Okaidja Afroso Explores the Wisdom of Ghanaian Fishermen on "Jàkú Mũmɔ"

- Banning Eyre


Okaidja Afroso is a Ghanaian singer, dancer, guitarist and composer based in Oregon since 1999, but still deeply tied to his Gãdangmé roots in a fishing community of coastal Ghana. Okaidja recently released his sixth album, Jàkú Mũmɔ – which means “ancestral spirit" in the Gãdangmé language. It is a rich tapestry of acoustic sound, blending palm wine guitar, beach-side fishermen’s songs with layered percussion and call-and-response vocals and a keen pop sensibility. Tuneful, fresh and grooving, the release is a unique entry in the canon of contemporary West African roots music. Afropop’s Banning Eyre reached Okaidja over Zoom to discuss the album.
Banning Eyre: Okaidja, how are you?  Okaidja Afroso: I'm good. I'm good. How about you? I am a fan of your program. Well I'm enjoying this record a lot and the videos. Really sweet stuff. Thank you.
Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your youth and how you came into music. Yes. I grew up in this small fishing town west of Accra. Its called Kokrobite. It was a really, really vibrant town, very small, with a lot of fishing activity, lots of singing. So I soaked up a lot of things. I fell in love with traditional Ghanaian dancing. So I joined a group and I started working with a dance teacher. I became friends with him. And then along the line, even though my dancing was really bad, I decided I wanted to go and join the National Dance Company. So I went, and they thought I was not good, but they taught me. They said that if they took me and taught me, I could be better. So they gave me a shot. And that started my whole dancing career. That went for about five years at the University of Ghana. I've been there. In Legon. So that's how it all started. I am a dancer first. So when I play music, I think like a dancer.
So you've done six albums. But let's focus on this one, Jàkú Mũmɔ. I dig the way you play guitar. I'm a guitarist myself. I spent some time with the great sage of palm wine guitar, Koo Nimo, many years ago, and I have recently been in touch with his protégé, Kyekyeku. Yes I know Kyekyeku. I figured you must.  Yeah, he's a cool guy. I love the work he's doing.

Background


Do you go back to Ghana often?

I do. I do. Within the last two years I’ve been back three times, because I was recording. Actually all my albums were recorded here except this new one, Jàkú Mũmɔ. With this album, I wanted to do everything in Ghana, so the recording, the videos, everything was made in Ghana with Ghanaian creators. I was lucky enough to find very talented young artists, videographers who also wanted to do something special.

Well, it’s a very nice sounding record. Talk to me about the idea of this record, the goal.

There are a lot of things I feel are fading from my culture, the Gãdangmé people. One of them is the language. The language is going really fast. It’s mixed with English a lot.

This is the Ga language.

Yes. The Gãdangmé people consist of the Gas and the Adangbes, and we are in Accra. Because of our geographical location, it makes it so that everything, development, every new thing that happens in Ghana, happens in Accra. So that is good for economics, but it is not good for people who want to maintain their culture. It makes it so that our culture is kind of fading and language is fading too, and I want to help in my small way by writing songs that re-energize my people. So the lyrics in the song are like Wole Worse” talk about fisherman and how they used to be the culture-bearers. Without them, our culture would be gone by now, and I wanted to highlight this part of my culture that I really love, but I couldn’t do that without including fisherman. So I wanted to go to fishermen and work with them directly, and I was able to get connected with Agash Sowah and his group, and the fishermen from my home town, Kokrobite.

They were right on it and we started working together. The idea was to write songs that were new songs, but sound old. So when you hear the album, this is all new songs that I wrote, but that I wanted to sound old. I didn’t want anything to be so shiny and new. This whole album is to tap into Gãdangmé heritage, because for us Africans, there is so much that we want to learn from the outside world that we forget about our own cultures. I think that being in America has really helped me to see that vividly, because I am outside. Standing on the outside I can see what I wish would continue in my country and my culture.

You say the Ga language is disappearing.

It is. So here’s one very significant example. The names of the months, January through December. [He names the months in Ga]. When the Ga people are speaking their language now, we don’t mention the names of the months. Most people don’t even know the names of the months. So we would say last month, next month, two months ago, six months ago. The majority of the people will not mention the names of the months. Totally gone, during my lifetime. I remember fisherman would use these words all the time. But now, even younger fisherman do not, because of our location, there is so much influence on the language. Now there is awareness. People are trying to hold on to the language.

The other part of the project that I wanted to highlight is global warming, and how fisherman from my town and across Ghana and many parts of the world feel the impact. The ocean is moving. Where I used to play on the beach, when I go to visit, is totally in the ocean right now. So for the people who are living there, they feel it. There are times that fishermen are passing where they used to park their canoes. They cannot park there anymore because the ocean is coming really fast. Then there are also some social issues about where I feel that fisherman and farmers are holding the economy in a very special way. Farmers get subsidies from the government. Fishermen don’t. The farmers get loans, fertilizer for free. They get several things. But fisherman don’t get that.

Is it that the farmers create things that get exported, whereas fishermen mostly feed the local population?

I’m not sure why, but I think it is something that’s been going on for generations. And part of it is advocacy. There is no one advocating on behalf of the fishermen, but there are a lot of people advocating for the farmers. Farmers have more academic education. So they end up knowing how to access government programs. Stuff like that. Fishermen don’t tend to have an academic education, so the connection between them and government officials isn’t there. The link breaks. I think that’s part of the problem. For me, I don’t think it should be like that because even if they don’t have an academic education, they have very valuable ecological knowledge. There are a lot of ways that people could access their knowledge.

THOUGHTS

Well, it's very effective. I may not understand the lyrics, but the flow, the effect is beautiful. Do you have plans to tour with this group?

We are in the process as we speak. I went to Ghana and pulled together something I could tour with, and then Duke University decided to be a co-commissioner of the project, and also Stanford University and the Krannert Center. Duke is going to premiere this on November 6. We are bringing artists from Ghana to come and play with me for the premier. So Duke is November 6, and Stanford is going to be November 11.

Wow, I’d love to see you guys live. You need to bring this to New York. In any case, I am pleased to meet you. We will stay in touch.

Thank you so much.