April 17, 2024
An Acquired Taste

Musicians and actors struggle for recognition

By David A. Garfinkel

A slur of notes pierces through the warm air of Accra, from a sea foam green building sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and several makeshift landfills. Inside, Richard Fianko, 34, stares intently at Schubert’s 8th Symphony after a vigorous day of rehearsals, and recalls his youth.

“My father was a choirmaster, so sometimes I’d go to rehearsals when I was very young. I think that started my interest in music.”

Fianko, a cellist in Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra, is one of few classical musicians in West Africa. This orchestra is the only one of its kind in all of West Africa, a region where names like “Beethoven” and “Mozart” often draw a blank. But arts institutions like this orchestra, and the National Theatre are looking to change that.

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president after independence from Britain, founded the orchestra in 1959; President Jerry Rawlings commissioned the 1,500-seat theater, which was 1992. Both institutions want to further arts education in a country already vibrant in musical tradition.

“Right from birth to death you have music,” said Othniel Osa, 58, the National Theatre’s deputy director of drama. “Music is very functional in our day to day life.”

Ghanaians mostly hear traditional music, and have their first brush with Western classical music through worship.

“In my childhood I played a lot in the church,” said musician Anthony Zonyrah, 35, as he packed away his cello, rosin and bow for the night. “That made me develop my interest in music.”

Western classical figures like Bach dominate religious music, exposing Ghanaians, nearly 70 percent of them Christian, to classical music.

The orchestra also performs works by Ghanaian composers that mix classical Western theory with traditional African instrumentation.

“In our part of the world music is participatory,” said Isaac Annoh, 45, the director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. “I will go to a show and end up participating in it.  We don’t have that gap between performers and audience as it used to be in Europe.”

Ghanaian plays at The National Theatre sometimes mix multiple arts in a single performance.
“At first it was experimental, but it has now gained ground, and a lot of people are using that form,” said Osa. “They don’t write just straight drama, but incorporate music and dance.”

Unfamiliar Traditions
Ghana is rich in culture, but still young in its mastery of Western classical music.

“We are lacking a lot of technique,” said Zonyrah, who studied music at the University of Ghana, like many of the other performers, but didn’t start playing the cello until he joined the orchestra at age 25. It was the first time he had touched the instrument.

Fianko’s experience is similar: he learned cello in the youth orchestra just eight years ago.
Government funding is key. The orchestra originally rehearsed in the spacious and modern National Theatre, but due to budget cuts now practices in a run down building with just enough space for the musicians to crowd in.

“There are signs of neglect all around us,” said Annoh, who fears that without government help, classical music will never spread throughout the country.

Musicians in Search of An Audience
Then there’s the matter of audiences. Both the theatre and symphony face the difficult challenge of attracting them.

“It’s unfortunate in that our colonial masters, Britain, the way they trained us, we take theater as some special delicacy,” said Osa. “You must have attained a certain level to attend theater, unlike the Francophone countries around us.”

Though the symphony has managed to support itself, it relies heavily upon outside help, including donations of accessories, like chinrests and rosin.

The government covers two-thirds of the theater’s expenses, but internally-generated revenue must cover the rest. The theater’s own company sometimes performs, but most productions are produced by outside companies, like church groups and traveling acts.

“It is too expensive to do our own productions,” said theater spokesman Francis Aklie.
Annoh hopes that the symphony will be able to not only tour the country, but also to influence other nations, and to attract foreign musicians to teach and perform.

Both the theater and orchestra are eager to promote early music education. Annoh teaches music in private schools primary and secondary schools. The National Theatre runs programs like Kidafest, where children can spend a week producing plays. The cost is less than $1 per child.
But even these efforts are not enough to ensure future success, according to members of these organizations.

“I’d say the future of the orchestra is really bright, but the government needs to support the orchestra, meaning the young ones need to be recruited,” Zonyrah said.

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