By Kofi Agawu
Between 2002 and 2006, the local currency in Ghana included a 20,000-cedi note with the image of composer Ephraim Amu. These spaces are normally reserved for famous political leaders, generic situations that project the country’s industry and culture, and historic sites. That Dr. Amu shared this company speaks to the very high regard in which he is held. Indeed, Ephraim Amu is probably the best-known cultural icon of twentieth-century Ghana.
Talk to primary school pupils about the songs they sing at assembly, and they will invariably mention Yɛn ara asase ni (This is our own land). Some of them will refer to it as Ghana’s national anthem; the more discerning will describe it as the unofficial national anthem. Neither designation is correct. The national anthem (originally “Lift high the flag of Ghana,” later “God Bless our homeland Ghana”) was composed in 1957 to English words in a stately, hymn-like and quite un-African idiom by Philip Gbeho, and remains in regular use for official functions and ceremonies. Yɛn ara asase ni, composed in a more indigenous idiom to Twi words, is a patriotic song; it is widely popular because it captures more readily an African musical sensibility. If you ask those school children what they like about it, they will probably say that the song is sweet and that its words fill them with pride.
Talk to another group of educated Ghanaians about broadly cultural matters, especially those who came of age in the years leading up to the country’s Independence in 1957, and who have had the benefit of either a secondary school or teacher training college education. Dr. Amu’s name is likely to emerge in connection with passionate advocates for African culture, role models for what was once called ‘African personality.’ Some indeed may recall encountering one or two of Amu’s compositions as members of a school choir.
Until now, Ephraim Amu has been visible mostly as a national figure. This is partly a function of the circumstances in which he worked as a musician, teacher, catechist, and educator. He wrote mostly choral music using texts in Ghanaian languages, and he often wrote for specific choirs and specific occasions. He was not aiming at an anonymous global audience. No condition is permanent, however, as the song writer says, so it is not surprising that Amu’s nationalism is on the verge of yielding to an internationalism. The publication by Galaxy Music Corporation of three of Amu’s most popular songs in a beautiful critical edition made by Professor Felicia Sandler will surely hasten their accessibility to many professional and amateur choirs in the United States. Amu’s unique choral idiom, cultivated under the influence of European colonialism and missionization, yet marked by African rhythms, melodic turns and poetic expression, exudes a fresh, coming-of-age quality that has been celebrated in his native Ghana and that will surely appeal to musicians around the globe.
Amu was an imaginative poet-composer, and many who learn his songs are immediately drawn into an enticing world of memorable, word-borne melody, exhilarating rhythms, and an undercurrent of natural harmony, tweaked in unexpected ways, sometimes under the influence of a species of parallelism common in indigenous music, sometimes in deference to the four-part harmony that the composer encountered in Protestant hymns and associated idioms. Writing in two Ghanaian languages, Ewe and Twi, Amu sought to capture pertinent thoughts and aspirations of his community and to convey them in pithy language. His best-known songs are mainly in Twi, the most widely-spoken language in Ghana. As a non-native speaker, Amu learned an idiomatic Twi that took him to the heart of indigenous expression. His song texts are peppered with vivid images, wise sayings, and challenges to self- and communal improvement.
Before Christian missionaries arrived in Amu’s hometown of Peki in the 1840s, no one sang using the popular SATB arrangement that practically every Western choir takes for granted. No one drew on Biblical sources for song texts, and no one composed choral music on paper for performance by trained choirs. All of that changed three or so generations later, thanks to Amu, who had grown up with deep influences of indigenous cultural practice (his father was a drummer), on the one hand, and with exposure to and curiosity about selected idioms of eighteenth-century European tonal music, on the other. Amu wrote a series of choral works for various occasions, each one cementing an idea, an aspiration, an admonition. He was in that sense a pioneer and, in retrospect, a visionary. Amu’s practices eventually gelled into a model of choral composition that became hugely successful—satisfying for performers and audiences alike, and available for imitation by budding composers. Indeed, it is hard to think of a single successful composer of choral music in Ghana who has not in some measure been influenced by Amu. Today, one can hear Amu’s music performed in schools, churches, community and work-place choirs, or in arrangements for brass bands.
