Ahead of his show which will kick-start the newly announced Nexus Live program, Bortier Okoe - a master drummer originally from Ghana - tells the story of how music brought him half way around the world.
Nexus Live line-up announced
Nexus Live this morning announced its first line-up for 2016. With shows scheduled for the first Saturday of every month, the program covers a huge breadth of performers and in doing so touches on many of the global cultures and traditions that are thriving in Australia today.
Full details of the Nexus Live line-up can be found at the website.
Bortier Okoe will play with Dada Nii and The Damushi Ensemble on May 7 from 8pm.
The series will kick off with a show featuring two of Ghana’s most exciting musicians in Bortier Okoe and Dada Nii and The Damushi Ensemble. Here, Bortier talks with Nexus Live programmer Ross McHenry about his journey from being a soccer and music star in Ghana to recording albums in his adopted how town of Adelaide.
Ross: Where did you grow up?
Bortier: I grew up in Ghana, down South, in Accra. The town where I grew up is called Nungua and it’s a fishing village. A lot of musicians.
R: So when you were at school you had two loves, tell me about the two loves.
B: Well the first love was soccer and the second one is music, when I was going to school, people really liked me, even teachers, because I was a really good soccer player. I played for juniors, and seniors as well when I was going to school
R: And you grew up in a musical family? Do you remember your early musical experiences, what is the earliest thing you remember?
B: Well, yeah, the early memories were when I was playing and touring with my family band.
R: And how many members in the band?
B: Fifteen members, so I joined the band, and that’s when I got serious about it. So I got three things – school, soccer or music. When I’m in the classroom, I didn’t want to be in the classroom anyway, like I was saying, there wasn’t that connection between what I, for me as a person, what I’m feeling of doing. So, It’s like, I choose. Because as you know, music is very powerful, actually it’s not like I choose the music, it might be the music choosing me. Because whenever I’m doing music, I think I express myself more, and also I sort of try to travel around different levels, I mean spiritually, when I’m doing the music.
R: Ok, so then the band becomes quite successful, and you start touring around Ghana a lot right?
B: Yeah, I think, like I was saying, it’s a family band. 6 family members, brothers and sisters that were on the tour and travelling together, and it was very good because you get more close and to know each other and to work towards something.
Even up to now, like I was saying before, that had a big impact on me… You learn a lot around that time. It was a very very good experience for me, and the whole band and family.
And you’re learning, that’s what it is. Learning the culture through you. Also at the same time you try to promote your culture. To put your culture forward and to keep it alive. So to be a master drummer is very important
R: It’s a responsibility.
B: It’s a big responsibility. Apart from my family band, I joined other bands as well.
R: You join all these bands, this is still mid 90s… and you record with these groups?
B: Yeah, I recorded with this band called Akrowa in the UK – they were based in Ghana but we travelled to record. I recorded with Pan African Orchestra. I recorded with this guy called Eshmael from Burkina Faso, now he’s based in America. I recorded with Salaka as well; I did two albums with them. I recorded with a few musicians.
R: So… we get to the late 90s, and you get to Australia in 2009. What happens between 1998 and 2009… Are you still playing soccer? Were you making money out of music and soccer?
B: At that time, yeah. But eventually, music become the first, you know. People still think I should be doing soccer, even now, when I go home, I still play sometimes, not professionally.
I think the family band finished like late 90s, then it got to a time that my older brother said ‘we need someone to really manage us’ because they had to do everything themselves and it was hard, because you are not a manager. So they got someone in, but this person didn’t really do that much, and that’s when the band start to slide. Around that time, I become more involved in other projects, and then finally I play with this group called Salaka.
R: From the UK?
B: No, based in Ghana, but they do come to Australia too every year. So Salaka was the band I played in for a long time, and I was the master drummer, and the one who create the music and teach the musicians.
And also we had students come from all over the world, because Salaka is a group, but also a school. So we have people from all over the world to come and learn African music for a month and then go home. So that’s how I got a lot of friends from around the world through that, because I was a teacher. Me, and also one of the leader, his name is Tuza, he lives in Sydney now, we were the teachers that taught the course.
R: So why did you come to Australia?
B: Because of the music, and also I find a lady as well. So Salaka put an application, but couldn’t put me on it too, so they came, then I came.
R: So you came straight to Adelaide because this lady lives in Adelaide?
B: Yeah she lives in Adelaide, and also…I formed a group.
R: So you formed that before you left Ghana?
B: Yeah, so also I had ideas about what I want to do with my music and how I want to push the culture forward. So that’s why I formed African Soul in the first place. So I formed them from Ghana, then I moved here.
R: And that’s your first solo project right? It’s your name, your everything?
R: So you come to Adelaide… And how was that?
B: Well, it was interesting. Because I came from a background where everyone was friendly. For example I make twenty friends a day, because just walking everyone you see is ‘how are you’, that’s how friendly.
