By Stephen Fox
Okaidja Afroso draws you in, whether on stage or on the phone. He effuses an irresistible combo of warmth, humility, and humanity, on top of being an incredibly skilled dancer, singer, and drummer in the Ghanaian tradition, and a magical guitarist with a style all his own. Afroso brings a pair of percussionist-singers and a trove of cultural knowledge to the stage at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center on Friday, Oct. 25 at 7:30pm.
Afroso grew up in a small fishing village on the coast of Ghana, West Africa. He humbly claims no musical experience as a child, though the fishermen of Ghana are renowned for their songs. Afroso would fish on the weekends with his friends, helping the men pull in their nets and singing their songs to synchronize their efforts and pass the time more pleasurably.
“Ghana, where I grew up, is a place where you can sing loud or play music whenever you want,” Afroso explains. “Middle of the night, people are going to fall asleep to it, and no one is going to say you are disturbing them. It’s really nice.”
Ghana’s villages are home to numerous traditional dance groups. Superb drummers accompany each group in their recreational practices, festivals, and competitions. At 13, Afroso got up the nerve to approach the group leader in his neighborhood.
“I followed him everywhere he went” Afroso relates. “When he was not teaching the little group, he performed, and that helped me to get more immersed into the dancing and seeing different people dance.”
At 19, Afroso was accepted into the Ghana Dance Company at the University of Ghana. He became a musician when his old teacher’s student from Germany invited him to go there, but with a condition.
“He said he would only bring me if I could dance and play as well,” Okaidja says. “And I wanted to be able to go to Germany, so I decided to take drumming seriously and learn to play it as well. So within three months I was able to learn enough to teach the dancing and teach the drumming there.”
A pattern had begun. He next professionalized his singing, which had always been a part of his life.
“I also realized singing was in the family and it was something I would like to pick up,” he explains. “So everything I do is because of practice. I just set a goal of what I want to do and do the tedious work of focused practicing.”
He travelled onward, encountering other cultures and adding knowledge and skills. Guitar was the most recent addition, though he has the skillset of someone playing from childhood. After moving to Oregon, a friend gave him an old guitar that he says intimidated him at first. The instrument sat untouched until he lost a gig with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival because he didn’t play.
“They were looking for an African who can play High-Life guitar” he says. “I didn’t get the job because I didn’t know how to play the guitar. I’m like, OK, I don’t want these opportunities to come and me not getting them. So I taught myself to play, from YouTube mostly.”
The result is amazing. His playing is reminiscent of traditional African instrumental music, but with a completely unique flavor. His chords are sophisticated and his licks catchy.
“I’m feeling where I grew up and also where I am,” Afroso relates. “But most importantly, I think of music as a dancer first. So some of the rhythms are from footwork first. When I’m dancing, what I would hear my feet doing is what I would put on the guitar. Because of that, it also shapes my sense of timing, the way I want to place certain phrases.”
This is his first trip to Hawai‘i, and Afroso is excited to play in the islands.
“The ocean is there, so there’s going to be connecting with fishermen where I grew up, but also some guitar music, and a lot of a capella. The audience can feel things from different parts of Ghana and Africa and the African diaspora. We have a show that brings different parts of even South America – some Afro-Peruvian music, Afro-Brazilian music, Afro-Cuban music. It’s all part of what I do because I’ve had these influences since I’ve been in America.”
Beyond all these skills, Okaidja Afroso is fun. This is a concert that will touch your heart and soul, make you want to move your dancing feet, and nestle comfortably into your memory for a long time after.
Maui Arts & Cultural Center Castle Theater
1 Cameron Way, Kahului
Friday Oct. 25, 7:30pm
Tickets: $35, $45.
Half price/kids 12 and under
This show will have a dance floor