OKAIDJA AFROSO GIVES A VOICE TO THE ANCESTORS

- Erim Akpan


After a weeklong residency at Duke University, Ghanaian performing artist Okaidja Afroso presented Jaku Mumor -- an innovative blend of music, dance, and film. Making full use of every advantage of the space, four musicians gave a passionate, heartfelt performance that transported us to the shores of West Africa, alongside the fishermen that inspired Afroso’s music.The “stage” was simple: what looked like a black tarp or cloth laid on the ground, beneath a few instruments and stools of different shapes and sizes. Wearing a loose, dark gray dashiki and black wide-leg pants, Afroso perched on a stool. He closed his eyes and turned his face toward the ceiling before launching into a beautiful a capella song. Rendered even more enchanting by the slight echo of the walls, it was a voice you wanted to stop and listen to.     The notes took you to another place right away. You could picture hearing the song in a fishing village, or hearing it called between fishermen out at sea.

Background


After the opening solo, the remaining musicians took their places: Israel Annoh on drums, Flaindratovo Manavihare on gourd drum, and Emmanuel Tetteh on bass guitar. They made full use of the space, often in delightfully surprising ways. Despite having a duo of drums in front of him, Annoh used his seat to create the rhythm for the group’s first song. He wielded two small broom-like handsticks that created a rattling percussion sound. I had just assumed the green circular seat was something they had dragged in from a student area in the building. In another song, Manavihare played his rectangular seat with his bare hands. The two drummers’ rhythms were distinctly different but worked together magnificently.

One throughline of the show, which was commissioned by Duke Performances, was the theme of community. “Everything is communal in Ghanaian society,” Afroso shared. “You have to be part of the community for things to be good.” The idea was present in every aspect of the performance, from the collaboration of the musicians themselves to the show’s technicians and the involvement of the audience.

From time to time, a short film would play between songs, about the length of a music video. The first film showed a group of fishermen on beached boats singing, drumming, and harmonizing together. Interspersed were clips showing slices of life: a basket of fish at the market, a group of men pushing a boat up onto the beach, a group pushing the boat out to see against an onslaught of ocean waves. It really underscored the importance of community, showing that fishing couldn’t be done alone.

The design of the performers’ clothing (by T-Michael)  was interesting in its minimalism. The simple colors of the dancers’ attire ensured that the audience’s attention was on their motion, magnifying small and large movements alike to great effect. Afroso often pulled off impressively complex dances, with his arms, legs, and head doing completely different types of motions at the same time. Yet the motions all blended together harmoniously.

Sena Atsugah was also a fantastic dancer, skillfully executing complex choreography with ease. She was expressive with simple movements too, emanating joy just by turning in a circle with her arms stretched gracefully toward the ceiling. She and Afroso were expressive and entrancing with every move, whether accompanied by music or not.

Thanks to the unique setup of the room, even the floor became a notable part of the experience. Whenever Afroso stomped or jumped particularly emphatically, you could physically feel the impact through the ground — and seat — beneath you. It added a whole new dimension to “feeling the rhythm.”

Sometimes the music evoked a feeling of happiness and sun; sometimes it was somber and serious, indicating the importance of learning history to pave a better future. Some songs were slow and solemn, some were slow and loving, some were upbeat and joyous. The rhythm was contagious; I found myself dancing or swaying in my seat more often than not.

THOUGHTS

Jaku Mumor is a unique experience, an eclectic blend of music, song, dance, and film. Each component is crafted and performed with excellence. Truly masters of their craft, Afroso, Annoh, Manavihare, Tetteh, and Atsugah have come together to immerse us in West African culture and show us the power of community. -- E. Akpan