I have a friend who lives in Texas. He calls himself “Obosomfuor” (Fetish Priest) which in itself shows you how advanced his mind is.
For we “educated” people make fun of these priests, concentrating mainly on their claims to have magical powers.
But most of these priests use magic only to augment a solid knowledge of the particular properties of specific pharmacologically-rich plants, which they use to cure diseases.
My own father was not a priest, but he could teach us what plants were good for curing the diseases that troubled us in childhood, especially conjunctivitis (or “Apollo Eleven”), sores and stomach ache. He also knew how to mix a heap of stuff into powder (mmotor), which was inserted into the skin through a cut.
I still bear a mark on my cheek that reminds me of the “vaccination” he carried out on me. Whether it was a scientifically effective vaccination or not, I survived all my childhood illnesses and am still here to tell you about it.
But the best lesson I learnt from my father was by accident. One day, a brother of his, Papa Fori, a professional herbalist who lived in Takoradi, came to stay with us. His arrival meant we had nice chicken to eat almost every day, for whoever came to consult him brought a chicken. To us, who only got chicken to eat during 'Important Festivals' like Ohum, Odwira and Christmas, this sudden proliferation of chicken was extremely welcome.
Now, whilst he was with us, an older brother of mine, Kwame, was taken ill. I accompanied the herbalist into the deep bush, and watched in fascination as he collected herbs and roots which he put in a bucket that I carried. When we got back, he cooked it into a strong-smelling potion and then called Kwame to come over. Kwame took just one sip of the medicine and immediately spat it out.
Nothing anyone could say would make him drink any more of it. My father joined in the appeals and even offered to buy him a “kako” (cork-gun) whose “pah”... pah” report, when fired, was a great attraction to every boy. But Kwame wouldn't budge.
I was so annoyed at Kwame's lack of appreciation for the enormous effort Papa Fori had put into trying to make him well that I – offered to drink the medicine rather than let it go to waste!
You see, I thought that if I, who was not sick, offered to drink the medicine, it would motivate Kwame to drink it!
But ha, Kwame was made of sterner stuff. He didn't relent when I said I would drink the medicine.
I now had to put my throat where my mouth was. If I didn't drink the medicine, I would be taken for a brat who vainly boasted about things he could not do!
My father would know I was full of hot air.
Papa Fori would continue to resent the fact that his work had been wasted.
I took the cup in which the medicine had been poured for Kwame.
And I drained it all down in one gulp: gbunah!
The drink pierced my throat as if I'd swallowed one thousand well-sharpened needles.
And as it went down, it hit my innards as if a bomb had been exploded inside me.
I spewed it all out without ceremony.
And I spewed.
To my astonishment, my father, instead of commending me for my bravery, was rather scornful about it. “If you are not ill, why drink medicine meant for him who is ill?” he asked.
My mother was even more direct: “Ne huuhuu!”, she said, upbraiding me for being “too forward”.
Not even Papa Fori offered me any comfort. I got the distinct impression from him that I had made him unpopular with my parents, because he had not stopped me from drinking something that was not meant for me, and could actually make me sick instead.
I was as sick as a dog for the rest of the day. I wasn't even able to enjoy the chicken soup that was offered me. For it wasn't only a physical illness that had taken hold of me. It was a sickness of the spirit, brought about by the realisation that I was just a vain young fool who would do stupid things if I thought they would bring me praise.
Now, back to my friend in Texas. He is one of the most erudite people I have ever come across. You mention a book or event in history or literature and he will immediately reference you back to other books or events that bear a relationship to what you had mentioned. He also likes good music, especially jazz. It was he who introduced me to Dexter Gordon (jazz saxophonist) as well as to the work of several musicians from French-speaking West Africa.
Well, the other day, he surpassed himself. He sent me a record of the brass band from my own home-town – the Asiakwa Brass Band, together with a photograph on the record sleeve showing the bandsmen. It is true I can only recognise two of them, Yaw Kwaakye (trumpeter) and one other guy whose face I know but whose name escapes me.
The thing is that I saw the birth of this brass band.
It came into being in the late 1940s. Many of the Asiakwa men who had fought in the Second World War had returned home and there was very little for them to do, apart from working on their farms and sitting at the palm wine bar to recount stories of the war. Then someone got the idea that they should contribute money together and form a brass band. They did so and managed to buy six or so instruments and a drum.
I don't know how they heard it, but they did find out that a man who had once played in the “Gold Coast Police Band” had retired and was living in a nearby village called Agyepomaa. They went and hired him to come and teach them how to play. My father's shop was right opposite where they practised – the Gyaasehen's house. So I could hear them as they went through their paces. The instructor was good – he took each instrument through its own part first, and then blended them all together.
The first song he taught them was – wait for it – “God Save The King”. It may sound quaint now, but remember the guy had just retired from the Police Band, and that was the first song he too was taught! Anyway, as soon as they were able to master it, he taught them how to march along the streets of Asiakwa, playing it. They were a magnificent sight marching along, with their instructor ahead of them twirling his conductor's baton, and occasionally rendering a piercing note or two of his own, on his cornet.
They later improvised a fantastic hi-life song which didn't have a name! It was good, however, and we named it for them as “wam-paa-la-laa”. You couldn't hear it without being moved to dance. The beauty of it was that everyone could go off into space with his instrument and still stay in tune, so long as he kept to the rhythm. So it was wonderfully creative. It could last an hour, non-stop.
This song made the band very popular in the area, but I was amazed to find them in attendance one day in the 1970s, when I went to Odumase-Krobo to attend the funeral of the artist and sculptor, Vincent Akwete Kofi. Odumase is quite far from Asiakwa and so for them to go and fetch a band from that distance was a feather in the band's cap. The last time I heard them play was, sadly, at my own mother's funeral, some 15 years ago.
And now, Obosomfuor has sent me their music. I wish the Arts Council of Ghana could support brass bands of that type which are rotting in a lot of villages and towns. They have provide – and in some cases continue to provide – entertainment of the highest order to the people amongst whom they live, and who hardly ever have a chance to hear live music.
No-one gives them much thought, I daresay. But they deserve recognition and reinvigoration. For you can't say you have danced, until a brass band has made you lose your head and thus, your shyness and got you to shake and move every part of your body for as long as your energy can last.