Guy Warren of Ghana, also known as Kofi Ghanaba (4 May 1923 – 22 December 2008), was a Ghanaian musician, best known as the inventor of Afro-jazz — "the reuniting of African-American jazz with its African roots" — and as a member of The Tempos, alongside E. T. Mensah. He also inspired musicians such as Fela Kuti. Warren's virtuosity on the African drums earned him the appellation "The Divine Drummer". At different stages of his life, he also worked as a journalist, DJ and broadcaster.
He was born Warren Gamaliel Kpakpo Akwei in Accra in the then Gold Coast on 4 May 1923 to Richard Mabuo Akwei, founder of the Ghana National School, and Susana Awula Abla Moore. Named by his parents after Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, in 1943 he changed his name to Guy Warren, which while he was in the US became "Guy Warren of Ghana", and ultimately he took the name "Ghanaba" on 1 July 1974, Ghana's Republic Day.
He was educated at the Government Boys’ School, Accra, from 1928 to 1939. During this time, he developed his interest in music by playing for the school band. After passing with distinction from the Government Boys’ School, he enrolled as a student/founder at Ordorgonno Secondary School in 1940. That same year, he joined the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra under Yeboah Mensah as a drummer. He won a government teacher training scholarship to Achimota College, Accra, in 1941 with the intention of becoming a teacher at his father’s school. While at Achimota, he participated in sports competitions. He dropped out of the college in 1942 because, as he later said, "I was bored stiff with my studies and the stern discipline of the college, which attempted to change me into an Englishman."
In 1943 Warren Akwei enlisted in the Office of Strategic Services, a branch of the United States Army that dealt with overt and covert operations in World War II. He returned to Accra in the same year and joined the Spectator Daily as a reporter under the editor Robert Wuta-Ofei. In addition Akwei held various journalistic positions, including editor of the Daily Echo, Gold Coast Independent and Star of West Africa, between 1950 and 1952. In 1944 he began broadcasting jazz programmes while working at the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service under the name Guy Warren, which he continued using for the next three decades. In 1951, he did a series of jazz programmes for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), becoming the first African to host programmes with the service. He worked at Station ELBC, the National Broadcasting Service of Liberia, as assistant director and resident disc jockey (DJ) between 1953 and 1955.
He teamed up with E. T. Mensah and others to form The Tempos, considered the greatest jazz band in Africa. In 1955 Guy Warren left for Chicago and joined the Gene Esposito Band as co-leader, percussionist and arranger. With them he recorded his first album, Africa Speaks, America Answers (Decca, 1956), which has sold over one million copies since its release. This album confirmed his reputation as the musician who established the African presence in jazz. African music was popular, but it had not been integrated with world music until Warren fused them together. Later musicians, such as Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Osibisa, succeeded in popularising Ghanaba's innovative fusion of music. During his stay in America, he met and worked with Duke Ellington, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and many other leading jazz musicians.
By 1974 he had returned to Ghana, where on 1 July 1974, Republic Day, he changed his name to Ghanaba. He later said: "After the United States disillusioned me, I wanted to resurrect the African component of jazz. African interpretations of jazz were different than African American version I heard in the U.S. I discovered Africanness in the U.S. ... I wanted to do African music."
In the 1990s, he played a role in the film Sankofa (1993), written and directed by Haile Gerima, who was working in the United States. It was filmed also in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
Ghanaba continued to make music until his death on 22 December 2008. He was buried in a coffin designed as a drum by Eric Adjetey Anang of Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop.
Ghanaba's parents were Susana Awula Abla Moore, a great beauty of her time, and Richard Mabuo Akwei, founder and first headmaster of Ghana National School, Accra. As a youngster Ghanaba was a boisterous free spirit who found little peace and comfort with the strict establishmentarian demeanour of his father. Richard Akwei, a disciplinarian of the middle-class gentry of Accra, was a renowned educationist and founder of the Akwei Memorial School in central Accra; also a sports administrator, he is credited with being the first Ghanaian Chief Executive of what was then the Central Organization of Sports (COS), now referred to as the Sports Council.
