I want to make a movie about my life; but its content is less important than the effect I want it to have on the viewers. My movie will make you laugh and cry. The story will outrage your sedentary inertia and make you run out of the theater to do something. After it is shown on TV people will want to work on pursuing their own dreams and telling their stories...
April 6, 1995, Thursday afternoon
Well, here I go again! I'm on the plane. I'm headed for Africa - Accra, Ghana. My itenerary calls for me to go from Richmond, VA to Washington, DC to Zurich, Switzerland, spend a day and a night there and then down to Ghana, West Africa. I'll spend 15 days working in Ghana as a cultural specialist for the U.S. Information Service conducting jazz and commercial music workshops. After that my plan is to fly to Rome, buy a Eurorail pass and take the train from Rome to Zurich to Cologne, Germany; then make my way to London, then to Paris and back to Rome for my flight home.
I have had a hectic last few days and a whirlwind final 24 hours preparing for my departure and as I sit on this commuter plane waiting for take-off I feel out of breath and a bit queasy. In addition to all the things I had to do to get myself ready for the trip (planning, tickets, visas, shopping, shots, medicines, gifts, music, cassettes, video camera, batteries, etc.), I had to run around and collect a lot of items for my good friend and host in Ghana, Garry White. (He requested that I bring along too many things, including: a computer monitor, a bottle of Gran Marnier, a video cassette recorder, books and clothes.) And for days I have been sending faxes, phoning and corresponding to everyone I know for international contacts in Africa and Europe.
My wife, Cookie, and I invited friends over to our house last night for a bon voyage gathering. Then I stayed up most of the night to plan and pack. I woke up early to pack some more; got a quickie just before rushing to the bank and to Radio Shack; then on to the airport. I checked one bag and Garry's big box through to Accra; checked one bag to get off with me in Zurich; boarded this little plane... and now we're taking off! Air travel is amazing! Up, up and higher still. The land recedes, cars, buildings and landmarks get smaller and smaller; the wonder of it all. And for the first time ever, I can see my neighborhood from the plane; the park near my house, the lakes, my block - from the plane! Amazing. I wave to my son through the window, though I know he has no idea that the plane soaring above has me on it. "Hi, Jamiah! Bye-bye!"
After changing planes at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC, taking off and heading out over the Atlantic to Zurich I make a rediscovery: A good meal, good wine and good music on your headset will put you on top of the world. Then a coffee and an after dinner liqueur will make everything like wonderfulness. Another drink and rememberances of the afternoon love making and you're in heaven on high. Thank you, God. I'm on a mission. Going for the gold. Going for the goal. Everything coming together. I've been to Africa four times before but my motto for this trip is A culmination - A beginning - A journey of a lifetime.
Later on the flight I wake up from a deep nap, get up from my seat in a daze, and the next thing I know I am being helped up from the floor. The stewardess is saying "Are you alright?" I say I am fine and the proceed to walk up the aisle to find the bathroom. When I get to the door of the toilet, I get ready to go in and the next thing I know, I am being helped up off the floor again. "Are you sure you're alright?" I say yes, but I'm not really sure. I had fainted twice. I go in the toilet and come out much lighter. When I get back to my seat a fellow passenger comes over to me to say "I'm a doctor and I'm seated right over there, so if you need any assistance just let me know." And then a few moments later the pilot of the plane comes to my seat to say "Mr. Branch, I am the Captain, and I just want to be sure that you're going to be all right. I want to know if we're going to have to try and find somewhere to land this thing." I say "No let's just go on," especially since we were over the Atlantic Ocean at the time.
Morning comes much faster
when you're rushing headlong
into the east
Catch the rising star
It is the red sun
peeking over the horizon
The High Priest struts
his chest swells with his importance
But his real value is only
as great as his humility,
his humanity and
his handsomeness of spirit
April 7 We land in Zurich at 7:00 AM.