When I got here, one of the things was, it wasn’t friendly. I would walk on the street trying to connect to everybody, but people are not, and I’m like ‘what is happening?’ because it is different, one thing as well, it was hot.
R: So you’re moving to a new country, with a new project and it’s difficult, there are cultural differences, people aren’t as friendly in the street. And you’re coming here with this tradition of music, this idea for a new group…
B: Not only the music, but as far as culture was concerned, it was a very big difference. For example in Ghana I would say to you ‘you’re looking fat’ and that would mean you’re looking good. In Ghana you would say to somebody, now you’re looking good, you’re looking fresh, it means you’re putting on weight. But here, this kind of thing, when I came here, I couldn’t have lots of conversation, because I was trying to find the balance on how to connect and how to have a conversation.
R: What about the musical environment? What did you think of it, what were your impressions of music in Adelaide?
B: Well, it’s the same. For example, (in Ghana) music is friendly, life is friendly. If your band is performing, I can hop on stage and join you, here you can’t do that! It has to be planned, everything has to be planned. Musician communicates in different ways. If a band is playing, and you feel the music, you should be able to join and play. It’s the connection between the music, as a musician, I can’t just stand and watch.
R: Did you feel like you were welcomed as a musician here in Adelaide?
B: Well, later on, yes. But when I got in, because I tried to do classes, and there weren’t a lot of people coming. Because people didn’t know me, or have that experience.
R: Do you think, because music is more just part of daily life that there are more opportunities for musicians?
B: Yeah, it’s just easy, because music is always there anyway, people are playing music, it’s part of the culture. But here, music can be part of the culture, but in the big picture it’s not part of the culture. A lot of people are focused more on how to make money.
Life is not really about community, and that’s where I come from. You can be alone for a long time, when you go for a walk you don’t see anyone. Where I come from there are people on your doorstep chatting, it’s lively. When I was in Ghana, I hadn’t really experienced racism, when I arrive is when I experience racism. I was working for Leigh Warren and I had to catch a tram to work. When you get on the tram, you go to sit down next to someone, and that person would get up and go sit somewhere else.
Because we don’t have that kind of experience back home. When people come from other countries, they’re same as everyone else. We say ‘hey, how are you? What’s your name? Where you come from?’ It’s more friendly. Around that time, that kind of stuff made it a big challenge.
R: So you arrive in 2009, we’re now seven years later. And this is the first album you’ve done with an Australian band, is that right?
B: Yeah, this is my first album with and Australian band.
R: Tell me about how you developed your creative community here in Adelaide over that period of time.
B: Through music, and also when people get to know you, then you have the opportunity to express yourself after the music.
R: Music brings you together with other people?
B: Yeah, for example, people think of you in a different way. This country can be judgmental. People look at you and think ‘Oh, these people, they have wars in their country’ they look at you in a different way, but your mind is different, it’s opposite. You’re trying to bring something positive, and something good to the society.
R: So do you think that music has been a way for you to break through that mentality?
B: Yeah, but also, through music, people see me after that and there is conversation and connection.
R: So working with the band, its predominately Anglo-Australian musicians, and some Ghanaian musicians as well. How do you find working with people from different backgrounds, and communicating? Because your music that you grew up with, the rhythmic traditions of West African music, has it been an easy process communicating that to other musicians, or have there been problems?
B: There have been difficulties, because as you’re saying, my timing is different to the others.
R: You even said before in Ghana you don’t count in 1, 2, 3, 4.
B: Yeah, I have to teach the lead guitar something, I have to really count in 1, 2, 3, 4, so it’s a challenge. It’s not really easy. But also, I have everything in my head; so to make it happen was a challenge. With timing issue, but also how to play what I wanted. Munya (Maidza) also played a big part, because I just say what I want to say, and he just take it. I don’t have to read music, but if you’re performing today, I just come in.
R: You don’t read music?
B: No it’s all in the head, that’s how I write music. Even when I go to the studio, I write my lyrics, I just have the rest in my head.
R: And then in 2015 you also recorded an album in Ghana while you were there?
B: Yeah in 2014 as well.
R: So these two recording projects in the same year, with different bands in different countries, what were the differences? Did you feel like there were big differences between the projects?
B: Yeah, they were different. I just go to Ghana, and I’ve done this one now, and I have to produce another one for after I launch this. When I was in Ghana it was the right time, and I just go to the studio and record straight away. I have to teach everybody what I want and to bring the music together. It’s different experience, and different kind of feeling.
R: So you’re launching this new album, do you want to talk a little bit about that album and about the Nexus show.
B: I launched it in Ghana, very good response, people in Ghana says this is the music for today and tomorrow. People see reality in the music.
R: Do you think because you recorded it in Australia, there is a unique element to it in Ghana? Or do you think it’s just the music?
B: No, I think it’s just the music. How I’ve done it, I’ve infused it, with traditional drums, and I’ve made it in my own way and it’s something they haven’t heard before. And also the messages in the song. The quality of the music might also count.