George Worlasi Kwesi Dor: Art Music and Tradition in Ghana
Professor George Worlasi Kwese Dor adds a distinctive perspective to the Afropop Worldwide program Ghana 2: 21st Century Accra, from Gospel to Hiplife. Professor Dor is the author of the book “West African Drumming and Dance in North American Universities.” He is also a composer of art music and choral works. While such music is not a major force on the pop music scene, Professor Dor’s perspective spans the worlds of traditional music, gospel, and old-school pop (highlife), and he fills in key pieces of complex musical and cultural puzzle. Here’s a transcript of his conversation with producer Banning Eyre on July 6, 2013.
Banning Eyre: To start, why don’t you introduce yourself?
George Dor: My name is George Worlasi Kwese Dor. I am currently an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Mississippi. And my area is ethnomusicology. But originally, I’m a Ghanaian. I’m an Ewe. I come from a town called Alavanyo Wudidi, in the Volta region of Ghana. But talking about my musical background, I come from a musical family. My dad called Seth Kwasi Dor was the founding director of a community orchestra called Alavanyo Unity Orchestra of Alavanyo Wuditi. From the 1930s to the 1960s, they were very popular and famous. They toured the whole country. So you realize, I’m a musician by blood. I was very young when my dad’s orchestra was playing music. So before I got to going to school, I was learning some of their compositions, and the pieces that they played.
B.E.: George, tell me when you were born.
G.D.: I was born in 1954. July 11, 1954.
B.E.: So that was when your father’s Alavanyo Unity Orchestra was in full swing. What was the music like?
G.D.: Yeah, more of I would say Western music. But of course, they played church music. Hymns. And they could play excerpts from major classical pieces like arrangements of the Hallelujah Chorus. But, as a Ghanaian group, they also played highlife. So he composed several highlife pieces. As a Christian, he also composed anthems for the local choir. This orchestra actually won what we call the Coronation Cup, because I think it was just before the independence of Ghana. The Queen — I think it was Elizabeth — came to Ghana, and there was a competition staged amongst brass bands—and they won this. So they had the cup right at my father’s house.
But I went to Kpandu Secondary School for my secondary education. That would be high school. And my teacher, music master, was Albert Kwaku Avotri. From there, I went to the Ghana National Academy of Music, where I pursued a diploma in music education. The program was really bi-musical. In other words, it was partly Western and partly African. When I say Western, you can imagine all the types of courses you would study. Harmony. Counterpoint. Orchestration. History. And then, African subjects, drumming. Playing of other instruments. African Ghanaian instruments. Such is the atenteben, which is a flute. Then the xylophone, and of course, the theory of African music.
And right when I was still a student at the National Academy of Music, we were taught composition by the late Prof. Nicholas Zizindorf Nayo, because it was required of all of us that at the end of our course, our diploma, we’re all expected to compose a piece. I had composed a trio, which I called “Alavanyo Trio” for piano violin and cello, but I was rather noted for my choral compositions. Even at the National Academy of Music, I composed a song that was performed by the Chapel Choir. The title means, “God have Mercy On us.” The song was well received, well known, performed throughout the country, even after I left.
I don’t want to blow my own horn, but I want to say with humility that I was the first person who received a first-class in that institution. From there, I was posted — that’s the word they use in Ghana — to Kadjebi/Asato Secondary School as the music master of that school. And I taught there for three years, starting in about 1977. We had a wonderful choir over there. You know, if you’re a composer, you need a group to popularize your work. So this group was very good, and I composed quite a number of songs for them, and we would perform at school events, or we would travel to towns around during funerals, or go to churches and perform.
I had music students. That was one of my duties to prepare music students for what we call Ordinary Level music. Every morning, we had to sing the Ghana national anthem, and I had to play the keyboard. There was a time when I organized a choral contest among the houses. So I would identify some of the best students in each house, and their leaders would teach hymns and other songs to selected members from all these houses. And I will never forget the carol nights, during Christmas. But, trying to better my academic career, I decided to go to Accra, to St. Aquinas Secondary School, which is in Osu. I received my education diploma from the National Academy, and then I went to the University of Ghana, where I studied harmony and counterpoint, compositional techniques, and African music.
