It’s nearly 10,000 miles from Ghana to Hawaii, but through spirited stories and songs, and educational demonstrations at last Tuesday’s concert, singer/dancer Okaidja Afroso brought them a lot closer. “Ghana is a small country in West Africa, and about the size of the State of Oregon,” said Okaidja to the Kahilu Theatre crowd. The singer has called Portland, Oregon, home for 20 years now. He came to America through a Ghanaian promoter in 1999.
Okaidja was on the Big Island as part of the Performing Arts Presenters of Hawaii, a statewide consortium that collaborates to bring performers here that individual venues couldn’t afford on their own. Besides Okaidja’s Tuesday night concert, the musician and his trio returned to the venue Wednesday morning for a show before nearly 480 appreciative children as part of the Theatre’s Young Student Performance Series. This tour marked Okaidja’s first visit to Hawaii.
For his evening concert, Okaidja (pronounced o-kine-jah) offered a diverse program with gentle acoustic guitar, spoken word, and a sample of his talented dance moves. Most of the material came from his recent releases The Palm Wine and Messenger. The two skilled percussionists joining him were Manavihare Fiandratovo and Boinor Titus Nartey.
Okaidja also shared some Ghanian cultural etiquette with the audience. “AGO!” shouted the musician, explaining it was a common greeting like “Listen!” or “Attention!” that people say before entering someone’s house. The response is “AME” (pronounced “ah-MAY”), “I’m listening.” Throughout the show, Okaidja would repeat the call-and-response with the crowd to keep the momentum going.
The musician explained the various instruments he and his trio used, like the siak, a gourd instrument, that gives off a thunderous bass sound when hit with the heel of the hand. Okaidja also talked about the cajón he played, a wooden sound box. “It was a very important instrument for the African slaves that ended up in Peru,” the multi-instrumentalist mentioned. “The slaves started with pots and pans, fishing crates, but eventually ended up with the cajón because it didn’t look like an instrument, especially when your master showed up.” Okaidja then launched into “Faa Ko” which featured his flamboyant drumming skills on the cajón.
At the end, Okaidja invited the audience to ask questions for about ten minutes, about the meaning behind his lyrics, favorite instruments, and plans while in Hawaii. The band greeted audience members in the lobby after the show, signed CDs, and posed for selfies.
The Okaidja Afroso trio returned to the Kahilu Theatre the following morning for a student concert. The average age was around 10, and the energy level was over the top, especially on the “AGO! – AME!” call-and-response – almost like watching an early fever-pitched Beatles concert.
Although the keiki-only show was much shorter musically, Okaidja spent time explaining what life is like in Ghana and the various instruments they played, like the jembe, a rope-tuned skin-covered goblet drum. Unlike the adult crowd the night before, the children weren’t shy about dancing in their seats, or jumping up and flailing their arms wildly to the infectious rhythms.
The students, as you might imagine, had a different set of questions for Okaidja – How many different languages do you speak? What are the names of the flowers you have in Ghana? What’s your favorite food?For the last one, he said boiled fish with onions, salt, and spicy pepper.
Before ending his student show, Okaidja left them with these words of wisdom about following your passion: “When you’re growing up, there will be people who want to discourage you. These people don’t matter. If you love doing it, keep doing it. You’re going to get better!”
After Waimea, Okadja offered a similar student program in Hilo and Maui.
Kenkle | Aton Ke | Akamo Nnane | Afterlife Voyage | Siak | Faa Ko |Osce Ka | Aijhe Tu |
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.
Photos/video: Steve Roby
Read my interview with Okaidja Afroso here: https://bigislandmusic.net/a-word-with-afro-pop-musician-okaidja-afroso/