In the early hours of Monday November 24 last year, Nana Danso Abiam, founder-director and conductor of the Pan Africa Orchestra, was killed in a fatal accident in Accra, a few hours after celebrating his 61st birthday. He will be buried next month.
Danso Abiam, who was trained at a French music conservatory, taught at the University of Ghana from 1979-1984, and while there, he devised a chromatic fingering system for the local atenteben bamboo flute. He was later selected as Director of Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra.
He founded the 48-piece Pan-African Orchestra (PAO) in 1988 to develop an Afro-centric system of making symphonic music. PAO used solely African instruments, which were organised into symphonic-like sections and led by a conductor (that is Nana Danso himself).
The PAO’s creations were presented in an artistic, rather than dance music, context. The orchestra’s repertoire included Nana’s own compositions and his arrangements of traditional songs, as well as highlife, Afro-rock and Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Afro-beat.
In 1994 after performing at the World Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival in Britain, the PAO recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studio in the west of England. The resulting CD entitled ‘Opus Dei’ went to the top of the international New World Music Charts for six weeks in 1996.
In 2001, in collaboration with the UK-based dance company, Adzido, Nana Danso and the PAO toured the UK with the musical play Yaa Asantewaa – Warrior Queen, written by Ghanaian Margaret Busby and directed by West Indian Geraldine O’Connor. In 2003 the PAO collaborated with the Nigerian Kora player, Tunde Jegede.
It has to be mentioned, though, that although Nana Danso had in the past composed music for Western instruments, his main approach was different from those of composers such as Duro Ladipo of Nigeria.
Nana Danso sought to fashion his neo African idiom simply by re arranging elements of traditional music, a device which has been said to be neo traditional.
In designing his orchestra, he was said to have borrowed some of the structural principles of the symphony orchestra, but apart from this, the style of music that he wrote for the orchestra was firmly rooted in African traditional culture.
As friends and family mourn Nana Danso, it is appropriate to mention that he was master of many African instruments. All his life, music swept and shook him and pleaded to be born. He was haunted by African rhythms. He slept and dreamt music and had absolute faith in his dreams. It was never within his power to give up music. It was as necessary to him as his blood ran through his veins.
According to Philip Sweeney, Nana Danso studied music under Professor JH Nketia at the University of Ghana in the early 1970s, wrote his own attenteben tutor, having developed a new fingering system to extend the instrument’s range, and was doing educational research in London when he was called back to direct the National Symphony Orchestra: a paper on the creation of a traditionally based orchestra he had written in 1983 had come to the attention of the then revolutionary government’s culture supremo, Professor Mohamed ben Abdullah.
Nana Danso had proposed that the musicians abandon their western instruments and take up traditional ones, which they strongly resisted. He resigned, and spent some time travelling with a reggae band, planning a new orchestra of his own conception.
Philip Sweeney added that he was in Germany staying with a girlfriend when the first money came through, modest investments from friends, and he returned to Ghana to begin hiring musicians and building a repertoire.
Nana Danso’s first signings – the attenteben, goje and gyile (wooden xylophone) players – came from the pool of traditional musicians working for the 20- odd folkloric groups of Accra. They included orchestra leader Kotey Amon, whose responsibilities extend to finding accommodation for the musicians brought from up-country.
Less easy were the players of the mmensuon, the seven hollowed elephant-tusk trumpets whose stern foghorn blast startles first-time listeners to works such as PAO’s Symphony No 2. Mmensuon traditionally provide the ceremonial fanfares of chiefs and kings. Nana Danso had to persuade the traditional chief of the village of Dzendzenadze to release his mmensuon players to the orchestra on a long loan, using conservation arguments.
Having obtained his musicians, including two of his sons, and collected and transcribed his raw material around the country, Nana Danso faced the problem of imposing a uniform tuning on groups of instruments never designed to play together and not even standardised within their own sections.
A standard tuning was adopted, and instruments bulk-bought to uniform specifications, but rehearsals were accompanied by much use of an electronic tuner and sudden frowns from Nana Danso at rogue notes. The rest, as the saying goes, was history.
It is only in the pain of parting do we look into the depths of love. Nana Danso obviously deserves a pride of place in Ghana’s history; if nothing at all, for placing the name of Ghana on the world map of jazz music.
Farewell thee well Nana Danso Abiam! May your soul rest in perfect peace