B.E.: Did you study at all with Professor Nketia?
G.D.: Kwabena Nketia. No. By then, he had left Ghana. You know, he taught at UCLA. But when I was at the University of Ghana he was at the University of Pittsburgh as a Mellon Professor. But it’s good you’ve asked about him, because he contributed so much to the establishment of the school of performing arts. African studies. He was not there at the time I went, but I benefited from his writing. And I was taught by some of his students.
I wrote my thesis on the Alavanyo Orchestra, my father’s orchestra. I looked at the influence of Western culture on traditional Ghanaian culture. And so I looked at the development of the orchestra. After I finished with the BMus, I was associated with a group called Abibgromma. Then, later on, I joined the Ghana National Symphony Orchestra. I have not mentioned that cello is my major instrument. My main instrument.
B.E.: Cello. Interesting. How many instruments do you play?
G.D.: I am pretty versatile. I drum. I play the keyboard a little bit. And, of course, I play the saxophone. I learned from the Alavanyo background.
B.E.: So, why did you choose the cello?
G.D.: A great question. A number of reasons. We had a young faculty member who had returned from Britain called Dr. Eric Akrofi, who was a great cellist. So he motivated me. But the professor in charge of strings was called George Ogbe, a violinist. So in my first year, he wanted us to determine what string instrument we would play. We couldn’t all play violin. Some had to play viola, or double bass. And George saw my fingers and said, “Your fingers look long. They should be good for the cello.” I told him that I remembered at the National Academy of Music, I thought my father had a cello. We did not play only brass instruments in my father’s orchestra. We had clarinets, we had double basses, and we had a cello. But that cello was lying fallow, under my father’s bed. [LAUGHS] So I brought this cello. It was a very old, well-seasoned cello, and I got interested in it.
G.D.: So I became a member of the Ghana National Symphony Orchestra as a first row cellist. I played cello in the orchestra for eight good years. Under the direction of Prof. Nayo, who was one of the foremost composers of music in Ghana. He challenged me later on to compose pieces for the orchestra. But, talking about my education, I came to a point where I decided I wanted to pursue my Masters and PhD. As a matter fact, I was admitted into the theory program at Michigan. But unfortunately, I didn’t have the funding. Still, to me, it was encouraging to know that somebody from the University of Ghana can be admitted into the University of Michigan.
I decided that rather than waiting to go to Europe or America, I should continue with the master of philosophy program at the University of Ghana. So I decided to pursue that. I did theory and composition courses, and my main teachers were Dr. A. A. R. Turkson and Professor Atta-Annan Mensah, who is a well-known ethnomusicologist. And at that time, Professor Daniel Avorgbedor, who is also a well-known Africanist, ethnomusicologist.
B.E.: Oh yes. I had some contact with him when I was in Ghana.
G.D.: You are right. He is now back in Ghana. So you can imagine how all these people impacted me in a special way. I wrote my Masters thesis on the compositions of three people we consider in Ghana as the pathfinders of Ghana’s art music. Dr. Ephraim Kwaku Amu, who is really regarded as the father of Ghanaian art music, because he did a lot of experimentation, even how to notate African rhythm in his compositions. He composed more than 100 choral works. Then, we have Prof. Kwabena Nketia. You know, he’s an expert in choral music, but he’s famous for his art pieces. He’s written a lot of solo works with piano accompaniment. And the third person was Prof. Nicholas Zizendorf Nayo, who received his degree in theory composition at Boston University. So I studied their works.
They really have informed my knowledge as a composer. I composed several choral pieces. Like “Gbogbomenuwo,” meaning “spiritual things.” Or “Hadzihagawo,” which says, “The great choirs sing about the might of God.” Of course, I’m a Christian, so don’t be surprised when you hear all these Christian titles.