I am met at the airport by my friend, Katherine Gogel, a jazz music lover whom I met in Ghana in 1989 while on tour with my band for the Ghana National Commission on Children. Katherine lives in Zurich now. During the drive into downtown Zurich I get my first glimmpse of the architecture and designs of Switzerland. It is as neat and as perfect as their famed watches. It is obviously a rich country, with all the cultural amenities that you have read about. The buildings are modern but quaint; new but historic looking. Our first stop is the Sheraton Hotel where the Washington office of the USIS has made me a reservation. But after confirming that I would have to pay $160 for one night's stay, I decide that, to save money, I will spend the night at Katherine's apartment, which is tiny but comfortable.
At Katherine's I make several phone calls to music contacts, record distributors, clubs and festival directors. Then I get some rest before we go to Willisau, which is a town about an hour's drive away, to see American jazz saxophonist David Murray and his Octafunk Band in concert. This very pleasurable side trip gives me a chance to see more of the countryside and to get a first hand experience with the presentation of the music in Europe. Willisau is a small town that is the site of an annual international jazz festival. David Murray is almost a regular performer here because the promoter is a fan of David's music and he is quite popular. The venue is a concert room whcih seats about 250 people. It has a fairly large stage, and one side of the room is all glass sliding doors which open out onto a little garden ledge, beside which flows a babbling creek. Also in the building is a restaurant and a bar.
We arrive during sound check. David greets me very cordially because we have met several times before. I went to school with his first wife, we have several mutual friends and we are both saxophonists who tread the lines between avant garde jazz, straight ahead jazz and various other styles of Black music. I lean a little more toward African rhythms and the funk than he, but I have long admired David's prolific recording output and his adventurism in pursuing the widest possible array of musical contexts for his improvisations.
Katherine and I have dinner with the band and the promoter, then meet with a painter friend of hers who paints the most incredible modern impressionistic abstractions of the musicians while they are performing. We all enjoy David Murray and his Octafunk Band, consisting of electric bass, guitar, and drums. David's plays incredibly well that night and the packed house really appreciates his cutting edge work. I've never heard him play better and he is certainly more funky than he ever has been with the World Saxophone Quartet or any of his previous groups. During the show he has me stand up and take a bow and after the concert he gives me a tape of a concert he has recently preformed in Paris with his group accompying a gospel choir from Washington, DC. David had performed in Ghana just a few months ago.
April 8, Saturday afternoon; after the night in Zurich at Katherines, now I am on a Swissair flight, headed for Accra, Ghana.
High above the mountains we fly, I see them at first in the distance as massive rocky formations and then we are directly over the Alps, snow capped, jagged, massive and most definately impressive. Clouds suspended just so, give perspective and dimension. There is a spiritual quality to the mountains. They are expansive and rise and fall much like an ocean of rocks - only much higher. The sun light is brightly reflected off the white snow. And, there is so much diversity in the mountain terrain: from all white glaciers to greens and browns of fertile valleys; from broad craters to intricate facets of multiple peaks.
The service, food and unlimited drinks on Swissair are all good. They make you feel like you are someone special going somewhere special and getting there on a special carrier. From my window seat on Swissair I saw a small private Lear jet streak by below us, headed in the opposite direction. This counter movement and aerodynamic juxtaposition puts me in a contemplative mood, the wonder of all this international travel and high technology. From this plane I can phone to anywhere on the planet to anyone who has a phone - mobile, cellular or home bound. [So I call my son, Jamiah, at home in Richmond from the plane. The call costs me $40.] I want Jamiah to visit Scandinavia and Switzerland just to see their designs: buildings, clasps, greeting cards, etc. He is very creative and quite inventive 13 year old, and new perspectives will give him even greater insights and ideas.
On the flight to Accra we pass over the Mediterranian Sea, the Sahara Desert and part of West Africa. Great and wondrous sights, even from the air. After landing at 5:00 PM Ghana time and going through customs in Accra:
I'm met at the airport by Garry, his wife, Veronica and Nick Robertson, the program director for the US Information Service in Ghana. The scene and activity at Kotoko Airport in Accra are a lot less of a hassle than on any of my previous trips. I get through customs with just a bit of questioning about the computer monitor and VCR I brought for Garry.
