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Experimenting without borders

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Nii Otoo Annan
  • Nii Otoo Annan

If ancient music, modern techniques and the spiritual, political and pragmatic motivations behind both were tangled strings in a palm, untying them would be a life’s work. Laying them out, though, letting them overlap in new ways, is something else entirely. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld found a guide for such a quest in Ghanaian percussionist Nii Otoo Annan and a place to take such considerations at a ground level in Accra, Ghana.

As a young ethnomusicologist anthropologist, Feld worked closely with the Bosavi people in Papua New Guinea. His study of their music and the rainforests inspired his continued interest in ecology and later, what his label, VoxLox, terms the “Soundscape of Human Rights.” In 1991, he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Award,” for such work. Research like Feld’s crosses the boundaries of academic disciplines and art, unearthing artists working in cultures outside our own who create pieces considered “experimental” by outsiders.

Later, Feld was studying, as he says from Rome, “jazz cosmopolitanism, which meant studying how musicians linked their interests in African, African American and European art musics. The projects ranged from the way bebop, New Orleans and the black avant gardes figured in African jazz to how Handel and Beethoven were also in the picture.” Annan—the “Elvin Jones of West Africa,” as he has been called—was there, too, playing his tune. Annan emerged as a traditionalist compelled by a strong creative desire to play outside the norms. Despite his background in highlife and church music, he often finds himself in jazz settings. On Topographies of the Dark, for instance, a record done in concert with visual artist, Virginia Ryan, he played with Feld, multi-instrumentalist Nii Noi Nortey, reeds player Alex Coke and percussionist Jefferson Voorhees. They performed improvisations inspired by Ryan’s work. Annan, Nortey and Feld recorded for several years as Accra Trane Station, too, a trio devoted to the African legacy of John Coltrane.

But inspiration also comes from the sounds of nature on a dark night: For Feld and Annan’s 2008 recording, Bufo Variations, a chorus of common toads croaks through an Accra, Ghana, night to open the CD, unaccompanied by man or instrument. Their polyrhythmic calls showed both Feld and Annan who the real “master drummers” were. Annan improvised while listening on headphones to the toads (or kawkawdene in Ga, his first language). Feld then removed the toad track, leaving Annan’s response to those natural rhythms on gyili xylophones and an array of drums—including his own invention, the African Percussion Kit or APK, an assemblage of Ghanaian drums and bells with Western jazz cymbals on top. Annan’s slithering smoothness while keeping multiple rhythms is startling, so much so that Feld’s liner notes reiterate Annan’s solo performance: “Yes, everything you hear is one person, at one time.” The toad songs serve as arias bookending the variations, just as the record’s inspiration, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” set up its structure for harpsichord.

Annan is a virtuoso of rhythms. Through his work with Feld, he turns that expert ear to listen to all the connections between music and the natural world. It’s an experiment in which we can all—and do—take part.

Nii Otoo Annan and Friends will play at Duke University’s Nelson Music Room, Wednesday, Oct. 14. The show starts at 8 p.m. and is free. Additional events during Feld’s residency include a screening of Feld’s film on the funeral music of Ghanaian bus drivers, A Por Por Funeral for Ashirifie, Monday, Oct., 12, at 5 p.m. at Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center. On Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 4 p.m. Feld gives a talk on Nii Noi Nortey called "PyraSonix: From Pan-Africanism to Afrifones via John Coltrane" at Duke University's Biddle Music Building.

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