And I have a composition that says, “The wildcats never walk with their claws out.” It’s a metaphor that one needs to be humble, even if you are a wildcat, you don’t walk with your claws out. You bring the claws out when it’s time to catch something. One thing about my compositions is that I will match something from my culture, whether it’s about hunting, or a metaphor, or a proverb, with something from the Christian background. Because I am an Ewe, but I’m also Christian. For example, I have a song “Agbemavo minyam miele,” meaning, “We are aiming at eternal life.” So I drew a parallel between the hunter aiming at an animal, and the Christians aiming at eternal life. So in Ghana, my choral works are well known. They are performed by several choirs in my own church, and in other churches, and for contests, at national levels.There was a concert I staged of my choral compositions at the British Council Hall. I think that was in the mid-80s. And it involved a number of church choirs. We had a wonderful event.
I thought I would be going to Germany, so I went to the Goethe Institute to learn German. So when Mrs Fodjor, one of the teachers, knew that I was a composer, she had the idea of founding a Goethe Institute Choir. The members were mainly students who were learning German, and of course several Germans who were working in Ghana and needed to have fellowship with people. So we came together. For those who were Germans, it was fraternizing, but for students, it was beyond that. We used the songs that we learned to further our knowledge in the German language. So maybe I’m the first Ghanaian who has performed a highlife song in German. “Let’s Protect the Forest.”
B.E.: Really? In German?
G.D.: Yes. In German. Instead of fighting, let’s plant flowers. There are others too. “Who can lift the world up? Lift it up very high, so the wind can blow under it.” It’s a proverbial saying. We can say Mandela, for example, lifted the world. Their world was so hot, but he lifted the world so the wind blew through it, and the temperature of the world changed.
B.E.: That’s beautiful.
G.D.: So this Goethe Choir—if there were events at the homes of Germans, or the ambassador, we would be invited to perform. But I also composed for orchestras. I became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, and I was encouraged by the director to compose. So in Ghana, I organized quite a number of concerts involving my orchestral works and choral works.
But there was a program before I left for the University of Pittsburgh where I pursued my PhD. I was made the director, the temporary director, of the symphony orchestra. And we had a concert. I composed quite a good number of works for them. But I pursued my PhD, as I said, at the University of Pittsburgh. And my mentor was Prof. Akin Euba, a Nigerian composer of art music. He’s well known as a pianist and a scholar. But after I finished in 2001, I decided it would be good to work in the United States of America, rather than going home. And luckily enough, I saw an advertisement for the University of Mississippi, and I came for the interview, and Prof. Burkhard, the person assisting on this recording, was on the search committee. He is a percussionist, and an African American. In the end, I became maybe the first Africanist at the University. And I was teaching at the Honors College and the Music department. I am an ethnomusicologist, and I teach world music and ethnomusicoogical seminars.
But it is very difficult for a composer just to stop composing and become a scholar. So I continued composing. And again, when you are composing, you have to think about the landscape within which you are working. The target audience. And the performers that are around. So here, I have founded the African drum and dance ensemble, and of course, Prof. Burkhard is a member. The ensemble consists of members from Nigeria, the USA, Ghana. We’ve had members from France, from Yugoslavia, from Uruguay. It’s highly international.
One event that I cannot forget to mention is that we had a concert at the Ford Center, which seats 1200 people. You know, Ghana became 50 in 2007, so we decided to have a commemorative concert. The idea was embraced by the whole university community, and the city of Oxford. The mayor of Oxford gave a proclamation declaring March 6, 2007, Ghana Independence and Friendship Day in the city of Oxford.
And for that concert, I composed a highlife piece that we performed together called “The Rhythms of Liberation.” The lyrics, to make it relevant, the singers had to sing the lyrics in English rather than Ewe. The lyrics were about thanking God, thanking the ancestors, and thanking the politicians and all the key role players for our independence, 50 years ago. We cannot forget the role of our first premier and president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. So I included some of his famous dicta in the song. For example, the famous saying that “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of Africa.”
