Strings, Harmony & Rhythm
A Conversation With Acoustic Guitarist, Kyekyeku
Looking introspectively to my college days in KNUST and performing with Kyekyeku in the Jazz Central Band, it is wonderful to see how far he has come as an artiste. He never ceased to amaze me then and continues to amaze me with his music and guitar playing skills. His style of music is a fusion of traditional Palm Wine music with Afro Jazz. Kyekyeku is in a niche of his own. He is not just a musician, but an artist who understands his craft, having an in-depth knowledge about music theory. He has trained with musical legend Koo Nimo and has had successful collaborations with Chris Gaskell and Cici Frank from Fela Kuti’s band. In 2013, he featured in AMAA winner, Akosua Adoma Owusu’s film, Kwaku Ananse.
Kyekyeku is a trailblazer and an entrepreneur. Through his witty lyrics, he humorously touches on social issues in Ghana. Through his organizations he tackles environmental problems. My conversation with him was a rediscovery of Eugene Oppong Ampadu as Kyekyeku and was an education in music for me. Enjoy….
“I am still growing. The most important thing for me is to always be in the process of developing because I think that is what keeps me going. If I ever get satisfied, that would be the end of me creating. I always love the challenge of creating. I believe I have an understanding of the core and integral sound that is Kyekyeku’s but whatever comes to surround and dress it up is always open.”
Kyekyeku (June 2014)
Design233: Who is Kyekyeku the musician, because when we were in Tech (KNUST), we knew you as Goodies? Where is the name Kyekyeku from?
Kyekyeku: The name is a traditional appellation. We have a traditional naming system in Ghana where certain meanings and qualifications are implied and attached to a name. My full name is Eugene Oppong Ampadu and in Ghana, amongst the Akan people, every child called Oppong is by default called Kyekyeku. It’s something like a compound name but more than that – an implied appellation. I don’t know the actual meaning but the stories I have heard in relation to the name Kyekyeku refers to (In Twi) Obi a )kyerekyere kuro. The literal translation of that is a founder of nations or a pioneer. In the Akan language, words that end with the Pong suffix stand for grandeur, valor, huge or people who have led a cause. I picked my appellation Kyekyeku for its uniqueness because there aren’t that many artists or performers with that name and that would make me stand out.
D233: I saw your Kyekyeku’s Crazy Azonto video with you busting some azonto moves to your Palm Wine rendition of Sarkodie’s You Go Kill Me. That was an epic performance! I totally loved it and was doing my own azonto moves to it. What struck me was how you were able to take such a popular song and jazz it up with just a guitar without losing its essence. What goes into instrumentalizing a song like that which is so lyric-based?
K: When it comes to popular music such as this one, the basic thing people identify with is the rhythm. I was working more with rhythmic patterns on the guitar at the time I made the intrumental, and picking inspiration from a duo called Rodrigo and Gabriella. Their style of guitar-playing utillizes every possibility of the instrument, not just as a melodic or harmonic instrument but also as a rhythmic one. So I would tap the body of the guitar, evoking that strong rhythmic feel we have in Ghanaian music. Then I had the thought of recreating a popular Ghanaian song with just the guitar to see what would come out of it. That is how I came up with the idea of doing the guitar cover for You Go Kill Me. I wanted people to connect with this new idiom of guitar playing by choosing a song that is familiar to people in Ghana and the Diaspora.
So firstly, getting the rhythm right is very important because it is what makes people identify with an instrumentalized song and then you work on the harmonic component. Luckily for me, the makers of Azonto music did an intelligent thing with it, especially with You Go Kill Me. It’s got just one chord and that is what makes it unique. Azonto music is not really based on a harmonic or chordal structure. It is more rhythmic, so you don’t spend so much time trying to understand or decipher chords. Once I nailed the rhythm and the chords, it was just left with the solo and the melody. Because I experiment with music a lot, I have accumulated a few gadgets, such as the loop pedal, which I usually use to give my sound more base.
I then played the base chord in You Go Kill Me into a loop and then played the solo and melody parts over it. It sounded as if there were two or three guitars playing at the same time and the whole creation was done in real time. It is very important that the bars are well looped and that when playing over, everything is in sync. With the loop, you have the freedom to add on multiple layers. In this instance, however, I did just a layer of solo playing over the loop. And I tried to do a little bit of azonto moves to make the video interesting.
