Famed Ghanaian percussionist Nii (Mr.) Otoo Annan has wowed audiences in the States with a polyrhythmic mastery that has earned him the moniker “the Elvin Jones of West Africa,” after the late great jazz drummer. But Annan has kept a secret from his U.S. fans: He is also a master guitarist whose music—as unassuming as it is mesmerizing—draws on the West African highlife and palm wine styles.
UNM ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, linguist and musician Steven Feld, who’s been recording and performing with Annan since they first met in Accra in 2004, is blowing Annan’s cover with an upcoming album of that music on his VoxLox label, Ghana Sea Blues.
Saturday night at the Outpost, Annan the guitarist will be playing some of that material, joined by Austin-based flutist/saxophonist Alex Coke, Feld on bass mbira, bass xylophone and bells, and adventurous Albuquerque drummer Jefferson Voorhees, all of whom will also appear on the album.
The terms “highlife” and “palm wine,” says Feld, “have to do with styles that are born out of multiple kinds of Diasporic feedback. You have these African ideas that were taken all over the New World, and then you have these New World ideas that got mixed in and layered with those things and went back to Africa, and then you add another layer of African response to them.”
Big in the ’50s and ’60s, though it began well before that, highlife is an electrified guitar-based style. Palm wine, popular around the same period, refers to “a style of guitar playing before the music was electrified,” Feld says. “Little groups with a bell and a bass and a guitar—acoustic roots.” Both are popular dance music.
“This music ended up fusing in many different ways with funk and soul and all kinds of pop as well as roots kinds of expressions. This is music that’s really layers and layers of the history of the seacoast—everything that went out and everything that came back in.”
Born in 1961, Annan would have heard both genres on the radio as he grew up, and they became his touchstones as he developed his own guitar style. His guitar playing evokes the same polyrhythmic texture as his drumming. Strumming continuously over a simple, repeated harmonic cycle, he layers rhythmic suggestions that are accented with melodic variations. Although it’s only one man on one instrument playing one straightforward motif, his performance hints at a forest of sound, and the music’s rhythmic complexity allows head, shoulders, hips and feet to move in synchronized independence that admits infinite variations.
At the invitation of winds player Nii Noi Nortey, a collaborator of Annan’s, Feld returned to Accra in 2005 to produce the album Tribute to A Love Supreme, their homage to John Coltrane’s seminal work. During that time, Annan taught Feld to play bass box and bell, and the two of them performed together over the next three years.
Feld brought Annan and Nortey to the States in 2007 as Accra Trane Station to enthusiastic response. “During that visit in ’07, I wanted Nii Noi and Nii Otoo to have an experience of American jazz musicians,” says Feld. He hooked them up with the late Tina Marsh, Coke and Voorhees. What was intended only to be a private get-together turned out to be so musically satisfying that Feld released a recording of the session on his VoxLox label, Topographies of the Dark.
Now Annan returns to the States as a guitarist to get into some Diasporic feedback of his own with his jazz buddies, both at the Outpost and in a New Mexico studio, where they will finish recording Ghana Sea Blues.