It is 96 degrees here; quite a contrast to the 76 degrees in Richmond and the 49 degrees last night in Zurich. Fortunately Nick has an air-conditioned Volvo station wagon. Riding through Accra I am seeing the familiar sights of this coastal West African capitol city. In certain neighborhoods it seems almost rural, but most of the streets are teeming with Black people, dressed in typical urban clothes, t-shirts, jeans, shorts, dashiskis or other traditional garb; vendors everywhere, people, mostly women carrying things balanced atop their heads. There is visual evidence of widespread poverty but even more evidence of joyful spirits. A place is defined largely by its architecture, location, climate, vegetation, etc.; but the most important charateristic of any place is its people and their spirit. I notice that I just feel good in Ghana. Like I do in some other places; like Atlanta and DC. In Accra the people, the pace, the look of the place, the air, all give the locale is ambiance. Africa is one of my homes. Ghana certainly is.
I am staying at a house in the Tesano area of Accra with Garry and Veronica. Soon after we arrive at the house, Okyerema Asante comes over for a welcoming visit. I was actually surprised that he was not at the airport to greet me, but he explained that he had gotten the time of my arrival confused. Okyerema Asante is a master percussionist with whom I have been performing off and on since 1982. He was initially with Hugh Masekela before joining my group, Plunky & Oneness of Juju. He went on to perform with Paul Simon's Graceland Tour and later toured with Fleetwood Mac. Asante is a world class musician and quite a celebrity here in Ghana and it was he who made the formal request to the USIS to bring me to Accra as a consultant. He has recruited the musicians to be the back up band for my gigs and workshops here and he has made all the arrangements for equipment, rehearsals, roadies and fees. The USIS is providing an air-conditioned vehicle and driver for our transportation for the duration of my stay. Asante and Garry are two of my dearest friends, so this gathering is a reunion of sorts for us.
Later that first evening, I go with Asante to the National Theater where a friend of his is supposed to perform in concert. The performance was cancelled because the rented instruments and sound equipment were not delivered. While standing around outside the concert hall, a young musician who had overheard some of our conversation came up to introduce himself. His name is Richard Kojo Akwa-Harrison and he is a bass player, vocalist and songwriter who says that he plays nine instruments, including keyboards. Asante had engaged a guitarist, bassist and drummer for my back-up band, but no keyboardist. So after a moment's reflection on the coincidence of our meeting, I invite young Mr. Akwa-Harrison to our first rehearsal scheduled for 10:00 AM tomorrow - Sunday morning.
Monday, 10 April 95. After two days in Accra. The weather has been very hot 96 - 104 degrees. I have had to adjust to my new climate, time zone and surroundings. I have jumped right into the work and the music on the day after my arrival. I am sharing the house in Tesano with Garry White and his recent bride, Veronica, who has recently moved to Accra from London. I let them stay in the air-conditioned bedroom and I have been sleeping out in the livingroon on the sofa.
Rehearsals have gone well these first two days. We are practicing in the garage of Mac Tontoh, trumpeter and member of the internationally known group, Osibisa. The musicians are good; they learn fast and we are funky together. The guitarist is Ebo Taylor, a well respected, older, jazz and high life player and vocalist. The drummer is actually a lead singer whose name is Dan Achite. The bassist, Cliff Asante is a good vocalist and very steady rhythmically. Kojo Akwa-Harrison is doing the keyboard work and even though he does not have the facility to solo very well, he will prove to be a godsend, because he remembers all the songs and locks us in on the tonality of each piece. I am calling the group the Accra Band. As usual here in Ghana, the equipment is inferior. We have only two microphones, wires patch cables have shorts, speakers are blown and all the instruments and amplifiers are old. Nevertheless, we are making music.