I didn’t really think people would be interested in the instrumental but the feedback I got from that video has been overwhelming.
D233: That was the best part of it . This brings to my attention that fact that you can take our music and interpret it ingenously in multiples ways .
K: I think that in the Ghanaian music scene, most songs do not have long shelf lives because they are not getting interpreted. They hang around for about a year and people forget about them. However, if we have musicians and artists interpreting the works of other musicians, the music always stays fresh and people would then have new reasons and new ears to listen to them. That would give our music longer shelf lives.
D233: Wouldn’t it be interesting to explore traditional Ashanti music sang at funerals and festivals, which is almost monotone, in a contemporary musical style?
K: I think unconsciously our traditional music has had an effect on the way we sing, even now. Think about typical Ghanaian musicians, like Daddy Lumba or Ofori Amponsah. I pick them because they exist within a time period when Ghanaian music was becoming more electronic. New trends came out which were considered more hip than what they produced. If you were to pull the instrumentation from their songs, you would realize that they are very tonal, much like it is done at funerals and festivals. It is very difficult for us to reconcile our music when they are not done in the traditional context. Now the influences on our music are coming more from outside- R&B, Hip hop and not so much as the traditional melodic consults we have in Ghana. I consider them agents and forces that are having an influence in deciding what Ghanaian music would sound like in a few years. I say let all the agents work. The beauty lies in what comes out of the interaction with them.
D233: That being said, what is Palm Wine music and what is the origin of the name?
K: Palm Wine music is a term given to a kind of music that was being played in the early 20th century in and around West Africa, particularly in the Gold Coast (now called Ghana), Sierra Leone and a bit into Nigeria. Elements of it came from Sierra Leone and Liberia from the African crewmen who worked on European and American ships trading along the West African Coast. They picked up guitar-playing techniques and evolved the two-finger, thumb and index finger-tapping technique that is very popular in West Africa. This got picked up by the locals who interacted with them when they came to Ghana. They in turn, expressed the music in their own ways developing it into what we now call Palm Wine. The name itself originated from the atmosphere the music was created in. It was usually under a shady tree in the heat of the day where a palm wine tapper would bring his palm wine and people would drink to their fill and start having fun and merriment. If you had a guitarist or a percussionist around, they would normally make music along with recounting stories about their lives.
So the symbolic trend became palm wine, the symbolic attitude was drunken musicians. The music was then termed Palm Wine music. It was very important that palm wine be present and they be in a state where they could recount their stories through performance. Palm Wine music went on to influence Ghanaian Highlife music together with all the other influences that came later. I have made a long romantic story short. The initial part would be songs and repertoire from outside coming into Ghana, the natives adapting them to their lifestyle, putting in their own lyrics and the next stage would be the songs going further inland to the Akan areas and even to the North where it picks up the modal forms of music there. At this point it becomes typically Ghanaian. But even then, much of Palm Wine music was based in the south of Ghana in the coastal and forest areas.
D233: You were exposed to different musical instruments at a very early age through your dad, an organist, and are versatile with all of them. What did those early influences do for you to make you the musician you are and what made you choose the guitar?
K: The basic impact of that experience is I discovered myself. My first exposure was to traditional drumming and that was through my grandparents with whom I lived in Koforidua. Koforidua literally has all tribes from Ghana represented there so I was hearing a lot of Ewe, Krobo, as well as Akan music. I got an understanding of rhythm at an early age. I also used to go and see the traditional priests or okomfo perform, working charms and getting hypnotized. We always watched from a distance and were very afraid, especially when they would cut themselves with knives.
Further on, my dad introduced me to formal music. He trained at the Winneba Music School. He gave me music lessons, teaching me about music theory and that was very important in giving me the skill in analyzing the rhythms and music I hear and listen to. Knowing music theory and rhythm is not really a prerequisite for playing good music, but it helps a lot in understanding what you are playing and communicating or teaching that to other people. That is what helped me understand various music types from all over the world and also learn new music. That foundation helps me understand music and rhythms from different periods. Sometimes it gets a bit too technical but because my early development was learning themes and experiencing music through feel, I am able to make music through that feel and from a calculated point of view. Both compliment each other and are important.
