Okyerema Asante, the African master percussionist from Ghana

Isaac Okyerema Asante, the Ghanaian master percussionist was born in Koforidua, the eastern regional capital of Ghana on June 16, 1949. He started drumming at the tender age of three and many times found himself hitting on the tops of cooking utensils that his mother and sisters were cleaning in the kitchen during the evenings. He will arrange three or four pans and beat on them either with his bare hands, a spatula, or whatever came in handy at the time.

The master drummer ventured into drumming mainly because his uncle, who was also a master drummer, greatly inspired him to develop and love the art of drumming. Okyerema watched his uncle play in the palace and other traditional settings many times and found it extremely fascinating to watch how a person could make wonderful sounds on drums with their bare hands sometimes.

The master drummer’s father, Mr. J.H. Asante was a magistrate who badly wanted Okyerema to become a lawyer and planned to send his son to London to pursue law after he completed his high school education in Opoku Ware Secondary School in Kumasi Ghana in 1969. At the time the master percussionist was the leader of the Eastern Regional Cultural Troupe of the Ghana Young Pioneers formed by Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.

File photo of Okyerema Asante (wearing Kente) hanging out with Actor/Comedian Robin Williams (wearing suit) and members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo music group of South Africa at a fund-raising concert in New York, 1987

Growing up as a child, he many times imitated the adults he saw playing drums in the palace and at festivals. He did so by making his own drums from improvised materials like empty pans and pots. By this time, his uncle had noticed Okyerema’s interest in drumming and started to teach him how to play and communicate with the drums.

Under the tutelage of his uncle, Okyerema Asante became a master drummer at the age of ten and people not only started noticing his skills and talents but also were fascinated by how well he could play at such a tender age. His interest in music was quickly growing and this interest was constantly fueled by his uncle who was also a great mentor. This interest led the master drummer to teach himself how to play the jazz drums.

Somewhere along his musical journey in 1970, the master percussionist became part of a musical group called the ‘Hedzole Soundz’ based at a club in Osu called the Napoleon. At the time, Hedzole Soundz was the second Ghanaian music group to make an international hit after ‘Osibisa’. Hedzole Soundz, later on, became the backup group for Hugh Masekela, who is one of Africa’s greatest trumpeters and musicians originally from South Africa.

The great Ghanaian producer, Faisal Helwani, was the manager of the Hedzole Soundz. Upon realizing the talent and potential of Hedzole Soundz upon playing with them in Accra, Ghana, Hugh Masekela on his return from Nigeria to Ghana after a performance with Fela Kuti asked Faisal Helwani if he could play his trumpet alongside the Hedzole Soundz in the Napoleon and like magic, that began the astronomical rise of Okyerema Asante. That show earned him his big break on the world music stage.

Four days after his meeting with Hugh Masekela, Okyerema was on a plane in what he calls his first trip by air to Lagos Nigeria to record an album with Masekela. That Album, which was released in 1973 also featured songs from the Hedzole Soundz who were already basking in their hit 1972 single called ‘Rekpeter’.

The Masekela production that featured the master percussionist set off a chain reaction that led to the master drummer making his first trip outside Ghana in February 1974 to Los Angeles to promote the work he did with Hugh Masekela. That year also saw Okyerema’s first performance in the USA.

After Hugh Masekela, other big names started appearing on the master drummer’s resume, some of which included the Jazz Crusaders of Los Angeles California who rose to fame in the early ’60s and remained all through the late ’70s, Maria Makeeba of South Africa who was to marry Hugh Masekela later on in life, and Fleetwood Mac, a British-American rock band formed in 1967 in London, the World Saxophone Quartet and even Queen Elizabeth of England in 1960 who Okyerema Asante drummed for during the queen’s visit to Ghana to witness the country’s independence from British colonial rule.

The versatile master percussionist, composer, producer, and teacher has also done three world tours including one with Paul Simon during the Graceland Tour of the hit 1986 album which was also called Graceland. That album also topped the charts at #1 in the UK and reached #3 in the US. Okyerema Asante describes his Asian fans as one of the most fascinating from all his world tours, in his own words he says ”unlike audiences across Africa, the Asians have a real understanding and appreciation for my musical performance”, that notwithstanding he also believes ”the best drummers in the entire world can be found in Africa and for that matter Ghana”.

The art of drumming is widespread in Ghana despite the passing away of Ghanaba (divine drummer) in December 2008 and according to Okyerema, there are going to be more of his kind so long as young and upcoming drummers in Ghana develop a strong love for what they do, coupled with hard work, dedication and respect for the instrument since these traits formed a vital ingredient in his rise to stardom.

One such young drummer who has caught the eye of the master drummer is ”Injorlay” who hails from the James Town area in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. ”Injorlay” is someone the master drummer himself has tutored and his skills are so exceptional that he has been featured by Amandzeba (Nat Brew) in one of the latter’s well-known songs titled ”Kpanlogo yede”.

The 61-year-old master drummer is married to Elizabeth and they’ve been together for the past 35 years since they got married in 1976 in Ghana. They have five children; Atta Asante the first and Atta Asante the second are twin sons of the couple. The 41-year-old twins are professional acrobats based in Paris, France. They also have a 40-year-old daughter named Adjoa Akom who is in Ghana and Jonas Asante aka ‘Chief’ who is 31 and in the process of becoming a lawyer after completing Virginia Union University. Chief is working with a law firm in the Northern Virginia area. Isaac Asante of Woodbridge VA is the last of their children. The couple also has five grandchildren.

The last album of the master drummer is a jazz piece called ‘Bringing It Home–From Havana to Africa’, which came out under the label of Mapel Shade Records in Maryland, the USA in 2004. Okyerema believes his fans must be given enough time to digest his work, which is why his newest work is going to be launched in April 2010 in the USA, and consequently in May 2010 in Ghana, the new album will be called Digital Slavery.

Today, Isaac Okyerema Asante is setting up an institution in Anyinam, Ghana, the hometown of his wife Elizabeth. This institution, when completed will be a resource center where Ghanaians and foreigners alike can go to learn about traditional Ghanaian and African music and drumming. The institution will be called ”Akyere Madiye Center”. The inspiration behind this idea is spurned from the current threat the invasion of foreign music, especially hip-hop, poses to traditional Ghanaian music.

”Drumming is the soul of traditional African music and without it, music is not complete, especially in the African context” according to the Okyerema Asante, which is why he now teaches African drumming in Universities across the USA and Europe, something he looks forward to doing in Ghana when his work on the Akyere Madiye Center is complete in the near future.

Source: originally written by Oral Ofori and first published in April 2010

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