Ghanaba was married twice and had six children. His first son, Guy Warren Jr aka "Odinga Oginga", is an artist specialising in sculpting, painting and carving, who currently lives in New York City. His second child Glenn Gillespie Warren, also called "Ghanababa" (the son of Ghanaba), is a jazz drummer who featured on the album That Happy Feeling (Safari, 1979). He recorded Bomdigi (Safari, 2008), the last album featuring Ghanaba. Glenn was chosen by Ghanaba himself to carry on his work, which was formally marked when Ghanaba handed Glenn his drumsticks. Ghanaba's third son, Gamal Abdel Nasser Warren, aka The President, is a political science student who was named after president Nasser of Egypt, with the permission and blessing of the great man himself given in a letter written to Ghanaba. His fourth son Gamaliel Joseph Warren, who also inherited his father’s musical talent as a jazz drummer, is currently based in Gary, Indiana.
In 1976, Ghanaba met and married Mrs Felicia Ghanaba, a Togolese living in Ghana. She bore Ghanaba a much longed for daughter whom they named Medie ("mine"); now married, she is known as Medie Ghanaba Lemay. In 1982 the couple had a second daughter named Gye Nyame Hosanna Ghanaba. At home, Ghanaba was a kind husband and loving father, a responsible man who took great care of his family. He was man of honour who stood strongly by whatever he believed in. He taught his children to always have patience and to love unconditionally.
He began his career under the name Guy Warren as a disc-jockey in 1944 with several jazz programmes on the Gold Coast Broadcasting Service (later Ghana Broadcasting Corporation) and Z.O.Y. Accra. He described his performance on the drums as love-making, seeing the African drums as a woman who could not be satisfied. "Is that all?" is what the drums seemed to ask after a hefty performance, to which he would respond: "I will be back for another session." While the punch and power of his playing easily tore the vinyl covering on Western-made drums, the animal skin covering the African drums remained intact. Nii Anum Telfer describes climbing on stage with Ghanaba as "a feeling I will never forget!” A firecracker would announce their entrance, “…then we were transported into another realm, a new world, a world we’ve never been in before."
As Seth Paris notes, "With fellow musicians, like saxophonist Joe Kelly and bassist Oscarmore Ofori, Guy was part of the generation to bring the influences of African-American musical styles into mainstream Ghanaian culture. During 1948, Guy Warren worked with Kenny Graham's Afro-Cubists in the UK, and when he returned to Ghana, helped introduce Afro-Cuban rhythms to the country."
Travelling to the US in 1954, he spent some years working there although found little commercial success and has retrospectively been considered ahead of his time. Once before a US show Guy Warren appeared backstage in authentic African wear. However, the owner of the club (African Room) was trying to force him to wear what he considered an "Uncle Tom" outfit, complete with tattered straw hat, which was the norm for all Calypso and African musicians at the time. Ghanaba adamantly refused to change, thereby beginning a trend that was widely copied both on and off stage.
Ghanaba said in a 1973 interview with John Collins, "I had to make a choice between being a poor imitation of Buddy Rich or playing something they couldn't. I could play Jazz well, but I possessed something nobody else had, so I started to play African music with a little bit of Jazz thrown in, not Jazz with a little African thrown in."
In 1956 his first album Africa Speaks, America Answers was recorded on the Decca Records label. It was not initially a success but quickly became an underground collector’s item, a reference point for African-inspired music. It confirmed Ghanaba’s reputation as a credible musician at the forefront of the African presence in jazz. This debut album cross-fertilized African and Western rhythms and introduced authentic instrumentation into the music. In 1964, Decca Records in collaboration with the German musician Bert Kaempfert released an orchestral version of "That Happy Feeling", the most popular song on Africa Speaks, America Answers, under its original title "Eyi Wala Dong (An African's Prayer)", on Kaempfert's 1962 album A Swingin' Safari album. It became a hit, took the world by storm and went platinum.
