The inaugural Festival of Friends was held this past July, in the village of Dagbamete, Ghana. Conceived and put together by Kwasi Dunyo and myself, it was an opportunity to celebrate more than 25 years of collaborating together on artistic and personal projects.
A little background…Kwasi and I originally met each other in 1990, on my first trip to Ghana. The late Godwin Agbeli arranged for us to work together. As a young female percussionist, I was in search of new experiences, adventure, and an opportunity to continue to develop my drumming skills. What I did not realize is that by going to Ghana, I would also meet a new mentor, my second family, develop lifelong friendships and begin a journey of self-discovery that has led to a wonderfully rich and meaningful career and life. Once we met each other, we began a wonderful program of daily drumming, dancing and singing for four months. Kwasi was a stern and thorough teacher, and worked me very hard, challenging me to achieve a very high standard. The lessons did not stop there, but included many cultural customs, including traditional dressing, learning to properly eat traditional foods and make simple conversation in Ewe. It was a great and comprehensive gift he gave me, one that has lasted many, many years. I was and am, very, very appreciative of his hard efforts.
When I returned to Toronto, I wanted to find a way for others to get to know this wonderful musical teacher, as I knew his great talent must be shared! Working together with Rory Magill, I spent two years trying to find the means and opportunity to bring him to Canada. Finally, in July 1992, Kwasi was the recipient of the Canadian Government’s Visiting Foreign Artist Program. We also received help from Sound Symposium music festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and we took Kwasi there with our Toronto group Flaming Dono to perform a very successful tour.
The years since then have passed by in a blur….Kwasi returned year after year to Canada, eventually getting his landed immigrant status and then his citizenship. He now teaches at the University of Toronto and York University, as well as freelance performing and teaching all over the world! I returned to Ghana many times as well, eventually bringing my Baobab students here in 2001 to open the Kathy Armstrong Lodge, a great honour! Over the years, our artistic connection has fostered many development projects in the village, always in partnership with the people here. Hydro poles, water pipes, latrines, irrigation systems, school and library support and most recently on this trip a significant effort to bring permanent wifi to the village. This is no one way relationship though. The key to the success and sustainability of our work is the reciprocity of the benefits. Visitors to Dagbamete always receive a warm welcome, are granted full access to cultural traditions, including the magnificent Apetorku Shrine, and can roam freely, making friends and gaining important knowledge about drumming, dancing and the wonderful way in which the people of the village work together and support each other. Dagbamete and its people are an inspiration to all who come here.
This 27 year relationship between myself and Kwasi and our respective families and students has seen many joyous occasions, and also many sad ones. We remember those who helped in our journey, who are no longer with us. All of these life experiences we have shared have made us stronger and given more meaning to our work. The ripples of our connection are far and wide and that is why we wanted to celebrate!
Festival of Friends took place July 21-22, 2017. Travelling from outside Ghana, were my Ottawa based group Baobab Youth Performers, along with several parents, our tour manager Hayley de Bie, and a second group of adults who have ties to the work that Kwasi and I have done. These guests came from Canada, USA and England, and even included two members of Baobab from the original 2001 trip! In addition, several local chiefs and dignitaries were in attendance. Master of Ceremonies was Sammy Davor.
On July 21 we kicked off the Festival with a wonderful community Bobobo performance with some really amazing dancing by young girls, twirling their white scarves with such energy! The local Adzogbo group also gave a performance which featured an impromptu appearance by our friend Jambolah, dancing up a storm.
July 22 saw final preparations being made in the village, more tents, chairs, and program arrangements. Finally around 1pm, we got started with procession of the elders, visiting guests and the traditionally dressed young girls featuring gourds and dresses of cowrie shells.
More wonderful performances occurred, from the Gadzo group (an early version of Atsiagbekor) featuring running dancers with daggers and very fast drumming. The Adzogbo group from the previous night was back, this time with costumes and human pyramids, and the amazing fire dance. Baobab Youth performed two of our pieces, Danse Guerriere and Fume Fume, as well as a display of Kinka, which we had been learning all week, along with our parent chaperones.
The Atsiagbekor group from the village of Dzogadze, lived up to their reputation for awe-inspiring drumming and dance moves, featuring two musicians that had worked with Baobab Youth over the previous week, Sammy and Kofi. They were simply amazing!
Several speeches were given, starting with Sammy Davor sending greetings from Dagbamate’s chief, also from Kwasi, myself, and Kwasi’s granddaughter, Fosua, who read a very inspiring speech written by Mama Adzorhlor III, about the importance of traditional culture, following your dreams and the power of women to make a difference.
Myself and Baobab presented Kwasi with three gifts, representing the past, the present and the future. I had a photo collage made of some of our history, and framed it. The youth, led by Galen and Sophie presented Kwasi with a special blue wooden stool to represent all the people who currently come to him looking for advice and assistance with problems….there are literally lineups outside his room every day. Finally, our parent group led by Board member Ann Maloney presented Kwasi with a projector, an indicator of the exciting projects to come to the W.A.C.E in the future.
I was not prepared for what came next. I was informed that the community was going to make me a member of the Council of Elders, to advise on cultural and development issues. Wow! This ceremony consisted of me being wrapped in traditional kente cloth and jewellery, and then given a traditional stool upon which I sat, signifying acceptance into the council. What an honour! It was a very special moment in my life, one which I will cherish. We had to hurry this last part of the Festival since a light rain started. I was told by many that rain at the end of an event is considered a blessing and means the event has been a success. I totally agree….what an afternoon! The rest of the night was a party for the Baobab group, while I sat in Kwasi’s room greeting several visiting chiefs. Luckily I was sitting in between my friend Hayley who kept me grounded, and a visiting Queen Mother who translated the proceedings and advised me on my etiquette. We slipped away to join the Baobab crew a little later for some more informal celebrations!