The Music of Ghana Comes to Tahoe

Okaidja Afroso

Okaidja Afroso grew up in the small coastal fishing village of Kokrobite on the outskirts of the capital city of Ghana. A popular place for families and tourists alike to visit on the weekend to escape the madness of crowded Accra, this beach town has always had a lively, homegrown music scene despite gaining modern comforts more recently.

Okaidja Afroso | Jan. 18 | 7 p.m.
Nation Beat | April 5 | 7 p.m.
Mad River Theater Works’ “Wings of Courage” | May 4 | 1 p.m.
All performances at Community Arts Center | Truckee

“There was no electricity in the town when I was growing up in the 80s,” says Afroso. “Now it is very, very vibrant.”

As time went on, Afroso moved in the capital where he found a spot at the National Dance Company of Ghana. He worked there for five years performing traditional forms from the myriad of distinctive cultures that make up the West African nation of 28 million.

“In my solo performance, I combine Ghanaian music and music from the African Diaspora. People in the slave trade brought so many different styles of music to the Americas.”
–Okaidja Afroso

“What makes Ghana unique is its complexity,” says Afroso. “There are a lot of ethnic groups and several styles of music and dance. It’s a country the size of Oregon that speaks 49 languages.”

One day while rehearsing with the ensemble, Afroso was visited by legendary Ghanaian drummer Obo Addy.

“We met and made a connection and he expressed interest in working with me in the U.S.,” says Afroso. “I’ve been here ever since.”

Born in 1936, Addy was one of the first native African musicians to create a fusion of traditional folk music and Western pop that came to be known as world beat. He taught music at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., for many years and was one of the first non-American recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.

After four years of touring with master Addy, Afroso was fully invested in his new life in America. He began working as a teaching artist in residency at various schools across the Pacific Northwest.

“I think it’s important to give back,” he says.

Afroso will be coming the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District this month in collaboration with local nonprofit Arts For the Schools for a program that will transport world music to several schools in the area and include a public concert at the Community Arts Center on Jan. 18.

“In my solo performance, I combine Ghanaian music and music from the African Diaspora,” says Afroso. “People in the slave trade brought so many different styles of music to the Americas. I like to tell stories about the evolution of the music they brought here.”

The concert will feature various ethnic instruments ranging from guitar to drums to a wooden xylophone called a gyil. Afroso first learned of this prototype for the modern instrument while visiting with the Dagaare people of northern Ghana.

Afroso will be performing at four school assemblies where he will perform, explain and teach about Ghanaian culture before ending with a question-and-answer session with students. Part of the cultural ambassador’s mission is to bring his music and storytelling to rural areas like the Tahoe Sierra. He recently returned from a tour of Montana.

“These are areas that don’t have a lot of outside culture and the people were very, very appreciative and welcoming,” he says. “It creates awareness and helps to broaden their world view. That’s what we need more of.

“A lot of time when it comes to Africa what people see in the movies and on TV is not what African culture is really all about. It’s good to teach through music because once I begin to play or dance, I have the attention of the audience. Then it’s better to follow up with the info I want to give them. We are teaching the youth to know about other cultures. I walk away feeling that we are all learning a lot.” | Tickets artsfortheschools.org