A year later, Ghanaba worked on the release of Themes for African Drums (RCA Victor, 1958), for which he wanted to use voices, drums and a trombone, with an overall African influence. He collaborated on this album with the trombone player Lawrence Brown, who acknowledged that what Ghanaba was doing was not common in jazz and put him one step ahead of others. "My Story" saw him give the recording of his lifetime on a song he described as the story of a "man who had at long last won the battle of the spirits". Cover versions of Ghanaba's composition "Love, the Mystery Of..." were recorded by Art Blakey and by Randy Weston, who has used it as his theme song for 40 years.
In December 1959 readers of Drum Magazine voted Ghanaba the number one drummer in a poll conducted by the magazine.
His third recorded album, African Rhythms (Decca, 1962), was supposed to be released a year earlier with Columbia Records but the deal fell through. He then teamed up Martin Salkin and Milt Gabler of Decca Records. This album was important to him because he felt it was unadulterated and came direct from his soul.
Ghanaba is listed in the Encyclopaedia of Jazz and other reference books as a trailblazer who first injected African rhythms and instrumentation into mainstream jazz music. On one occasion in the early 1970s when he performed a concert at the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra the crowd walked out on him. It was a time when he had given up on live performances and literally hung up his drumsticks because of the uninspiring cultural atmosphere and lack of respect shown to his art by the political structures and society. He only released two albums in the 1970s: The African Soundz (RCA Victor, 1972) and The Divine Drummer (1978).
He asked Nii Anum Telfer who worked with him to trace a letter from Africa Obonu, later to be known as Ghanababii, a drums and percussion ensemble based at La in Accra that had written to Ghanaba. It was after Ghanababii were contacted that he began to perform again. He played many gigs, including the monthly Free South Africa shows that he and Nii Anum Telfer organized at the Accra Community Centre in solidarity with Nelson Mandela, who was at the time in prison, and the people of South Africa who were fighting against apartheid. By March 1979 he had brought together Zagba Oyortey, Ofei Nkansah, Wendy Addae, Dorothy Gordon (aiti-KACE), Akuoko, Akwasi Adu Amankwa, Anthony Akoto Ampaw (Che-Che), Tsatsu Tsikata, Fui Tsikata, Prof. Akilagpa Sawyerr, Nii Kwate Owoo, George Quaynor-Mettle, Takyiwa Manu, Kwaku Opoku, F. Ato Austin and James Quarshie. Their aims and objectives were to collect, preserve, document and promote African arts and culture. During the Soul to Soul concert held in Accra on 8 March 1971 Ghanaba gave a thunderous performance with an ensemble of gourd players from Benin.
By the early 1980s Ghanaba had moved to Achimota and had his second daughter, Gye Nyame Hosanna Ghanaba. In 1983, in search of more peace and quiet, he moved to Korleman village. Although he released no major albums during this period, he remained active in the music industry in Ghana. He was instrumental in setting up the Musicians Union of Ghana and led the union as its National President from 1989 to 1992, advocating the need for Ghanaian musicians to use indigenous musical instruments; these were not empty words since he lived what he preached. Ghanaba considered his greatest work to be the African talking drums interpretation of the "Hallelujah Chorus" by Handel. In 1981, in recognition of his versatility and the mystical powers he had over the African drums, he was enstooled as Odomankoma Kyrema (The Divine Drummer) by Aklowa, the African Heritage Village, based at Takeley, near London, England. Three historical concerts in dedication of Africa’s Contribution to the World took place at London's Royal Albert Hall in March 1986. From this period he performed his music at various shows at the National Theatre, the Goethe-Institut, the DuBois Centre and other venues in Ghana. In 2001, he participated centrally as The Divine Drummer in the stage show written by Margaret Busby, Yaa Asantewaa: Warrior Queen, a co-production between Adzido Pan-African Dance Ensemble, the African and Caribbean Music Circuit, Black Voices, the Pan-African Orchestra and West Yorkshire Playhouse, which toured the UK and subsequently had performances in Accra and Kumasi.
In addition to learning from books Ghanaba liked to share ideas with other worthy musicians. Introduced to Robyn Schulkowsky, a leading female drummer from the USA living in Germany, by Sabine Hentzch of the Goethe-Institut in Accra, he said: "My whole life I thought I was the only one on earth who is crazy enough to deal with music the way I do. And now I have to recognize that there is another one; a woman, a white one." In 1992 he also set up and edited Hwe (Observe), a weekly newspaper.
