Ghana Speaks (IV): … and Koo Nimo plays guitar and sings

Click to listen to Chris’s visit with Koo Nimo (60 minutes, 36 meg mp3)

It is 7:30 a.m. on the last Saturday in January, a warm winter morning in Ghana, and we are privileged to be hanging out for an hour of music and a few well-chosen words with a aristocrat of sound and four accompanists in his studio in Kumasi, the old Ashanti tribal capital.

Ghana’s guitar treasure Koo Nimo has the air, it’s been well said, of an “Ashanti Segovia, proud of his heritage and of the instrument he has adopted.” He also reminds you immediately of the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He smiles warmly with the simplicity of the infinitely accomplished — the disarming modesty of ultimate celebrity. These charismatic string-players both have a way of telling you that, in truth, they are humble heirs of ancient musical cultures and disciplines. Both embody the highest refinement of music at its widest reach — Yo-Yo in his Silk Road Project linking North Africa to East Asia; Koo Nimo in representing the circular Gulf Stream of musical influences from West Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean, Havana, New Orleans and New York — and endlessly back and around.

Koo Nimo is a peculiarly Ghanaian figure, in that he’s a musical child of the royal Ashanti court, who came of age as a public performer at precisely the moment in the late 1950s when newly independent Ghana was searching for a nation-building sound.

He’s the personification, at the same time, of “world music,” in the way he encompasses all. In his conversation and his playing, you can hear that nothing human is foreign to Koo Nimo.

Among the names respectfully dropped in an hour’s rambling talk of friends and inspirations are: Fela Kuti, as in the current Broadway show celebrating the late great Nigerian Afrobeat star; Hugh Masakela of South Africa; Ghana’s late “divine drummer” “Ghanaba;” the American jazz immortals Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders; the harmonica blues man Sonny Boy Williamson; Memphis Slim; great soloists of the Ellington band he heard and met in London in the early ’70s, including Johnny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Cat Anderson and Clark Terry; Ellington himself, though Koo Nimo never got to shake Duke’s hand — “we would go to the dressing room and just look at him;” the very different guitar geniuses Charlie Christian of Oklahoma City and the Virginian Charlie Byrd of samba fame; the rock legend Jimi Hendrix, for his guitar chord voicings; and the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — two of whose songs find their way into Koo Nimo’s performances here.

But here’s the beauty of “world music” as the great Koo Nimo embraces it: his sound is never remotely a soup. And he himself is never to be confused with any of the people he admires so generously. “They are all influences,” as he says to me, “but I have a way of keeping the influences light… I listen to Latin calypso a lot,” he adds, and you’ll hear it in his playing, “but I use all these influences, all these techniques, to do justice to our own.”

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  • nother

    I’ve often heard music described as a conversation and I thought I knew what that meant. But there was a point in this conversation when Koo Nimo and friends were playing a tune and it was a epiphanic moment of music for me. The conversation these musicians are having is over time…the only agenda here is to transcend the limitations of now.

    Growing up as I have in our radio/tv culture, all the musicians I listen to – even the best ones – play for a market. It’s not that they all write for a radio hit, but it feels as though our radio culture has us focusing too much on the adoration of our finicky peers. Koo Nimo is conversing with the ages, he is at once listening and leaning on our ancestors and both consoling and challenging our heirs.

    I heard all of that in one moment during this hour. Thanks. You rock.

  • Potter

    It’s the folk music, the “old stuff” that came through to me in this interview more than all else and some catchy tunes after that of course ( High Life, Palm Wine). It came after talk about influences about 45 minutes in and the few minutes after.

    I wonder after embracing of world music- the big names-, how hard it is after to play your own so purely. For Koo Nimo all to the good.

    Great Koo Nimo photo above-

  • Benjamin Prempeh

    This is amazing… Dr. Koo Nimo is a great mentor. God bless him. Thanks to Mr. Lydon for the interview.

  • Apea Amaning

    This interview is a very powerful work of history that must be placed in a reputable museum. Koo Nimo is a legend who’s work must be treasured by Ghana and Africa.

    I had the opportunity to do a few educational projects in Charlotte North Carolina with Koo Nimo and the people of my city enjoyed his work so much that his name has remained an Icon in the minds of Charlotteians. “Charlotte is also a sister city to Kumasi Ghana”.

    Documented interviews of this nature are invaluable and oral history with this magnitude is very hard to come by.

    Thanks for producing and providing such an exceptional information.

  • Bridgette Baapeng

    Always refreshing to hear from Ghana’s foremost exponent of acoustic guitar highlife, and folklore!…A prolific lyric poet by all standards..I had the rarest chance of interviewing him for my dissertation captioned ‘The poetry of Koo Nimo’s Music’ and I loved every minute of it.
    Great work of history Mr. Lydon, thanks for the information .