You know, when composing commemorative songs, you have to be creative. I imagined that what was necessary to celebrate a festival of this nature in Ghana. So they play the atumpan–the Akan talking drum. You know at a ceremony, this drum will sound. And it is used to welcome dignitaries and the sort of thing. And I used terms like Uhuru, the Swahili word for freedom or liberty. So to broaden my scope, not talking only about Ghana, I used this term from East Africa. It was good. We received a standing ovation. You could see girls coming up to dance; it was memorable. But I’m at the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss. As an African, I realized that but for the efforts and the courage of James Meredith, the first African-American student here, the first minority who integrated the school. I guess you know the history of Ole Miss.
B.E.: Of course. You are in the middle of history there. What year did you start there?
B.E.: Let me ask you a little bit about your impressions of what’s happening in Ghana now, particularly the role and power of traditional music there. First, let me ask, how often do you get back?
G.D.: Maybe every four years, I go back to Ghana. Normally it’s a study abroad program, or I have a research project. The most recent time was when I went to Legon when we marked the 90th anniversary of Professor Emeritus Kwabena Nketia. There was a symposium organized, and I went back to deliver a paper on one of the chords that he likes to use, I called it the “Nketia dominant seventh chord.” Maybe one thing I can contribute that might help you. In our previous discussion, you were talking about modernity, the impact of industrialization and globalization on the musical culture of Accra, for example. What elements, what degree of traditional music is still performed in Accra?
B.E.: Yes. Exactly.
G.D.: The first thing to say is, you are right. There is a strong presence of Western culture in Accra. That’s as one would expect in any African city. But, in Ghana, we still adhere to the practice of our traditional culture, our traditional music. So even though Accra is the capital city of Ghana, as long as you have practitioners of indigenous religious practices, you will have music that goes with religion—religious music.
As you may know, Accra is located in a geo-cultural region that belongs to the ethnic people known as the Ga. In their traditional religious practice, the Ga’s play the akon and otu. They all have their musical types. And they continue to perpetuate their music. And another thing that is so interesting in Accra is the celebration of Homowo, which is an agricultural festival whereby the indigenous people of Accra thank the gods for good harvest, good rainfall, and for supporting them. Of course, their fisher folks give thanks too, so there’s an abundance of fish feeding them. But one interesting thing. For about four weeks, during the celebration of Homowa, there will be a ban placed on any other kind of music. No drumming in my church, for example. No drumming. No loud music in the whole area.
The whole of Accra does not celebrate Homowo on the same day of the month, but in Osu, or La, or Nungua, or Teshi, whichever neighborhood is celebrating, they will prohibit any other kind of music. And only music they believe that the gods know. That is the only kind of music they will play during these four weeks.
B.E.: That’s interesting. This was just about to happen when were there. We heard quite a lot of talk about it. I think it’s interesting that these Christian churches would show deference to indigenous African religious practice. This is something that predates Christianity, but they respect it.
G.D.: You are right. It’s a kind of a tension. You know, there are the diehards who say, “No, we are in Accra. So why should you indigenous people stop us from worshiping our God?” The Christians don’t think positively about even those who continue perpetrating their traditional religions. But the fact is that the land belongs to the indigenous people. They have the support of the government, and if you don’t respect the ban, you will be in trouble.
Another interesting thing is the recreational music of the Ga. Like kpanlogo. And I’d like to mention the jama songs. These are simple songs, topical songs about things the youth normally compose and sing about. Most of the songs are in Ga. They include drumming, clapping, call and response. And the simplicity of the songs, they will be interjecting spoken texts. And at times there will be interjected things they say to urge the people on. Just to create dramatic tension. But all these are present in traditional music. And they perform it. The music is up-tempo and very captivating, and they don’t dance to it continuously. Most of the members are men, and they will just stand up and make key movements. So the instrumentation is normally a hand drum, a bell, or a hand castanet—an ideophone that plays the timeline. And hand clapping is very strong. One thing that interest me is the portable nature of the instruments. They can move with their instruments.
So this music is also used to boost morale. For example, that is why the Ghana Blasters have these drums. Before any game, you see the blasters motivating themselves, boosting morale by playing jama songs.