D233: Your introduction to Palm Wine music came from Koo Nimo, our mentor who was teaching African Studies in KNUST when we were there? As a young person who is surrounded by modern music – R&B, Hip hop and Hiplife, what was the attraction to this traditional genre?
K: Seeds for old music had been laid down from my childhood. There was a man in my dad’s village, Kwame Black, who was actually the first person to introduce me to Palm Wine music. But the most tangible influence came from Koo Nimo, because he was the one who was able to explain to me what he was playing, whether through works or demonstrations. He also opened my ears to several musical forms and gave me the opportunity to play them. So my attraction to Palm Wine comes from a natural bias for the music I grew up with.
Later, growing up in the trendy suburb of Dansoman, I was surrounded by a lot of Hip Hop, but I guess something in me always went back to that traditional sound to see what I could explore from it. That is what most musicians do. No matter how influenced they are by music from elsewhere, they want to see how that music can interact with music from their homeland. I like Hip-hop, Hiplife, Rap, Reggae and I think if I want to enjoy that music then I should probably see how I can tie that in with music that has its origins from Ghana. For me that was Palm Wine. I needed a footing to understand music brewed in Ghana to be able to do a crossover. As they say, if you don’t know where you are coming from, you don’t know where you are going.
D233: Would you consider the experience at the Department of African Studies (KNUST), playing with Koo Nimo and the Jazz Central Band a defining moment of your musical career?
K: To a very large extent it was. I consider my meeting Koo Nimo as the first defining moment but probably, even before that was my dad teaching me music. Meeting Koo Nimo and him letting us listen to different types of music was a poignant period in my life. Being a member of the Jazz Central Band was the first time I wholeheartedly made music with friends, without being paid, but just learning the trade. Performance-wise, that was the first defining moment. Before this period, I had played the organ in church. I was the organist for about a year and that gave me the experience to perform in a religious context. In Jazz Central, I was free to explore new territories musically. Now I think a lot of the feelings I am aware of when I am performing come from that era.
D233: Describe your relationship with the legend Koo Nimo.
K: For some reason I feel very comfortable in Koo Nimo’s home, because Koo Nimo has a son called Eugene as well, who lives outside the country. Koo’s wife and family accepted me as their own. So the relationship is like a godfather and godson. He occupies that position in my life, someone I can confide in. When I lost my dad, though it was hard, it still felt like I had a very mature person in my life I could rely on. So Koo Nimo has been a father, a mentor, a philosopher and a historian to me. It’s very difficult now for people of my generation to have friends who are over 80 years old. So I consider my relationship with him as an authentic connection between contemporary times and old times because I hear stories and experiences of his life before I was born and it makes it easier to decipher and analyze issues.
D233: Your genre of music, although borrowing from more traditional sounds of highlife, is in a league of its own because you are bringing a contemporary interpretation to this kind of music. How are you expanding this genre to Ghanaians and the world?
K: For the most part I am a performing and recording musician so people hear my music through performances and because Ghana is currently a hot spot for travelers and job seekers, people from all over the world get to hear my music. I also utilize social media a lot- Youtube, Facebook, Twitter. I am always happy to grant interviews to bloggers and freelance journalists like you, who write about music. For now my reach is primarily through performances and I am steadily releasing my songs in the Palm Wine style and other styles. As I tour more, I will be able to share my music worldwide. It is my wish that my music gets onto a more potent platform for it to be heard internationally. But that is only a matter of time.
Recently, I set up a Facebook page called Accra World Musik Circuit where we are generating conversations on music genres like mine. That is not to say, however, that I have a mission for people to hear a particular kind of music but it’s just for people to know I create a style of music originating from a certain era which is mixed with other forms. So it’s not completely Palm Wine. It is difficult to draw lines between music styles because genres are fused and mixed all over the world. What is important to me is the contribution I make. People are not going to hear strictly Palm Wine music from me but a mix of all the influences I have.
D233: You have been doing a lot of experimentation in fusing Palm Wine music with Afro Beat and Contemporary Jazz, working with the likes of Chris Gaskell, a bassist, Cici Frank from Fela Kuti’s band and Martin of This House Is Not For Sale. What happens during those sessions and how are you developing your style through your collaborations with them?