Asante has been sick with a fever since I arrived and today he went to the doctor and did not practice with us. Because of the heat and the time zone changes, I have not been able to get sufficient rest, my sleep pattern has been disrupted, and I am just not on my usual high energy level.
Tuesday, 11 April 95
We did the first workshop at the National Theater today. We had an audience of about 40 people, many of them from the University of Ghana at Legon. They were music students and they were attentive and asked interesting questions. The workshop was in a small outdoor amphitheater pavillion at the National Theater and it was so hot that I was completely drained afterwards. I came back to the house and took a hard nap. The Poku family house in Tesano where we are staying is the same house that I used to share with Garry when we used to come here in the 1980's. The furniture, the house servant, Ralph, the gardens, are all the same; so memories come flooding back whenever I wake up or spend time on the premises lost in thought.
I am suffering through my usual bout with diarrhea in Ghana. It is not as bad as on earlier trips, but I am still in discomfort. I hope that I am past the worst of it. I took the generic brand of Imodium AD for the fist time tonight and I sure hope that will take care of my stomach problems.
There seems to be lots I can do here in Ghana. Okyerema Asante wants me to get involved with cassette duplication and music distribution; but I'm not sure that I have the money or the will to get involved that deeply. The market for the business does seem to be here. Okyerema is well positioned in the music business here. He is well known and respected. I'm not sure if he could manage such a business here without administrative personnel and someone with computer skills.
Several first class hotels are currently under construction in Accra and there are already many foreign business people here and more are on the way. The music scene will benefit from the increase in the number of venues and the increase in international exposure of the music through tourism.
I am preparing to do the second workshop at the National Theater. I had a rough night with the diarrhea but I am a bit better today. It is hot as a mid-summer mid-day and it is just 10:00 AM. We have moved the time of the performance back to 11:00 AM because the shade will cover the stage by then. The musicians, the Ghanaian officials and USIS personnel all expect me to really make an impact here. I hope that I do not disappoint anyone. Apparently my experience and knowledge can be of value to the music industry here.
Good Friday, 14 April, almost noon. Yesterday's (Thursday) workshop at the amphitheater was attended by hundreds of school children who were energetic and exuberant. After we played, a student ensemble from the John Teye School performed for the large audience. Last night we performed our opening night at the Bass Line Jazz Club after doing the workshop in the afternoon. The crowd at the club was enthusiastic and supportive. It was a tiring day's work.
After breakfast. I have my stomach back in order - well, almost. "Cool in You," "Another Sad Love Song," and otther U.S. Black music hit songs on the new private radio station in Accra. I haven't slept much. I spent much of the night reflecting on the show last night at the Bass Line Jazz Club and the show there later tonight and my workshops next week and my daughter, Kaila, and Jamiah. The future is now. I want to call home this morning but I don't know if schools are out for Good Friday back in Richmond, VA. Everything is closed for the Easter holiday here. Ralph, the "house boy" here at the house in Tesano, Accra turned 29 years old yesterday. He is a wonder - so diligent, thorough, knowledgeable, quiet, efficient and such a hard worker. I do not understand this unspoken system of castes here. Many of the workers in service positions are completely subservient, almost bowing down to their "employers." Is it training, tribal or tradition? The workers are very, very good at what they do. They are noble. Ralph is an inspiration. He takes care of the house, the garden, all the washing and ironing and still has time to be active in his church. He also owns a taxicab, which he rents out to others to drive. He is so industrious, that if you find that some article of clothing that you laid about is missing, it is likely that Ralph has scooped it up washed it and is waiting for it to dry so that he can iron it, and place back in your closet. He blows my mind. I give him a shirt and $20 for his birthday and he seems guenuinely pleased and grateful. I am grateful to have him around.
"Heavy D" then "Don't Take It Personal" on the radio. I read the Science of Mind meditation for today - "Letting Go". Now I'm grooving.
