording session they dropped “Woyoo wo yo part 2” for the new song. So the Ibo man is really not an Ibo man and the words are really not Igbo? Whatever, this wonderful result of a serendipitous effort became a huge hit – one of my personal favourites.
Ampadu talks about his many visits to Nigeria performing in cities in the East where he felt at home because of “their love for Ghana music” (Enyinba naba oo...). Asked why the easterners love our music so much, Ampadu explained that it may be because their languages resemble Twi. That may be so but there may be a more compelling reason. The Yoruba used to play and love highlife music. Big bands like Dr. Victor Olaiya, (Omo pupa yee..., check out his wonderful collaboration with E. T. Mensah on youtube – “the evil genius of highlife meets the godfather” as one commentator so aptly puts it), Roy Chicago (Mariiiya...) etc were huge acts in Yorubaland playing highlife exactly as we, Ghanaians, know and love it. Bobby Benson (If you marry taxi driver, I don’t mind...) had a club in Lagos. Even Fela Kuti started his music life with highlife (“It’s Highlife Time” with his Koola Lobitos Band). But then juju music crept into the lives of the Yoruba. I. K. Dairo blazed the trail, Chief Commander Obey and King Sunny Ade fortified and solidified it and the Yoruba were more into juju (which Ghanaians enjoy probably because of its affinity to highlife) and fuji (which may sound in many a Ghanaian ear as Klingon opera) than highlife by the time Ampadu arrived in Nigeria. Lagos, Ibadan or Ogbomosho were no places for him to stop. But in the east, (Benin City, Enugu, Onitsha, Aba, Owerri, Calabar, Port Harcourt, etc) highlife has always been the thing. Cardinal Rex Lawson (Sawale, Ibi na boo...) died young but “Dr Sir” Warrior, Chief Osita Osadebe (Osondi Owendi...), Sir Victor Uwaifo (Joromi) and others kept highlife alive among the easterners who welcomed the likes of Ampadu and Kofi Sammy (Yellow Sisi dey for corner) with open arms. They understood the music even if they didn’t understand the language just as we in Ghana took to Rex Lawson’s music even though we had not the faintest idea of what he was singing about. It was the music itself, the rhythm, as Ampadu explained in connection with his Côte d’Ivoire fans, rather than the language in which it was sung, that drew us together.
He remembers his gig in Benin City which was attended by Victor Uwaifo. He liked Uwaifo’s guitar works and had made a song (Adwoa ye Adwoa ye) on a variation of one of his guitar tunes. He played that song that day and Uwaifo came up to the stage to shake hands with him and commend him on his performance.
It was with a touch of sadness with which Ampadu recalls the original seven members of the band. Snr Eddie Donkor on first rhythm guitar (and the prominent voice in the backing vocals), Kyekyeku, and Koo Baah have all passed away. Now it remains, apart from Ampadu, P. K. Asare (congas), Rover Amoah Ampadu and Joe Dee (bass, now in London). Later, others like Sam Derchie, Lawyer Boateng, Osei (now in the US) also came and went until he was forced to dissolve the band when he got the call from God.
My biggest problem with this production has to do with that lackadaisical attitude of the amateur that characterises music (and film) production in Ghana. This is unfortunate especially when one considers the fact that guitar or concert band music has been somewhat looked down upon by the cultural elite in Ghana which may prefer to nod their heads and tap their feet to the “high brow” music of the big dance bands – E. T. Mensah, Broadway, Uhuru or Ramblers who deliver their music, stiff-necked in suits, and playing from musical scores. Some of the interviews were sloppily conducted with follow up questions, where there is one, often poor. And why will you interview a man over dinner and make him talk when he has food in his mouth? Why not film the interview during the after dinner drinks?
These are not music videos in the true sense of the word. There is a group of musicians on a bandstand, playing a cover for the real record and there are people dancing in between over-elaborate cuts. Many of the story-type songs are dramatized in the simplistic, extremely literal, and, sometimes crude, form of verisimilitude that many Ghanaians are comfortable with. So that when Ampadu sings of the dog, the goat, and the sheep that have come to ask the tiger what he has been eating since his return from Mecca where he was forbidden from eating flesh or shedding blood, we actually see these very animals on screen. If not so, we won’t get it, eh? Thank goodness, we are spared the gory sight of the tiger devouring the poor animals – an elision which Ampadu himself makes in his song which he ends by asking his listeners to imagine what happens when the tiger closes the door: Wope wo wuo wobenya. But Ghanaian film makers don’t like to leave anything to the imagination of the viewer.
Another thing which the videos lack is true footage from Ampadu’s shows from years back. A recording like this would have been much richer with such material. Surely, Nana Ampadu must have made appearances in his long career some of which were filmed in black and white? Where are they?
Some of the interviews, carried out in Twi, are given English translations. This is good. But often, the translations are poor and do not always synch with what Nana is saying – another professional lapse. It would have been good to have also provided English subtitles of the lyrics of the songs featured. After all, Ghanaians of all ethnic groups enjoy the man’s music and will want to know what he is saying. Moreover, Ampadu used many old Twi proverbs with difficult words some of which may be lost in the music even to native Twi speakers who may welcome a translation.
Perhaps the most irritating thing about these videos is the advertisements and warnings of copyright infringements flashing in the body of the videos at frequent intervals. These were simply too many. If I have bought the videos legally, then I think I earn the right to avoid these constant reminders of illegal copying or appeals to buy what I have already bought. It is better to place such material only once at the beginning and the end of each volume.
It seems the four volumes were not planned for from the beginning and one or two may have come in as an afterthought. This explains some of the chronological disorder and some repetitions. I can see the material neatly fitting on to two DVDs but it appears Ghanaians are still very much into the lower quality VCDs.
Despite my misgivings about the professional quality of the productions, I found myself enjoying them. The material redeems the effort and I am sure fans of Ampadu will enjoy these videos too. All too often you meet many in my generation who claim that the music of the past was better than what our youngsters are producing today. They contend that the older musicians sung “real” songs. Today, it’s all about sex, sex, and more sex played to beats generated on machines. But these are just the nostalgic yearnings of old age. Why should we expect today’s youth to play and dance to the type of music we enjoyed 40 years ago? Ampadu himself advises our young musicians not to forget our “indigenous” music. It should not mean they cannot do their own thing as well. Times change and music also changes. But certain things endure for a long time. And Ampadu’s music is bound to endure.
Today, Ampadu doesn’t perform much. He has embraced Jesus and his music has become a victim of the excessive religiosity that is gnawing our country from the inside. But he has given us a lot in a long career. He has sung himself straight into the hearts of many Ghanaians. What more can we ask of him?
Thank you, Nana, for all the music. Esie ne kagya nni aseda. Nyame nto wonkwamu.