The three song settings published by Galaxy are among Amu favorites, and they are likely to become favorites for American performers too, once they master Amu’s individual idiom. Yɛn ara asase ni is a patriotic song composed in 1929. It was originally written to Ewe words and then fitted with Twi words two years later. Every schooled Ghanaian knows this song, even if they do not have full control over the words of subsequent stanzas. The song’s rhythms are emphatic, the melody is well suited to the speech tones—no mean achievement given that the original was in Ewe—and the refrain is memorable because it incorporates a responsorial element found in much African traditional music. Amu maintains a diatonic base but occasionally incorporates the flattened-seventh degree of the scale in an endearing way. American singers may need the assistance of a Twi-speaking coach to help render the Twi words accurately, and they may have to time-travel to 1930s West Africa to begin to glimpse the joint influences of Empire, Christian missions and collective hopes for self-determination.
In Asɛm yi di ka (This talk has got to be spoken), composed in 1944, the emphasis is on the spoken word. Amu’s phraseology is particularly charming here. Subphrases end on relatively short notes followed by silences, giving the song a certain enunciatory character and thus enhancing its communicative value. The spoken word, complete with the intrinsic musical baggage it carries from tone languages, lies at the root of Amu’s expression, and singers will have the opportunity, here and elsewhere, to experience that magnificent fusion of word and tone that has made so many of Amu’s songs memorable to generations of Ghanaians.
Adawura bɔme (I am the bell), composed in 1943, is a lively and satisfying exercise in polyrhythm. While polyrhythm is often associated in Africa with instrumental ensemble music, it is produced here by voices. At the core is a three-against two feel, the sine qua non of African rhythm, and a constant presence in Amu’s scores. Speaking these distinct, layered rhythms will give singers a feel for some of the energy that comes from this brand of simultaneous doing.
Ephraim Amu died in 1995 at the age of 95. Already a legend in his lifetime, he has grown in stature posthumously. Scholars have become more keenly aware of the size and diversity of his output. Students of religion and culture have also become aware of Amu’s work as a theologian, nationalist and patriot. We owe an incalculable debt to Professor Sandler, who has undertaken the mammoth task of making Amu’s music available to a larger public in an authoritative critical edition for which these three songs provide a taste. This edition will do justice—for the first time—to the composer’s vision and achievement. May all who engage these gems of African choral music draw satisfaction from the close and cosy harmonies, the melodic inflexions, the vital rhythms, and the inspiring verbal messages, and may Amu’s music find audiences well beyond the ones that he imagined in 1931.
Kofi Agawu was born in Ghana, where he received his initial education before studying composition and analysis in the UK and musicology in the US. He has taught at Haverford College, King’s College London, Cornell, Yale and Harvard; held visiting positions at the University of Hong Kong, Indiana University, University of Toronto, the University of Pavia, Cremona, and Oxford University; and lectured at numerous universities and conferences around the world. In 2012-13, he was appointed George Eastman Visiting Professor at Oxford University, becoming only the second music scholar to have held that position since its endowment in 1930. He has served on the editorial boards of leading journals in musicology, music theory, African music and ethnomusicology, and on several fellowship panels.
Agawu’s work is widely discussed and frequently cited for its interrogative quality. Tony Lewis remarks on Agawu’s role in “recasting African music as a musicological rather than ethnomusicological topic”; Veit Erlmann wrote that Representing African Music (2003) is “without any doubt the most powerful intervention in African musicology in a decade or more . . . one of the most edgy and stylish pieces of writing on the politics of culture in postcolonial Africa to have appeared of late”; and Music as Discourse (2008) elicited the following from Raymond Monelle: “The painstaking clarity of the analyses will surely be imitated by a generation of bright students . . . radical and challenging . . . easy to absorb yet infinitely sophisticated . . . elegant and rich . . . needs to be lived with and digested.”
Agawu’s current research includes essays on rhythm and iconicity in African music, and further studies in topic theory.