Friday night/ Saturday morning 3:30 AM
Tonight Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) taped the show at the Bass Line Jazz Club for TV. It was a major production: three cameras, lights, mics on everything, two mobile production trucks, etc. They did an interview of me before the show at sound check. I didn't get to see any of the video, but the GBC Director said it was great. I will get an edited VHS copy of the tape. The club was packed to the rafters. The people were into it! Our sound system was woefully inadequate. Asante and I worked as hard as slaves, sweated away pounds, and we were totally beat and drained but satisfied after it was over.
Saturday, 15 April, 8:00 AM
All in all the music has been a very frustrating experience. The equipment is so poor, old and in disrepair; the musicians don't own their own instruments; and they play on the equipment with not enough care. Loudness to the point of distortion is the rule - and it is not a pleasant sound. I want to hear more of the best groups here to make a more comprehensive assessment of the music situation in the country. There are probably some good musicians and bands and I pray that there are some who are getting a better sound than what I have heard so far.
My sleeping is broken into pieces. It is too hot and humid - fans are not enough, air conditioning too much. I need to wash more often in order to feel comfortable but very often the water is not running and I have had to learn to bathe from a bucket. I'm good at it now, but it is a job.
When there is no water the toilets cannot be flushed. There are smells of water with sewage as you ride through some parts of the city. It stinks. Dust is a reality. Many of the streets have been paved and/or widened since I was here last in 1989, but there are still some roads that are unbelievably rutted, potted and not paved at all, making the ride over them bone, car and earth quaking and shattering. The sun blazes but is sometimes forced to relent by clouds. Fortunately there is often a breeze. There are no shades at the windows in the livingroom where I sleep - curtains and light drapes, yes - but nothing to keep the sun from saying "get up" bright and early every morning.
Living is not as easy here as in Europe or America. It can be frustrating to turn the faucet one moment and get water and at the very next moment - no. Brushing your teeth with no water to rinse; then shitting in the commode, then bathing out of a bucket in the bathtub, shaving from the bucket, then finally using what's left of the water to flush the toilet. Veronica is a hardy soul to have left London to live with Garry here. I don't think Cookie, Kaila and Jamiah could do it. Oh, they could, but would they want to? For love and or money? I know Kaila wouldn't think of it. It is quite and experience, this trip. With all the frustrations, I must remember to look for the lessons and remember that God is at the back of it all.
Saturday, 15 April, 8:30 PM
Waiting for Asante and the car to pick me up and go to the Bass Line Jazz Club. Today was mellow, I got my stomach back and went to the Regal Chinese Restaurant for dinner. Also visited Wayne and Denise Hemmings (Njambi's friends) who are both bigwigs in USAID. They live in a fully air conditioned, terrifically furnished and appointed house with all the trimmings, including color televisions, persian rugs and enough African art to start a gallery. This is the way to go if you're going to live here - or anywhere in the world - A-1 classy. Theirs was the "baddest" set up I've ever seen in Ghana.
Saturday night/ Easter Sunday morning, 4:00 AM
The gig at the Bass Line is finally over, and I can't believe how poorly I think I was playing for all three nights, all the sets. This was quite a humbling, learning experience for me. But the people were pleased. A man who was there wants to book me for a gig in Holland. Some patrons thought I was great. Many expressed their sincere appreciation for the music and the show. I remember thinking at times while on stage that I was "perpetrating." (impersonating). I learned that I had better never be anything but humble and grateful. Only by the grace of God... could I, with my equivalent of a high school music education, create a career of performing my own songs.
The saxophone is quite an instrument; most of the time it is so easy going, but when something is off by a milli-micron, it can be rough and unforgiving. How I could go from the virtuoso saxophonist I was at Benny"s Jazz Club in Baltimore just a few weeks ago to the beginning jazz clod I was at the Bass Line jazz Club is enough to let me know that I'm certainly not "all that." Boy, do I appreciate my band mates at home. Kevin, Muzi, Ronnie, Carl, Chris, Desiree, Carlton, Rudy, etc... Now I know how my vocalist, Carlton Blount felt when he had a touch of layringitis and his voice wouldn't flow.
