Contrasts and Comparisons

Making ends meet in Grahamstown is never easy, especially when it gets cold

I could almost see a tear in her eye as she spoke to me. The passion in her voice made it quiver and her constant slapping of her hands to emphasize a point didn’t help either. Her natural hair, her slim physique, her gestures and brown slippers gave nothing away of the strong views about how much she wanted to change her country.

I met her in the streets of Grahamstown while searching for food. She had two friends with her (I will come to them later) and I guess the talkative part off me took over immediately. It was her response when I shared a joke with the group that got me to ask my first question when we were seated in the lush sitting area at Hill Street manor.

She said “As South Africans, we think that the struggle is over. In terms of history, I think our history will always be relevant for today because it is informing the present. But at the same time I think that, especially with black people, I don’t think we have maintained an eye for the main chance. I think now we feel we are in a democracy now, we can go to school, now we are fine; I don’t think we are hungry.”

She is 21 years old. I did not know this at this point so pardon me. I just sat there and wondered to myself, “what an amazing mind”.

We were speaking about Grahamstown and Rhodes University and drawing parallels were there were some to be drawn and understanding why when she walked through the streets the people felt she belonged to another world.

She told me the people in the town, which is a street from the university, felt like the school was in a bubble. A sacred sanctuary for a privileged few who were very different from them.

Made me think about my city of Accra. A town, more metropolitan, more chic, with many lights than Grahamstown but with much the same contrasts. The poverty and rich living side by side, the literate and illiterate side by side, the filthy and clean side by side, the cheap and expensive… yes side by side.

Here words hit me: “I think it’s because we have forgotten what hunger feels like that we’ve become like this. That whole sense of entitlement.” Like someone owes us something. Like I have been living here for 20 years after my great grandfather lived here with his great great grandfather who acquired the property from his ancestors.

Anny (the only other guy who walked with us that afternoon) has said to me earlier that day, “South Africa will have been worse than Grahamstown if the black people had ruled South Africa”. Much like what I hear a lot of Ghanaians say a lot of time; “why did Nkrumah rush our independence”, “why did he have to say self-governance now?”

Nomonde Ndwalaza’s (that was her name) words explained it to a point “It’s important, the context, and it is important to understand why people see things the way they see them”. So why do we see things that way then? Why do we feel like we deserve something and yet never work to keep it or maintain it? We felt we deserved independence. We fought and bled for independence.

So what, now we don’t deserve good roads? We don’t deserve clean water? We deserve malaria and cholera to exchange batons in and out of season? We deserve over crowded city centers and deserted towns and villages where the production of the fuel for the powering of the nation happens?

A woman with a great mind worthy of exploring

Nomonde again “we need to keep trying and we need to be aware that intentions don’t translate into actions. We have a lot good intentions but at the end of everything we need to be doing stuff… We need to be moving because if we are not moving then there is no point. We are wasting money. It’s important that we say “what are we trying to achieve”, and at the end we look back and say “did we achieve it or not?”

Truth. Wish I could say it better but then, can i? When we leave the office knowing full well the script is poorly written. When we refuse to properly clean the fish the client will be coming in for at lunch time. When we throw the bag out of the window!

“Intentions don’t translate into actions”.

She went on “I think that we need to be critical of ourselves all the time. I feel like people find it hard to criticize each other. As people, do what you can when you can, don’t wait for people, don’t wait for that moment and don’t wait for yourself.”

I could have ended here but then I knew i won’t forgive myself so I asked her about her people and their government. I asked her because it seems everywhere the people blame the government for all their woes. The government this and the government that.

“Does the government of South Africa know its people?”

“I think the people think that the government knows them especially with voting patterns; I think people will rather vote for a black man rather than a white man. It’s more instinctive and intuitive more than it is rational”, she started off.

Then she said “I think our leaders are generally desensitized. They are leading from a distance. This thing of saying that I have to be poor to understand poverty, it’s very problematic…  The values that informed the struggle for freedom in South Africa are not shared anymore or they have been lost. Where they are living the good life and keeping everything to themselves and are not sharing anymore.”

She did not cry, but I did. Not there, of course not. But when I sat and wrote this piece. When I thought about how in Obuasi it was ok for the ‘white people’ to be on the hill while the ‘black people’ were at the bottom. How they had their break time 30 minutes before ours. How the swimming pool had to be cleaned out when the ‘black people’ had used it so the ‘white people’ could use it. How it always felt weird my ‘black friends’ gave me messages to pass on to my ‘white friends’.

