SAM VERSUS KWASI MANU: WHO WAS THE BETTER MUSICIAN?” By CAMERON DUODU
The Ghanaian Times 17.07.2012
One question that was often debated by my father and his friends was this: Was ‘Sam’ (1) – alias Kwame Asare — a greater guitarist than his contemporary, Kwasi Manu? (2)
KWAME ASARE (SAM) AND THE KUMASI TRIO
Both guitarists could use their strings to play almost the entire melody of their song before using their voices to sing it. But whereas Sam merely used his string as an accompaniment to his vocals, Kwasi Manu kept weaving chords in and around his vocals as he sang. So, in terms of the intricacy of his artistry, I would put him slightly above Sam.
But Sam’s melodies and guitar renditions were more catchy and thus more memorable. His guitar chords were simplicity itself and whole versions of them can play in my head, while Kwasi Manu’s comes only in fits and starts.
My father favoured Sam, because he was called Kwame (!), just as Sam was, and also (I think) Sam tapped into a certain melancholic streak deep down him.
Did these musicians know about the effect they had on their fellow men? They probably did. I know because I was lucky enough to get a unique insight into one of them one day, when something happened in my village that was completely out of a storybook.
My father’s beer parlour at Asiakwa was right at the side of the main road between Accra and Kumase, and since Asiakwa is about 70 miles from Accra and 101 miles from Kumase, it served as a good point at which vehicles could stop and allow their passengers to stretch their legs.
My father travelled a lot to go and procure supplies for the shop, and so he knew almost every driver who plied the route between Suhum- and-Koforidua and also, Nsawam-and-Kumase. It wasn’t surprising that ine of his best friends was a driver who lived at Kyebi and whom we kids called “Papa ‘Sei” (for Osei). No matter how overloaded his truck was, he would stop and take my father on board if he needed a ride.
Well, one evening, at about seven in the evening, Papa ‘Sei came and parked his truck near my father’s shop. This was unusual because he normally passed Asiakwa between 4 and 5pm, on his way home to Kyebi.
Papa ‘Sei stepped out of the truck. And a smallish man stepped out with him. They were the only two people on board of the truck.
They came into the shop and my father greeted them cheerfully and offered them seats. He opened a bottle of beer and I washed and wiped two glasses very clean and served both Papa ‘Sei and his guest.
After taking a sip of his beer, Papa ‘Sei said with a mysterious grin, “Agya Kwaam, do you know this man who is with me?”
“Of course not” said my father, intrigued.
Papa ‘Sei then announced: “This is the famous musician, Kwasi Manu!”
WHAAAAAT? We all shouted out in disbelief. For Kwasi Manu was, in our terms, the equivalent of a member of the Beatles in England circa 1968!
Now, my father could be quite a tease, and although Papa ‘Sei wasn’t someone he would not normally challenge, he said with mockery in his voice, “Kwasi Manu….?”
I must repeat his words exactly, for they were quite close to being rude: “Ne ho he n’ese Kwasi Manu?” (Which part of him looks like Kwasi Manu?) I remember the words as if they were uttered only yesterday.
Papa ‘Sei was not vexed by my father’s irreverent remark. He probably expected precisely such a reaction. The man purporting to be Kwasi Manu too didn’t say anything. He just exchanged glances with Papa ‘Sei and shrugged — as if they were used to this type of reaction from people who saw Kwasi Manu for the first time.
Next, Papa ‘Sei whispered something to the man.
The man got up wearily and and went to the truck. When he came back, he was carrying something wrapped in a piece of cloth.
With a bored look, he unwrapped it.
It was a guitar!
Now, we were all greatly intrigued.
We held our breaths and waited. You could hear a pin drop.
I don’t know exactly how news spreads in a small town, but in the mean time, the name “Kwasi Manu” had travelled round the people’s homes and before the man had strummed a single note on his guitar, the area surrounding our shop had been invaded by a host of fellow townspeople.
The man looked at my father and asked him, “What song would you like me to play?”
The crowd that had gathered answered for my father: “Yaw Ampoma!” they all shouted. It was a beautiful song but also very difficult to imitate. If the guy was an impostor, he would be exposed in no time at all, as he struggled with the complex guitar notes with which the song opened.
But as soon as Kwasi Manu struck the opening chords, we knew it was him all right. For no-one else could play a guitar quite like that. And even if another person could imitate the guitar play, he couldn’t have mastered that opening sequence so perfectly — without mixing up a chord or two. It was incredibly beautiful and also smoothly executed, and as soon as Kwasi Manu accomplished its performance, everyone fell absolutely quiet. We all knew we were being offered the treat of our lives. We realised that we were privileged to hear something absolutely fantastic. And free of charge!
As I have intimated, this “Yaw Ampoma” number was extremely distinctive among the songs we usually heard on our “78” RPM records of the time. It began as if it was a dirge – the singer started off by roll-calling the names of valiant people he knew who were no longer alive and praised each of them with a pithy phrase. It was done with a nasal twang that was associated with traditional dirges.
Then he changed the tempo of the song and tone of voice and turned it into a danceable rhythm. So it was both music to be listened to and also danced to. That heightened its magnificent nature.
The only problem with it, as far as we were concerned, was that the lyrics were sung in two dialects – in both Asante Twi and (I think) Bono (Brong).