In February 2005 during the Black History Month celebrations, Ghanaba was awarded a "Lifetime Achievement Award" at the W. E. B. Dubois Centre in Accra. On 18 January 2008, after a lifetime of producing extraordinary music, Ghanaba handed over his drumsticks to his son Glenn "Ghanababa" Warren at a ceremony organised at the National Theatre in Accra.
Ghanaba died on 22 December 2008. On 21 June 2009, a tribute was held at the Jazz Gallery in New York, featuring Randy Weston, with guests including Obo Addy and Kwaku Martin Obeng.
His belief in the culture of his people led him to change his name from Gamaliel Warren Kpakpo Akwei to Guy Warren of Ghana to Kofi Ghanaba. On 1 July 1974, the anniversary of Ghana’s Republic Day, he adopted the name Ghanaba. More than just a gifted artist, Ghanaba was a pioneer of the African renaissance, from a very young age believing strongly in staying true to his African roots. His pride in his African heritage and love of Africa was portrayed in every aspect of his life: his music, the way he lived, the things he stood for and even in the clothes he wore. As he explained: "I have experimented with all and have found my current dressing [sic] to be the most comfortable and sensible." His goal was to make the African presence felt in world music. Some people made fun of him, others called him crazy. But he did not care, and always said: "I am way ahead of my time."
Max Roach said in 1974: "Ghanaba was so far ahead of what we were all doing, that none of us understood what he was saying, that in order for Afro-American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilise with its African origins. Ghanaba’s conception, like that of Marcus Garvey, George Washington Carver etc. was beyond our grasp. We ignored him. Seventeen years later, Black Music in America has turned to Africa for inspiration and rejuvenation, and the African soundz of Ghanaba is now being imitated all over the United States where Afro American music is played."
Ghanaba was politically active and concerned with development in Africa and Ghana in particular. He was disturbed by the desire of many Ghanaians for material goods manufactured outside the country, at the expense of the best from their own country. In affairs of state Ghanaba was among three intellectuals handpicked by Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah to give advice on political, spiritual and personal matters. He repeated the same service to Jerry John Rawlings when he became head of state.
In the 1970s Ghanaba teamed up with African Obonu (later known as the Ghanababii) and others to perform the monthly Free South Africa Shows. These were organized at the Accra Community Centre in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa in the fight against apartheid. Other shows were organised to commemorate important dates in African history, such as Namibia’s Independence Day, and also to honour Africans such as champion boxers Azumah Nelson and Ike Quartey for their achievements. Ghanaba's great intellectual hunger was sated by voracious reading, evidenced by the sign he had up in his house: "I would rather read". He collected many books, newspapers and other material and hoped that once properly catalogued they could be preserved and used by future generations. New York University has expressed interest in his collections, and a professor of African Studies at NYU has established the African Heritage Library in Accra, most of the material coming from Ghanaba's collections. Decades earlier, however, he had wanted to donate it to the government of Nigeria because of their commitment to the second edition of the World Festival of Black Arts in 1977.
A true patriot and Pan-Africanist, he opined that if political and economic developments do not go hand in hand with cultural developments no meaningful progress would be made. Ghanaba lived fully, but like his mentor Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the legacy of his work appears to be far ahead of his time and is yet to be fully understood and applied to the benefit of Africa and all mankind.
"All you have shall some day be given. Therefore give now when the season of your giving is yours." – Ghanaba
The Ghanaba Afro-Jazz Gallery is an independent art project "dedicated to honouring, and preserving, the legacy of the legendary Kofi Ghanaba" and to promoting Afro-Jazz music and culture.
The title of Robin D. G. Kelley's book Africa Speaks, America Answers (2012) is taken from Ghanaba's 1956 album of the same name.
Hallelujah! a film by Steven Feld about Ghanaba, was screened at the 6th Annual New Mexico Jazz Festival, Albuquerque, followed by a post-screening discussion with Randy Weston & Steven Feld.
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