It might have been amusing as a child, but now it just makes me cry.

His name is Ebo Taylor

He sits before me in his black hat, slanted awkwardly in a typical showman fashion to accompany the sunglasses he dons.

The combination of patched blue and white that makes the bulk of the colours on his shirt and the black trousers held up by the black belt with a gold buckle, though modest, screams class.

Nothing, however, beats the air of confidence and achievement that surrounds this man known by the world as composer, guitarist, arranger, bandleader, and producer.

Before collaborations with world renowned musicians such as Fela Kuti and tours in countries such as Malaysia and a dozen countries, he says of his beginnings, “Entering the sixth form, I decided to become a musician so I learnt much more about the guitar instead of the piano; I was originally playing piano.”

Born in Cape Coast in 1936, he tells me he had a teacher for a father and a trader for mother both of whom according to him, “were a great influence on who I am today”. Education stared at Jubilee school and was continued at attended St. Augustine’s College where he immersed himself into the world of music.

“How did you learn how to play the guitar?” I ask.

“There were some students who played guitar and I begged them to teach me”, he says simply. However when born talent meets opportunity, “along the line, I became very conversant with the guitar and I could play it better than those people who taught me and I found myself on the stage every Saturday for school entertainment”.

Surprisingly he tells me, smiling, “I strayed into professional music” when he was invited to Accra to join the Havana Dance Band as a guitarist at the age of 19. Whether it was for the fame or money, he did not say but after tours to Ivory Coast and Monrovia he migrated from both band and location when he joined the Stargazers Band in Kumasi. When I pushed he only said they were “more popular with highlife”.

You might consider it divine intervention because it was with this same band he got his first studio recording experience. “I played some of the outstanding solos that became ‘household whistling’ (gesturing) and I became popular”, he hinted. He was soon on another journey of discovery and joined the Broadway Dance Band where he started out as one of the composers and ending up its music director.

After a year, he was off again but this time because he had been sacked. My raised eyebrows prompted some explanation, “I was sacked from the band for smoking; it’s not legal but they wouldn’t permit me to smoke in the band so they sacked me. I was the only culprit”.

With assistance from his parents and the Ghana government, he enrolled at the Eric Gilder School of Music where he enjoyed the comradeship of schoolmates like Teddy Osei, Saul Amafio and Eddie Quansah for three years. He formed the Black Star Highlife band in 1963 and recorded several great hits with musicians like George Akins whom he described as the “the most outstanding vocalist of his time”.

The lure and love for his home country (plus the fact that he had completed his studies) brought him back where he reformed the Broadway Dance Band with greats like Pat Thomas and the late Tommy King. The band eventually became the genesis of the Uhuru Band. The magnet of the city life pulled him to play for the Blue Monks Band at Tiptoe after which and became a recording artiste for Esi Bons and Polygram.

When he was not recording his own work, he was working as an Artiste and Repertoire Manager for Essiebons which led him to produce “the maiden albums” of artistes like Gyedu Blay Ambulley, CK Mann, Paapa Yankson, Jewel Ackah. “While this went on, the country was hit by continuous military rule and night club life entirely banned by curfew so a lot of musicians went away to England and America.”

What did he do?

He tells me he stayed on and played with Bands like African Revolution. However when contracts in Abidjan and Lagos came calling some years after, he was also forced to leave. He however returned shortly after and dedicated the next nine years of his life to teaching music at the University of Ghana.

A “jam session” with a Berlin based group known as the Afrobeat Academy at the Du Bois Center led to an invitation to into the studio for what was to be a journey of album production, tours and a rejuvenation of what was becoming a forgotten passion.

With a combination of traditional Ghanaian material with Afro-beat, jazz, and funk rhythms to create his own recognizable sound, he released Love and Death on Strut Records in 2010, his first internationally distributed album. Its success prompted the release of Life Stories: Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980, in 2011. He is currently promoting his third Strut album, Appia Kwa Bridge at the age of 76.

“I played in Holland, I played in Sicily, I played in Portugal, I played in Spain, I played in Italy, I played in Sweden, I played in Denmark, I played in Norway, I even played in faraway Japan and I also came to play in Brazil and in Morocco”. All this he said he did in two years.

He says he is back home for four months. He represents highlife music in Ghana. He typifies the phrase “the best comes from the West”.

His name is Ebo Taylor.