We didn’t understand the Bono bits, which formed a majority of the words. But we could tell from the way he intoned the words that he was expressing heartily-felt melancholy sentiments. After singing in Bono for a bit, he interjected a sentence in Twi that was perfectly intelligible to us: “ Yaw Ampoma na wawu asei kwa yi? Ewiase asei.” (Is this Yaw Ampoma who has just died and become wasted? The world has been laid to ruin!)
Then he went back to sing and mentioned Yaw Ampoma’s name a few more times, and said something, which would have been repeated by a chorus– had there been one. We automatically sang along at this point, but the guy didn’t mind.
The nasal tone Kwasi Mani used was usually associated with palace dirges. So, in this one song, Yaw Ampoma, he had married the palace dirge with ordinary street music. And the guitar was the go-between that introduced the two unwilling lovers — the palace and the street — to each other and bound them together in an embrace of love. It turned the music into something else. It was so good that even the parts of the song we couldn’t comprehend communicated deep emotion to us.
Indeed, if we had a problem with the lyrics, our inability to comprehend them made us drink more deeply into the guitar bits: both the long introduction with which the song opened and the melodious tune that took the song along until the voice intervened again.Kwasi Manu’s fingers strummed the guitar and made it sound as if there two or even three guitars playing, each instrument melding into the others harmoniously without any apparent effort.
The man with Papa ‘Sei rendered all these things we knew from memory by way of the gramophone record, quite faithfully. The only difference from the record was the absence of the chorus and rhythm section. But Kwasi Manu’s melodious voice made up for all that. Indeed, the lack of distractive elements in the song made us appreciate his artistry the more.
When the song ended, we all yelled our delight. My father opened some more bottles of beer and entreated them to stay and play a few more songs for us for us. But Papa ‘Sei insisted that they had an appointment somewhere and must go; otherwise, the people they were going to see would go to bed. He promised my father “Now that you’ve got to know him, I shall bring him back soon and you will be able to hear some more of his music.”
As could be expected, Papa ‘Sei was never able to fulfil his promise. He probably lost touch with his friend Kwasi Manu, who must have been in great demand all over the country. Whatever the reason, Kwasi Manu never came back to Asiakwa. But to me, it was as if a boy in Britain had experienced a live performance by Paul MaCartney or Eric Clapton, or if he were in America, by Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. Kwasi Manu was that big in our estimation at the time.
I never lost hope, being filled with youthful optimism, that my father would be able to bring Kwasi Manu back to sing for us again. I wanted to hear from his lips, such songs as the one in which he used such memorable phrases as “The eyes don’t recognise what is sorrow, otherwise I would nod off as I sit down by myself!” Or the one in which he reproached a young man for being “too much of a man-about-town to go to the farm to bring food to eat!” In another song, he chided “Akosua Kuma” (probably a deceased wife) for making “me busy myself and getting so tired — for nothing.” In another song, he dolefully lamented that “Akwasi Manu, I am about to die and leave the world.”
Well, sadly, I didn’t hear of Kwasi Manu again. Then rumours spread that he’d died. Up to now, I don’t know which town he came from; where he lived most of the time, and how he died. In thoise days, rthe record producers didn’t provide any information whatsoever about their artistes. The artistes just sold themselves with the quality of their work. No advertisements; no public relations releases.
But Kwasi Manu has been part of me all my life. How many of our modern musicians are working to make such an impression on the young ones who are listening to their music?
I have said this before, but I shall say it once again, I appeal to the Arts Council to find the music of Sam and Kwasi Manu, Kwaa Mensah and EK Nyame, Otoo Lartey and the other greats of our early years, digitise them and make them freely available nationally. You can go to the archives of Decca and other record producers and get the master discs. Pay money for them if necessary. But get the stuff! I do know that private collectors, like Prof John Collins, hold some of them, but they are a national treasure, and should not be subjected to the vagaries of private enterprise. They belong in a national music museum, no less.
(1) On July, 21, 1928, West Africa magazine published a photograph with a caption that read, “The Kumasi Trio came to London to record 36 double-sided records, mostly in Fanti, for Tarquah.” The Tarquah Trading Company’s position as a general retail in key Gold Coast cities was not matched by competitors. By 1928, it had become the main agents for Gramophone Company.
Kumasi Trio was made up of three main performers: Kwame Asare (Guitar); H. E. Biney (Guitar); and Kwah Kanta (Drums). The legendary guitarist Kwame Asare, was compelled to record under the name Jacob Sam.
Kwame Asare and his friends hailed from Saltpond, in the Central Region of present day Ghana, where the Fanti people live. It is no coincidence that the songs were sung in the Fanti language. The town of Kumasi is about 100 miles north of Saltpond, and is the central hub for the Asante people who speak Twi. The name “Kumasi Trio” could have been for a commercial purpose, and not a representation of their hometown.
(In a paper titled, “Ghanaian Highlife,” John Collins wrote that after World War I, “dozens of guitarists came to prominence in Ghana; they included Kweku Bibi, Kwesi (sic)Manu, Kwese Peprah, and most of all, Kwame Asare, the first to record highlifes.”)
The recordings heard here http://www.myspace.com/kumasitrio
are the earliest-known by Kwame Asare and his group. They were recorded in June 1928 for Zonophone. The landmark and standard highlife song, “Yaa Amponsah” is featured here.