K: I am blessed to have met loads of musicians within Ghana and from different parts of the world and I feel even more blessed to have had the chance to do collaborations with them. The most important thing for me in these collaborations is that we feed off each others energies. Every musician comes with a different way of thinking about music, expressing and executing it. You see, so it’s important that you are able to feed off their energies as they do yours. That feeling is very magical and my collaborations usually start from random conversations, which lead into us having fun and playing like children. These collaborations lead to other ones when I am recommended to other musicians visiting Ghana. Recently I met Blitz the Ambassador’s guitarist when the band came to Ghana this year to perform and we realized that even though we hadn’t met before, our circle of friends were connected.
D233: Can you say you have fully developed a style of music and playing that is Kyekyeku’s?
K: I am still growing. The most important thing for me is to always be in the process of developing because I think that is what keeps me going. If I ever get satisfied, that would be the end of me creating. I always love the challenge of creating. I believe I have an understanding of the core and integral sound that is Kyekyeku’s but whatever comes to surround and dress it up is always open.
D233: Tell me about your song Akwaaba…”plenty dark faces, don’t get dizzy…make sure you snap your fingers when you shake my hand”. These lyrics capture some of the root experiences of being in Ghana and Ghanaian.
K: I got the idea to do Akwaaba (Meaning Welcome) about a year ago working as a volunteer to receive visitors in Ghana. In my interactions, I began to experience Ghana through their eyes, seeing the intricacies and nuances that we take for granted. I wanted to make a song that would capture the culture shock first-time visitors experience when they arrive in the country. One of my friends visiting from London mentioned how it was the first time he was seeing lots of black people in one big space at the same time. I was not only concentrating on white foreigners, though, but on other Africans visiting Ghana for the first time. I picked on the finger-snapping, which usually follows a handshake that most Ghanaians unconsciously do and taught tons of people. In the song, I didn’t want to totally portray Ghana as a paradise. I wanted it to be real so I am not only talking about the wonderful environment, beautiful skies and sunsets covering your knees and toes but I also remind people that malaria and mosquitoes are very big problems when the sun goes down. (Laughter)
The most interesting thing I realized through my interactions was that most of my female friends visiting Ghana say they get tons of marriage proposals, especially from taxi drivers. So I thought it would be a cool thing to make us aware that if you want to get married quickly, come to Ghana and take a taxi…(Laughter).
The sound of the song itself is quite bare and crude. I wanted people to hear it for what it is with no dressings. It’s got a very strong Palm Wine feel, rootsy, country and rhythmic. I wanted people to be able to enjoy it and move to it. With the style of singing, it’s almost as if I am talking, similar to how people in Ghana speak.
D233: Do you remember the time you played Peter White’s Bueno Funk to me during one of our Jazz Central rehearsals in KNUST? Fast forward 6 years later, you are on stage playing with the legend himself in a concert. What was the feeling like? And before you answer that let me say I am very proud of you.
K: I remember that night clearly. I don’t know why I was playing that music then but at Jazz Central, there were points when I felt we should play some easy-listening tunes for our audience. Bueno Funk was one of the only two songs of Peter White I had every played then. A couple of years down the line, I am playing on stage with Peter White. It was an out-of-this-world-experience, like having this hero on your side and feeling like the next minute I would make a silly mistake and mess everything up. And I’m thinking…this is really happening! The feelings were quite mixed. But it goes to show that if you do things wholeheartedly and have fun with it, it opens up doors to other things in the future.
I played Peter’s My Girl Madge to him and he was blown away! He said he hadn’t heard anyone play that song before and here he is half way across the world in a tiny West African country and a young man is playing a song he wrote in a hotel room in Tokyo 20 years ago. He wrote it out of necessity because whenever he got invited onto radio shows, he would be asked to play and without his full band would have to play something with the basic finger-style on his guitar. So now he says he’s going to add My Girl Madge to his repertoire. It’s great to have made a meaningful impact on a legendary guitarist and musician such as Peter White. That experience is phenomenal.
D233: Tell me about your special Spanish guitar with its unique Gye Nyame sound hole. How was the experience of getting a guitar made especially for you?
