Okaidja Afroso is a singer, guitarist, percussionist and dancer from Ghana. His unique artistic vision has led him to combine his native rhythms with unforeseen pairings of musical flavors. His sound is a spicy fusion of Ghanaian music with diverse cross-cultural influences. He will make his Big Island performance debut at the Kahilu Theatre, Tuesday, Oct. 22. Ticket info below.
First of all, how do you pronounce your first name?
I say, “O-Kine-Jah,” but if it’s easier for you, you can say “O-Kigh-Jah.” It’s OK.
Where does this interview reach you today?
I live in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been here 20 years! (laughs) I’m from Ghana originally. I was brought here by a Ghanaian pioneer of African music. He invited me to come work with his group in 1999. He thought he could use my performance in his show, so he invited me and that’s how I came.
I assume you’ve loved Portland ever since.
I like Portland, it’s just that I don’t do much here, because I travel quite a bit. I’ve created a home here, so it’s kind of my home base, but more than 90% of my work is outside of Portland.
How would you describe your music, and can you talk about the many different instruments you play?
My first instrument, of course, is my voice because I’ve been speaking longer than anything else. My whole introduction to the performing arts was through dancing. I started dancing first, but I was not really good at it. It took me a while and I became friends with a dance teacher. That helped me see different types of dancing and helped me to really learn through watching. I would say it progressed to drumming because I wanted to learn to play everything that I can dance to. That all took off when my dance teacher went to Germany and wanted to take me if I can also play the drums. That made me want to branch out to different types of percussion… like on boards, hand-drumming… anything that I can lay my hands on I want to make music with… that led to learning how to play the guitar.
Can you talk about your songwriting process?
A lot of people take pen and paper and sit down to write lyrics. My songwriting always starts with a melody. I mostly find melodies while driving to a gig and songs will come. There was a time when I didn’t have a way to record it, you know, through a phone or anything, I would be singing it, and if I wake up singing it again that means I haven’t forgotten it, so I keep working on it. But these days, I will record it on my phone, or a little recorder, and I might use it. But what really sparks songwriting for me is when I feel like there’s a subject I can build on. Then I take more time to structure it.
Can you talk about your education outreach program called Dancing Feet and Talking Drums?
It happens when I go to various places and they want me to reach more people. It can be a hands-on activity whereby participants are actually able to touch instruments, interact with instruments and ask questions. There’s also a lot of information about how some of the music that I play is actually old music and dance from Ghana… like a harvest dance from northern Ghana. They play it when there’s an abundance of food as part of a celebration. What makes it unique is that we explain what the instruments names are, so the students are able to make a connection.
Speaking of dancing, do you encourage people to get up and dance at your shows?
Yes! I encourage the audience to engage. A lot of times, when you go to a show there’s no talking, but at my shows I tell the audience that if something feels good, make a noise, make a sound! Like, “Whoo!” It’s how we normally interact when things feel good. At every show I do, toward the end, I like to include audience participation and Q&A just in case there’s thing I didn’t mention.
Do you ever get any unusual questions?
(laughs) From both kids and adults… a lot of people don’t really know what Africa looks like. The perspective for a lot of people in America and different parts of the world is that Africa is more of a jungle, and a place that has no roads. Everywhere I go, I feel it’s my duty to show them different parts of Ghana. I tell them that the first time I saw a lion was at the zoo, and not in my neighborhood! (laughs)
Are you working on any new material that we can look forward to?
I’m planning a new album that will be a cappella singing with fishermen in Ghana and recorded there. I hope to release it and tour it. I also have a couple of singles that I’m working on that I think will come out in January or February.
Is there anything else you’d like to add before we go?
Just that we’re really excited about coming to Hawaii. It’s a new place that I’ve never been to, and I’m really looking forward to it.
Thanks for your time today. We’re looking forward to your upcoming show at the Kahilu Theatre. Aloha!
Aloha! Thank you!
Okaidja Afroso Trio in concert
Where: Kahilu Theatre
When: Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, at 7 p.m.
Info: Tickets can be purchased online at kahilutheatre.org, by phone (808) 885-6868, or at the Kahilu Theatre Box Office located at 67-1186 Lindsey Road, Waimea.
Okaidja Afroso’s website: https://okaidja.com
This interview was edited for space, clarity, and continuity.
Steve Roby is a music journalist, an L.A. Times bestselling author, and Big Island filmmaker. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the managing editor of Big Island Music Magazine.