B.E.: Are jama songs the kind of things that would be played by a cultural group like Wulomei?
G.D.: Yeah. Some. But now, because they are in Accra, they will play even songs that are not in Ga. And some are in other languages, like Akan. But somebody might just throw in a gospel song the person knows from church. So it’s mixed up. But the traditional songs outnumber the other songs.
B.E.: So is there much back and forth between musicians in the village and the city?
G.D.: Yes, because of the labor migrants in Accra. You have a lot of Akans in Accra. You have a lot of Ewes in Accra, people coming from the Dagaris in Accra. So migrants to this urban center then form associations. These associations are both musical and welfare-oriented. They make music. So if you’re talking about the Ewe in Accra, they will form groups, and when they meet, they will be playing Ewe dances. The northern Ewe will form groups and be playing borborbor. They Ashanti will be playing adowa. The Dagbon will be playing damba takaye or bambaya, right in Accra. So, although we have all these Western elements, we still have these traditional things coming from migrants.
The other thing we should mention is the state. You know, Ghana is now perceived as a state. It’s a modern nation state. Let’s think about the old states. The Ashanti Kingdom, the Ewe Kingdom, the Dagbon Kingdom. All these have chieftaincies. And they have their political hierarchies, and court music that go with all these occasions. So we can talk about the fontomfrom for the Ashanti chief, or the kete for the Ashanti chief. Or the salima, which is the praise dance of the Dagbon.
So there is a recontextualization going on, where the president is now viewed like the king of the state, of the modern nation state. So when there is Independence Day, or some other national event, the kinds of drums or the dances that will be performed for the Ashanti chief are now performed for the president, the head of state. So you hear fontomfrom drums played by the Ghana National Dance Ensemble. I guess you are seeing this kind of revitalization of what is indigenous for a particular ethnic group, but now, elevating it for the nation.
And again, when I was at the National Symphony Orchestra, all our percussionists were very big drummers. I can remember, whenever a president or a prime minister or a dignitary was visiting Ghana, they would invite them to the Osu Castle. That’s where the head of state used to be. And they would play music to welcome those dignitaries. So all those are changes. All this is happening in Accra.
We have dance troupes. Some are state sponsored, like the Ghana Dance Ensemble, which was formed with the idea of ethnic integration. Because when this was formed in 1962 at the Institute of African Studies, and at the order of our first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. And of course, Prof. Nketia and Prof. Mawere Opoku were the co-directors. The idea was to identify some of the best drummers and dancers from different ethnic regions of Ghana, and they brought all of them together. So the best Ewe dancers and drummers were supposed to teach the Akan dancers and drummers the Ewe dances. And vice versa. The Akan dancers and drummers also taught that the Ewe. So this way, they became very versatile.
But later on, they changed their objectives. Rather than remaining in Ghana, they wanted to use the ensembles to showcase the richness of Ghana’s dances to outsiders. So the dances were choreographed with some touch of modernity. And they toured these countries, and it was something political, showcasing the beauty of Ghana. Some people thought they had really imitated the Russian Folkloric Company. But others would say, “Why not?”
G.D.: Nkrumah was not only a non-aligned leader, the founder of a non-aligned movement, so he could borrow ideas from the West, from the East, but Nkrumah was also a Pan-Africanist, a leader of Pan-Africanism. So, some of us viewed the Ghana National Ensemble, for instance, as the court musicians of the modern nation state.
Coming back to today, there are also several cultural troupes, dance troupes. We have cultural festivals for schools, where students are encouraged to learn dances and perform. We have national cultural festivals, where regions are supposed to showcase the richness of their indigenous dances. We also have bi-musical programs at all the higher schools and institutions of music. For example, all students at the University of Legon– I’m not talking about only music majors — everybody. You have to pass some African related course. Some people learn how to drum. Others learn how to dance. Others learn how to speak different languages.