K: It’s called Kyekyeku. People ask me for its name expecting to hear the name of a girl. (Laughter). I had the chance to play with a Spanish guitarist called Josete who plays with a famous Spanish singer called Lashika. He was visiting Ghana through the Spanish Embassy’s cultural exchange program and I was invited to do a master class and performance with him. He was quite impressed with my interest in flamenco, especially for a Ghanaian, and that on my own I had picked up some techniques. He decided to push me further and promised to recommend me to the guitar company in Spain that makes his guitar, Guitarras Francis Bros. When he returned to Spain he sent me one of his guitars made by them which I used for a while. Unfortunately, I lost it in a taxi.
So when I told them I had lost it, they decided to make one to my own specifications. I gave them the measurements, the quality of sound I need and how I wanted it to look and they wrote Kyekye at the head of it. I wanted to stand out as a Ghanaian guitarist so I thought of incorporating something that is definitive of Ghana and the Gye Nyame symbol came to mind. Technically, the symbol needed to be sort of symmetrical and a shape that would not affect the sound and structural stability of the guitar box. The Gye Nyame symbol met those requirements. Guitarras Francis Bros is a creative and experienced company, highly specialized in making intricate designs on their guitars.
Symbolically, I take the Gye Nyame away from a religious concept to represent the power of creation. I feel this is the ultimate power that exists in the entire universe. So although Gye Nyame means Only God, to me it signifies Only Creation.
D233: How does the Gye Nyame Sound hole work? I’m curious because it’s a unique shape on a guitar.
K: There are a lot of acoustic guitars with no sound holes or little ones. From my experience of playing the acoustic guitar on stage, the sound hole can generate a lot of feedback because the sound from the speakers bounce back onto the guitar and enter the sound hole. Some acoustic guitarists actually use sound hole stoppers. The smaller the hole on an acoustic guitar, the less the feedback it generates. For the design of my guitar, I wanted something that would produce a sharp sound that would cut through the mix of sounds on stage, because I want my guitar to be the lead instrument. If the sound it generates has a lot of bass, the combined sounds with the other instruments gets murky. It becomes hard for people to hear what I am playing. I wanted the sound to be dry and piercing, but at the same time rounded and lush. The sound hole works perfectly. Whether I am plugged into the speakers or not, the sound is great. That is the power of creation- everything is possible!
D233: So onto the business side of things, do you have a team that manages you, booking you for concerts and shows?
K: I don’t have a team but I do have a network of people I work with. It is easy for me to send out information, set up meetings and get whatever I need with their help. The tools are easily accessible. I am at the point where I want to get things done in a certain way. It’s about the product I am creating. Whatever team I bring on board, I need to be able to communicate to them that product and art form. I would also need to pay them, but I am not at that point yet. It’s only a matter of time. For now, I use the available resources.
D233: What sounds are you currently listening to that inspire you?
K: I have been watching the Reggae Sun Splash which is a festival in Jamaica. In the 90s my dad used to show me videos of this festival. Currently, I am listening to traditional reggae. I am listening to music from Cape Verde. I think it is very special. They have produced huge stars. Cesaria Evora, Lura, Tcheka, Mayra Andrade. It tells of a very good African music industry which is not huge but is still recognizable. They have a Creole Jazz Festival I was watching a couple of weeks ago. Very impressive! I would like to see Ghanaian music heading in that direction.
I am also listening to traditional French music- George Brassens. My playlist today has Jorge Ben, a Brazilian musician, and I typically have playlists of music from different genres. Yesterday, I heard a new song from T-Blaze. He is a hiplife artist from the 90s who is back on the music scene. Lately, I have also been analyzing the music of Okomfo Kwadee. I am realizing that there is more to his songs than just music. They are works of art. He created a style of singing and rapping that uses traditional forms but is very hip. When I think of using the Palm Wine style, this is the kind of innovation I think about.
D233: Do you have an album in the works?
K: Yes. I am currently recording several songs, which I am going to pick from to make an album next year, hopefully. I don’t want to give myself a deadline now. I want to be free to create and not be tied down by time constraints. When I am satisfied with the amount of material I have, I will package them together into an album.
D233: Where is Ghanaian music right now and how is it trending worldwide?
