Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him"

The Homegoing celebration for my father in law Kpakpo Mensah in Accra, Ghana stretched for four days - long days, with late nights - but what most Americans would recognize as the funeral service proper was held Saturday morning at his mother's ancestral compound in Nima, a shantytown in the city center. It was, in the main, a Christian service, presided over by the Rev. Samuel Q. Anagli, with translations by his daughter Gladys. Between them, they covered three languages: English, Ewe and Twi. Effortless travel between languages is part of the everyday African intelligence.

They were joined by a songleader, Cornelius Anni. I don't believe any of the songs were sung in English - they praised God in the local tongues. I consider these to be beautiful, percussive languages, full of inherent beats and tones.

The singing began in the middle of a prayer, and I'm not sure what came in first, the uplifted melody or the downbeat of the drums. I was thrilled, as always, to hear a drumkit and hand drums applied spontaneously and appropriately as instruments of worship and praise.
There are stereotypes of African and African-American worship, and having participated in many such services, in many different places, I can testify that some of these expectations are fair enough. There can be a passion verging on the ecstatic in these traditions that is much more difficult to find elsewhere. But this was a fairly subdued service, largely somber in mood.

Whenever I hear drums in an African worship service, I remember how desperately the Christian missionaries - and the American slavers - tried to stamp out the drum. Drums and their voices had ancient ties to older faiths that the white strangers and slavers simply did not understand, and this intimidated and terrified them. The drum was targeted by the white man as a voice of the pagan past - and of native insurrection. But the drum survived and has since been integrated completely into Christian worship on the Continent and in Black America. It was always right there in the text, anyway, all over the scripture. Consider Psalms 150, regarded by sacred musicians as the Drummer's Psalm: Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.
Cornelius and Gladys were joined by another woman singer whose named I failed to note. The two women voices enabled a polyphonic, call and response singing familiar to fans of African music from any part of the Continent. Hearing a small chorus of women come in behind a male lead vocal in an African language is, to my ears, one of those most thrilling sounds imaginable.

And those drummers! Lord to God. This summer I was fortunate to attend the Montreal Jazz Festival, the world's largest and most varied, and I heard no better drummer in any of those bands than these two men: Bright (trapset) and Penuel (congas). I saw Ornette Coleman backed by his son Denardo on drums in Montreal, and I am certain if Ornette heard these two guys play he would want to work with them, and would accept Bright as a very able substitute for his own son on drums.

Karley's senior sister did get a little "happy," to use a phrase from African-American worship, a bit possessed by the spirit. Nothing too dramatic, but she was feeling something that needed to be expressed - feeling the need to express. We gave her the space to do that.

I stopped Bright and Penuel on the way out of the service and told them what I had been thinking throughout their performance: that they could play with anybody, anywhere. I meant this most sincerely. Their sense of the beat - where it was, how far it could be pushed, how much it could be assumed, with what fearlessness you could play with it and tease it and explode it - was simply outrageous. As I saw them making their way down the dirt alleys of the shantytown - on their way to yet another sacred gig on a Sunday - I mused on the possibilities for a novel in a pair of African funerary drummers. I am still thinking about it.

From where I was sitting, front and center by the musicians, I also could not help but savor the intense physical beauty of these sisters, which harmonized with their voices and with my concept of God. As I wrote to my wife, soon after we met, "African woman, when I go to God, may my God look like you". Amen.

Bright and Penuel cut out early because Cornelius and Gladys had brought their own drummer, Cornelius' little brother Saint John Anni. This soulful young man also could play some drums, always in the pocket, secure.

2 Samuel: And David and all the house of Israel played before the LORD on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals.

For all the rhythm and the praise, if you looked around at the mourners, you could see many people who were lost in thought and memory, not really in the mood to celebrate just yet, walking in the company of the dead, not dancing with the living.

Cornelius and company were invited to the reception, which lasted throughout the afternoon into the evening and will enjoy its own set of posts here later. During the meal, I was telling someone that I really came alive when the Christian elements of the ceremony subsided and the older traditions had their say - we are getting to all of that, trust me.

I was saying that respect for the ancestors and the older ways connected much more with me, personally, than praising God through Jesus, which was just not my way (and I have tried it). Cornelius stiffened from two tables over and began to listen closely to me. I then approached him, and we talked for some time. He explained that in addition to the Christian music they perform at services, this group of musicians also does traditional music under the band name Echo and pop music as Melody.

Given that I have thousands of family members in Ghana and always visit for family purposes, I am hesitant to make too many of my own outside friends because it ends up being a little frustrating, always being invited to other opportunities and not being able to accept because of family commitments. But I invited Cornelius and Saint John back to the ancestral compound on Sunday for yet another reception, a smaller, family-only affair, and we began to cement a friendship that I hope will eventually yield some recordings and collaborations.

Knowing my father in law, he would think that was very "fine". Since African traditional religion teaches me I can carry on and even deepen a relationship with someone after they are dead, after their spirit has crossed over to the other side, I feel privileged to tell Kpakpo that his Homegoing celebration brought me some new friends and some new possibilities, and I know what he would say, if he could speak - almost the only thing he ever had to say to me, and always with a bright, open, dancing smile - "That is fine; fine". Not "fine" as in okay, or adequate, mind you; fine as in exquisite, fine as in fantastic.


Pictures are by me. Click them and they get bigger.


More in this series

A fine farewell to a father in law
Family and friends at Kpakpo Mensah's Homegoing

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