©the Voice of African Music, April 1999. All rights reserved.
Redefining Traditional African Orchestra
More than 20,000 people saw them, in over 10 appearances in community centers all over Missouri. Outdoor shows at Grand Center, the University City Loop, Downtown Columbia and the University of Missouri-Columbia. Lecture/demonstrations at Berea Presbyterian Church, the Arts Enrichment Festival (organized by the Family Investment Center), and the University of Missouri-St. Louis (organized by the Center for Human Origins & Cultural Diversity). Somehow they found time to serenade Debra Powell, amiable and Honorable Mayor of East St. Louis, and even brought tears to Mme. Katherine Dunhams eyes with their performance at the Dunham Conference. They also appeared live on TV and radio shows (KSDK and FOX2 TV, KWMU and KDHX). Five concerts during the July Fourth weekend (July 3 at the Ethical Society, and four shows at Fair-St. Louis) brought Hewales US residency with the St. Louis African Chorus to a rousing close. The group then flew across the Atlantic to thrill over 30,000 at Norways largest folk festival, in Førde.
Hewale Sounds was not a dance company, nor a ballet company. Its forte and attraction around the world lie in being a unique traditional African orchestra. Their retinue of exotic acoustic instruments, the excellent musicianship of the artists, and their knowledge of the Ghanaian musical traditions they represent, help assert their role as Africas most sought traditional ensemble. "The mission of Hewale Sounds is to perform African music on traditional, totally acoustic, instruments," says Mr. C.K Adom, the groups artistic director.
The group was founded 1996 by Dela Botri, one of Africas virtuoso Atenteben flute players. The ensemble is Resident Performing group at the International Center for African Music and Dance (ICAMD), University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana. According to Prof. J.H. Kwabena Nketia, ICAMDs director, "Hewale Sounds trains in the music and instruments of Africa. They conduct workshops and give performances of traditional and new compositions arranged for indigenous instruments In addition to concerts, they participate in an outreach program, teaching in local schools around Accra." Members of the ensemble are also instructors and research fellows on their instruments, and represent a host of traditions in Ghana and other parts of Africa.
Seeing a whole African orchestra, like Hewale Sounds perform in the United States is rare. Imani, a local storyteller, dancer, and Africanist states, "some people have taken lessons on djembe drumming and maybe some other African drum, but not only are many people ignorant about the vast variety of African instruments, they dont have any idea how individual instruments feature in an African orchestra like we see here in [Hewale Sounds] " "Our people need this kind of education," she asserts.
Presenting Hewale Sounds was an expensive undertaking for the St. Louis African Chorus. However, the tremendous community response, evident in the number of people who followed them from event to event, was testament to a growing market yearning for innovative art forms to spice up their lifestyles. Presenting African performing groups in the United States helps to educate and empower the African American community about their identity and their rich musical roots.
African music continues to be incorporated into mainstream American performing arts. Its liberating nature, as well as its therapeutic values, has helped to reposition it for new inroads into modern-day entertainment industry.
All over Europe, governments at macro and micro levels are dedicating funds annually to events that enliven their citizens or expose them to cultures from distant lands. The Førde Festival engaged 200 artists from 30 countries, including Scotland, Ireland, Georgia, Bolivia, Turkey, Finland, the Philippines, Ghana, and others, for a week-long festival. 80 sold-out concerts and workshops later, over 30,000 visitors, crowded hotels, a boosted local economy, and a culturally enriched citizenry, all have their leaders to thank for their foresight and vision. Perhaps, the St. Louis area, with its immense potentials, could borrow a page for our cultural tourism plans.
HEWALEs residency in the United States was made possible by a visionary international collaboration between the St. Louis African Chorus, the International Centre for African Music and Dance, in Ghana, and the Førde Festival Committee, in Norway. We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Minority Arts Program of the Missouri Arts Council, who provided supplemental funding to enable the group perform in community centers around Missouri. We are also grateful to the Center for Human Origins and Cultural Diversity of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and the Office of Honorable Congressman William (Bill) Clay, US House of Representatives, whose timely intervention helped clear some immigration bottlenecks for the group in Ghana.