K: I think it is at a crossroads now. We came from a point where it was easy putting things together. We got lost. We tried new things and then got satisfied with ourselves. For the first time ever, we evolved something that became a world craze- Azonto. I think we have achieved lot and are at a point where we are close to creating a musical explosion. Currently, it is easy for people to come into contact with Ghanaian music. DJs are doing mixes of our songs and for the first time in a long time, we have lots of Ghanaian musicians touring, including Ebo Taylor, Blitz the Ambassador, One Love the Kubolor, Mensah and King Ayisoba. All these musicians are being booked to play music at festivals and stages across the world from Rio to Helsinki, Tokyo to Zanzibar.
That being said, we still have a long way to go when it comes to the music industry. There is a lot of streamlining required to make things easier for the next generation of musicians. There isn’t really a system that works. Royalties are a big problem and everyone is easily influenced by trends. When musicians know that a certain style of music is banging, they all want to jump on that bandwagon and create the same thing because that is what will get the most air play.
We need to head in a direction where musicians feel free to produce the kind of music they want. Not just because they are being dictated to by what people want to hear or dance to.
D233: Where do you see your genre of music placing within Ghanaian music? Thinking about the GMAs, would there ever be recognition of your brand?
K: No, there won’t be a recognition for it and I am not sad about that because I know a lot of Ghanaian musicians who are doing alternative music and are not getting recognition.
The Ghana Music Awards is not the indicator of what Ghanaian music is. It is by a group of people who are pushing a certain industry. When it comes to music that goes with a buzz, the net for my genre of music is not so wide. But the good thing is that people are daring to try new trends and there are individuals who are not being dictated to by trends. There is always the pressure to compromise and work for the purpose of recognition, money and fame. But there are a couple of us who want to balance things out. I realize that I am not alone in this thought. Most of my performances are at cultural centers, which is different from clubs, parties or company endorsed events.
You can’t begrudge the listening populace for not liking your music or listening to it because they’ve got choices. All you have to do is concentrate and do your best. It takes a lot of determination to be who you are, stick to what you do and not to be influenced by trends. Obviously, as a musician, there are a few things I might like in popular music and may borrow elements from. But in the end, I am always working towards putting out music defined as Kyekyeku.
D233: Do you see yourself as a successor to Koo Nimo’s legacy?
K: That is a very huge accolade and responsibility and I don’t want to be that biased because Koo Nimo has worked with a lot of other young people. I would feel proud for people to connect me with him, so whenever he’s mentioned, I also come to mind. I don’t want to be another Koo Nimo. I want people to see his worth through me, so when they listen to my music, they can tell I studied with him. But to be a successor…(Laughter) I know he always says the mark of a good leader or the final test of a good leader is that he leaves behind the will and the responsibility to carry on, which we, his students, will and would make additions to. I would like to accept that I come from his school of music-making but not his successor. It is too big a role to fill.
D233: For up-and-coming artistes that want to get into your genre of music, what is your advice to them as a successful musician ?
K: I would say that the material you put out is the most important thing, so you would want to give it a lot of attention and have a definitive product. If not a definitive material and part of a larger sect, then do well to make it recognizable as such.
In the midst of lots of distractions, they need to be able to stay strong and true to their philosophies, work harder, and still be able to embrace change because the creative process never ends. If we don’t have conviction with what we are doing as artistes, we can’t expect people to respect what we are doing musically. That is what I would like to say. I am not a finished product myself, but a bit of what I have said comes from my experiences.
The first encouragement comes from yourself. People would have to listen to themselves and be positive about life and whatever they are doing. They need to look out for positive energies and see every situation as an opportunity to go a step further.
D233: Thank you very much Kyekyeku. It has been fun and enlightening chatting with you!
Currently, Kyekyeku is touring Spain and France and has been featured on BBC’s Global Beats along side seven other up-and-coming Ghanaian musicians this past week!
Edited By James Grant-Monney Jr. & Korantemaa Larbi
Portraits Of Kyekyeku By Charles Lawson
Performance Photographs Of Kyekyeku By Desire Clark
Music Videos Courtesy Of www.Youtube.Com/Seekyekyeku
Audios Courtesy Of www.Soundcloud.Com/Kyekyeku
Image Of Frikyiwa Courtesy Of South Grafton High School Dunbe
Image of Prempensua Courtesy Of African Drumming
Image Of Shekere Courtesy Of Music Friends