Easter Sunday, 11:15 AM
So many lessons: People play to their own strengths. Example: as a musician, if you are not strong rhythmically, you might like a lot of chord changes; you might choose to emphasize chords and melody in your music rather than improvising primarily on the rhythms of the funk.
Went to bed at 4:30 AM and awoke at 8:00 AM because the air conditioner in the bedroom caught fire. And I had been lying there on a matress on the floor in front of it half awake because I was so cold that I was imagining that I was a piece of meat in a freezer getting "freezer burns." Then I dreamt that I smelled smoke; only I wasn't dreaming. There were flames and black smoke shooting from the air conditioner. Garry ran outside and scooped up dirt to smother the flames. I couldn't go back to sleep after that. What a way to start the day!
Went to have lunch at Sam Safo's, who is a Ghanaian associate who lives in the States and who is back home, here on business. Nice conversations with him and his sister-in-law and also great food. He's invited us to lunch everyday from now on.
2:30 AM Sunday night/Monday morning. After the gig.
What a difference a day makes! What a difference equipment makes. I feel better. Tonight we performed at the Village Inn Jazz Club, which is typical West African open air club. Mac Tontoh"s band opened for us and they that had a much better sound system. I am happier. Nick Robertson of USIS came to the gig and he and I had a nice long conversation. He is cool. The gig was almost rained out, but a few people came, the show went on and the vibes were cool. I netted $200 from the Bass Line dates. I gave Easter bonuses to the band totaling $50. I'm cool because of my pay from the USIS is $100 per day plus expenses.
My experiencing so much joy performing at the Village Inn and my clarity of positive meditation feels like my own Easter Miracle - a resurrection of my spirits.
17 April, Monday night
We went to see Asante's mother-in-law in the village of Aniyim. Then went to visit an old friend, George Osei (who is now called Gowad) who heads an organization called the African-American Africa Friendship Association (AAAFRA) in the village of Nkawkaw. Later we went to Okyerema's mother's house in the city of Koforidua to see his four year old son, Kwabena (Kubby), who looks just like his older brother, Asante's older son, Chief, who lives with my family back in the States. It was a day spent on the road that goes to Kumasi and coming down the mountain from Aburi back to Accra. During the day we had stopped several times along the roadside to drink palm wine, buy mangos, shoot video tape of scenic views, and sample various fruits and delicacies. Garry, Veronica, Asante, the driver and I all enjoyed the travel and the comraderie.
Thinking of Love
Isn't it great to have someone you love
who knows that they have you
to let love them all the way
And just the way you both like it
I'm so thankful for love
That it exists
and you as love's agent
are responsible for so much bliss
It's a wonderful thing
to be involved with love in any way
And it's great for me to know you
What else can I say
Thank you, Love
Thank you, Love
Thank you, Love
19 April, Wednesday, 8:15 AM
I'm up early today and ready for a personal business day. Yesterday I addressed the Ghana National Symphony. It is a 40 piece, government sponsored orchestra with strings, woodwinds and brass plus some traditional African percussion instruments. They performed a composition for me that was a traditional chant transcribed and arranged for the orchestra. It was a unique sound and an innovative treatment of tribal music on European instruments. An African classical music. My workshop was on improvisation and jazz and it went extremely well. The musicians were interested and respectful. It was one of my best workshops ever. I'm glad it was video taped.
Later the Accra Band and I went to the rehearsal of the John Teye School performers who had performed at our workshop with the school children at the National Theater last week. Since the school was out for Easter vacation the rehearsal was held out in the courtyard of the school's headmaster. Their group is composed of teenagers who are talented and accomplished singers and instrumentalists: seven trumpeters, a bassist, two drummers. guitarist, two keyboardists, percussionist, etc. We performed a couple of songs for them and I brought some of them up to jam with us. Then we listened to them perform some of their songs and gave them pointers and suggestions. They and their headmaster seemed guenuinely pleased and honored by our presence.
Later that evening, Garry, Veronica and I attended a very fine dinne