B.E.: We saw this at Legon. We watched kids learning gyli and seprewa there. I want you to help our listeners understand that there’s not this strict separation between Western music and traditional music. Even the traditional music itself has a complicated history. Some of these percussion and vocal forms have already been to the Caribbean and come back, for example. For example the history of gumbe music, which came back to Africa with Jamaican soldiers, black soldiers, who were brought by the British to fight the Ashanti. This kind of turns peoples’ expectations on their heads a bit. Can you comment on that?
G.D.: Yeah, you are right. Those people who think along such lines simply waste their time in an era of globalization. Globalization didn’t just start two or three decades ago. We have this kind of appropriation and domestication. And when talking about the music of the African Diaspora, it’s not only one-way traffic. It’s not only Africa coming to America, or the diaspora. We have a lot of feedback. Of course, we have a lot of music coming from the West. Through the process of colonialism, and the Christian presence. But there are other traits of popular music, of America, coming back, and feeding back into Africa. So this is a general trait. And it’s not only Ghana. When you go to East Africa, you have rumba, and all these effects are there. So if you read books of Peter Manual, he discusses this very well.
But again, even within Africa, I would say it’s stereotypical to separate completely our traditional music from art music. Of course, we have the art music. We know what is traditional music. We know what is Western art music. But African art music is an intercultural arts. It is a symbiosis between African and Western musical elements.
To me, there is a difference between a Ghanaian composer of art music, and a composer of Ghanaian art music. There were some composers, Ghanaians, who never drew upon our indigenous pre-compositional resources. And they sounded like anybody from any other country. But there are some who took their time, and studied their indigenous music, and drew on it.
I have quite a number of compositions in which I draw on the rhythm. To begin with, what my compositions, I draw on different elements of music. Different elements of indigenous music, for example rhythm. Let me give you an example. If I’m creating a piece of work, I will view them as though it will be in the metrical framework of Ghanaian drums. I think of apagya, and not only the bell, but all the other instruments. Or I will view this as the northern Ewe. There is a social dance we called agbadza [SINGS]. I composed this piece called this “Gbogbomenuwo.” The whole music, the greater part of it, is based on the rhythm of the bell. It is from the bell of this dance.
And there is another piece that I composed. “Do not cut the trees.” The trees are saying, “Have mercy on me. I will bear fruit next year.” And I could mention an instrumental piece that I composed for symphony orchestra. It’s called “Echoes From Nketia and Seth Dor,” [Seth is George’s father] and it uses gahun [an Ewe rhythm and dance]. You went to Wesleyan, so you should know gahun.
G.D.: That was my motivation for my B-section of this piece.
B.E.: We hear a little of that piece in the radio program.
G.D.: Another rhythmic element in African music is what we call the shifting of the rhythmic accent. Then, coming to the melody and vocal, language is very important. The interaction between language, if it’s a choral piece, the interaction between language and the tune. The spoken word and the melody. Dr Amu has adhered strictly to this practice. Most African languages are tonal languages. So if you change the tonal band of a particular word, the meaning will change. Maybe the best English example is the word “contest.” CONtest or conTEST. There’s a difference in the meaning.
So there is a phrase that means, “There are high mountains in Africa.” But if I lower the first pitch, I am saying, “There are high rhinos in Africa.” So for the meaning to be clear when composing your melody, it is very important that, as much as possible, you adhere to the tonal inflection of the spoken word. You don’t adhere to it religiously. Because an African who sings a melody for the first time will adhere to the tonal inflections. For the next time, he may like to change the melody, and substitute a related tone. So you have all these changes and possibilities.
But again, talking about melody, you also have to talk about scales. We have pentatonic scales, and we have heptatonic scales. The Akan and the northern Ewe we have heptatonic scales, with major seventh and minor seventh in the melody. So we have all these resources available to us. In the same melodic phrase, you can see all of those.
For example, I composed a song that says, “”Jesus Christ, thank you for coming to die on the cross for me.” I was thinking of the female lament of the northern Ewe. There are some falling fourths in the melody. So it is not only the number of notes within the scale, but the melodic structures. You don’t have very many cultural communities that use this falling from Fa to Do.
B.E.: Fascinating. Thanks very much, George.