Up until now, this column has barely scratched the surface of musical tradition in Africa. The wide range of artists I’ve chosen to focus on make highly stylized music, mostly electronic. Often, I’m asked how I feel about “world music” vs “global bass” or “tropical beats.” A few of the artists I’ve written about may belong to the latter categories, but beyond marketing considerations, I don’t see the relevance in that dichotomy. However, it does stem from a locally relevant divide, one that has nothing to do with the taste of record label A&Rs and producers in the West, and nothing to do with Soundcloud-savvy bedroom producers.
In Ghana, there is a striking divide between people who embrace their roots and people who shy away from them in shame, preferring to adopt Western customs by all means, no matter how absurd. In such a situation, artists play a crucial role, and as you may have gathered from past posts, many prefer to stick to modern equipment, usually vocal mics and sequencers. I love that formula. So does Mohammed Alidu. But as a master drummer and heir to a centuries old tradition, he feels other areas of Ghanaian culture are grossly overlooked in Ghana today. Worse than that—they are purposely ignored.
The core of the matter is pride and exposure. Ghanaians are exposed to their own cultures, as well as modern day pop culture. In Alidu’s words, the problem is that many young Ghanaians are ashamed of their roots, and dream of the urban lifestyles depicted in MTV-style music videos. The musicians want an instant hit, and they want to live their success to the fullest, because there is no saying what might happen tomorrow. Alongside this desire for immediacy, some old traditions do carry on. In Alidu’s family, the talking drum is an art, passed from generation to generation of bizung, the King’s talking drum master. Like griots elsewhere in West Africa, the bizung start playing as children, they are immersed in their art their entire lives and as such become the king’s historians and entertainers.
This is the world Alidu grew up in, in the Dagomba capital of Tamale, in northern Ghana. His art has allowed him to travel to Accra to join the National Dance Ensemble, then to join another group in London. Later he started teaching in Boulder, Colorado and concerts all over the world. He is living the dream of so many young Ghanaians. “A lot of people thought I’d stop playing the talking drum once I traveled. But this is what took me everywhere in the world, this is the difference,” he says. “Many Ghanaians overseas try to forget where they came from, they want to be part of a culture that doesn’t belong to them. [Even] in Ghana we sing about things that don’t make sense. We let go of what we have, we want to cut it with things we don’t know.” Mentioning a great 1960s highlife album he just listened to, Alidu asks,”What radio in Ghana still plays this music? Kids see what’s on TV, hip-hop, which is great. Very important, but nothing is as important as knowing where you are from, and knowing you have a choice.”
In London and Colorado, but also in Madagascar in 2005, Alidu has had choices. He’s had the chance to collaborate with musicians from all corners, he’s been exposed to different musical traditions. And when he comes back to Ghana every year, he does everything he can to share his experience with the people. When he is invited on TV, he is always asked why he drums. “I want people in Ghana to understand, you can be Dagomba, Ashanti, Ewe, Ga, Fanti, don’t be ashamed of it,” he says. Alidu started his professional career in Accra by embracing Ghana’s cultural diversity. To this day, fusing rhythms and mixing genres is at the core of his work. It’s impossible to pinpoint where he is from when you listen to his album, Land of Fire.
So what’s next? Alidu tours with Playing For Change, the same organization he has teamed up with to open a music school in Tamale. Traveling allows him to meet musicians from different backgrounds, who he often records with. He has his Pro Tools rigs at home, both in Tamale and in Los Angeles where he now spends most of his time. But everywhere else he has his laptop and mics, and continues to learn and build upon his experiences. While some still debate about world music vs global bass, artists like Alidu continue to build bridges, both between musical genres and between people. He’s not telling anybody to stop using computers to make music, his mission is to get Ghanaians to embrace their roots and incorporate them into a format they choose, instead of trying to fit into formats dictated to them. More talking drums, please.