Last week’s Africa Day was an occasion to celebrate the diversity of the continent’s culture, through a music showcase in Addis Ababa, headquarters of the Africa Union, 60 years to the birth of its forerunner the Organisation of African Unity.
The concert featured a music and cultural troupe from the host country, a Tanzanian singer and guitarist and a band of young Ghanaians who are reviving their heritage of highlife music.
Gonder Fasilidas from the Amhara, a region in northern Ethiopia, staged a colourful and engaging set of music and dance.
Clad in beautiful Ethiopian traditional costumes the group combined music performance with dance reenactments of ceremonies like childbirth, weddings and farming.
The group, which plays a mix of traditional stringed instruments, like the masenqo, a one-stringed lute, krar, a six-stringed lyre, and a wooden flute called washint treated guests at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis to folk music from various provinces of Amhara, including Gojjam, Shewa and Wollo.
“This group has been in existence for more than 50 years and a new generation takes over whenever their older counterparts retire,” says Wassie Nagash leader of the group that currently consists of 38 members.
The concert doubled up as the launch of Connect for Culture Africa a project by Selam a Pan-African organisation based in Ethiopia, in partnership with the Africa Union, with the support of the Swedish government, to persuade African governments to allocate at least one percent of their annual budgets to arts, culture and heritage.
“It was exciting to perform before an audience from around Africa and their reception to the music and dance was very good,” says Nagash. “We must work together and strengthen our cultural bonds.”
Indeed, the dancers from his group lent their moves to a song by the Ghanaian highlife group Santrofi.
“The Ethiopian dancers just came and they were just ‘vibing’ says Emmanuel Ofori, bandleader and bassist of the band from Accra.
“They never even heard the song and that shows how bonded we are as Africans. It jelled perfectly.”
Santrofi is an exciting eight-piece band that plays high-energy dance music, propelled by punchy horns, thumping percussions, and groovy guitars, reminiscent of great Ghanaian groups from the 1970s and 80s, like Osibisa.
“Musicians from that era accomplished things that we want to do as well and return Ghana to its status as a hub of live music,” says Ofori.
“There was a long period during military rule in Ghana when clubs shut down and by the time the curfew was lifted after almost 20 years, the country had lost its identity as a highlife powerhouse,” he explains.
In 2018, Ofori gathered a group of musicians from Accra and Kumasi who had been session musicians for Ghanaian icons like Pat Thomas, Ebo Taylor, Papa Yansen, with the objective of re-establishing the dominance of highlife.
“We have a common goal of continuing the legacy and heritage of what our forefathers handed down to us,” says Ofori.
Their Africa Day set spanned different sub-genres of highlife music from its roots in Palm Wine Music to Odonson, Nyumkru, and Kwao and included two cover versions of songs by the iconic Osibisa and Alex Konadu the legendary highlife singer-guitarist
After their show in Addis, Santrofi travelled to Sweden for a series of workshops to introduce highlife to school children in Stockholm and other cities.
“African bands are touring Europe but not enough of their own continent,” says Ofori whose band has swept away audiences at top international festivals since their appearance at the 2019 edition of WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) in the UK.
“Africa is the future so we must invest in our networks and systems so that when it is summertime then the Europeans and Americans travel to watch bands in Africa.”
Tanzanian singer and guitarist Vitali Maembe whose song Africa is a call for unity of the continent’s people says artists must use their influence to champion the dreams of the continent’s founding fathers.
“All types of music are good but I prefer to have an uplifting message in the music, we should be careful not to carry messages in our music that can destroy the lives of our people. My music resonates with the life of the people,” says Maembe.
Ofori agrees that there should be more collaborations among African artists to strengthen the cultural bonds between nations.
“Together we are always going to win, you bring this from Ghana, a little from Nigeria, mix with Ethiopian and you create a whole package of good sounds.
“We should not just do this only on Africa Day, it has to be continuous and hopefully becomes a regular affair,” he says.