One question that was often debated by my father and his friends was this: Was 'Sam' – alias Kwame Asare -- a greater guitarist than his contemporary, Kwasi Manu?
Both guitarists could use their strings to play almost the entire melody of their song before using their voices to sing it. But whereas Sam merely used his string as an accompaniment to his vocals, Kwasi Manu kept weaving chords in and around his vocals as he sang. So, in terms of the intricacy of his artistry, I would put him slightly above Sam.
But Sam's melodies and guitar renditions were more catchy and thus more memorable. His guitar chords were simplicity itself and whole versions of them can play in my head, while Kwasi Manu comes only in fits and starts.
My father favoured Sam, because he was called Kwame (!), just as Sam was, and also (I think) Sam tapped into a certain melancholic streak in him.
Did these musicians know about the effect they had on their fellow men? They probably did. Because one day, something happened in my village which was completely out of a storybook.
My father's beer parlour at Asiakwa was right at the side of the main road between Accra and Kumase, and since Asiakwa is about 70 miles from Accra and 101 miles from Kumase, it served as a good point at which vehicles could stop and allow their passengers to stretch their legs.
My father travelled a lot to go and procure supplies for the shop, and so knew almost every driver who plied the route between Suhum-Koforidua and also, Nsawam-Kumase. One of his best friends was a driver who lived at Kyebi and whom we kids called “Papa 'Sei” (for Osei).
Well, one evening, at about seven in the evening, Papa 'Sei came and pared his truck near my father's shop. This was unusual because he normally passed Asiakwa between 4 and 5pm, on his way home to Kyebi.
Papa 'Sei stepped out of the truck. And a smallish man stepped out with him.
They came into the shop and my father greeted them cheerfully and offered them seats. He opened a beer and I served both Papa 'Sei and his guest.
After taking a sip of his beer, Papa 'Sei said with a mysterious grin, “Agya Kwaam, do you know this man who is with me?”
“Of course not” said my father, intrigued.
Papa 'Sei then announced: “This is the famous musician, Kwasi Manu!”
We all shouted out in disbelief. For Kwasi Manu was, in our terms, the equivalent of a member of the Beatles in England circa 1970!
Now, my father was quite a tease, and although Papa 'Sei wasn't someone he would not normally challenge, he said with mockery in his voice, “Kwasi Manu?”
I must repeat his words exactly, for they were quite close to being rude: “Ne ho he n'ese Kwasi Manu?” (Which part of him makes him look like Kwasi Manu?)
Papa 'Sei was not vexed by my father's remark. He probably expected precisely such a reaction. The man purporting to be Kwasi Manu too didn't say anything. He just exchanged glances with Papa 'Sei and shrugged. Then Papa 'Sei whispered something to him.
The man got up quietly and and went to the truck. When he came back, he was carrying something wrapped in a piece of cloth.
He unwrapped it.
It was a guitar!
We all held our breaths and waited.
I don't know exactly how news spreads in a small town, but all I know is that before the man had strummed a single note on his guitar, the area surrounding our shop had been invaded by a host of fellow townspeople.
The man looked at my father and asked him, “What song would you like?”
The crowd that had gathered answered for my father: “Yaw Ampoma!” they all shouted. As soon as Kwasi Manu struck the opening chords, we knew it was him all right. For no-one else could play a guitar quite like that. And even if they could play the guitar, they couldn't have imitated that opening sequence. It was uniquely beautiful and as soon as Kwasi Manu accomplished its performance, everyone fell absolutely quiet and you could hear a pin drop. We all realised that we were privileged to hear something absolutely fantastic.
As I have intimated, this “Yaw Ampoma” number was extremely distinctive among the songs we usually heard on records at the time. It was in the style of a dirge – the singer began by mentioning the names of valiant people he knew who were no longer alive and praised each of them with a pithy phrase. Then he changed the tempo of the song and turned it into a danceable rhythm. So it was both music to be listened to and also danced to. It was magnificent.
The only problem with it was that the lyrics were sung in two dialects – in both Asante Twi and (I think) Bono (Brong).
We didn't understand the Bono bits, which formed a majority of the words. But we could tell from the tone that it was expressing heartily-felt melancholy sentiments. After singing in Bono for a bit, he interjected a sentence in Twi that was perfectly intelligible to us: “ Yaw Ampoma na wawu asei kwa yi? Ewiase asei.” (Is this Yaw Ampoma who has just died and become nothing? The world is ruined!)
Then he went back to sing and mentioned Yaw Ampoma's name a few times again, and said something, which was repeated by a chorus a few times. And all this was sung in a nasal tone usually associated with palace dirges. In other words, Kwasi Manu had married the palace dirge with ordinary street music and come up with Yaw Ampoma. And the guitar accompaniment was something else. Tthe music was so good that even the parts of the song we couldn't comprehend communicated deep emotion to us. Indeed, if we had a problem with the lyrics, we had absolutely no issues whatsoever with the guitar introduction with which the song opened and took the song along. It was played as if by two or three guitars, each instrument melding into the others harmoniously without any apparent effort.
And the man with Papa 'Sei rendered it faithfully in the same way it was on the Kwasi Manu record we knew! The only difference was the absence of the chorus and a rhythm section. But Kwasi Manu's melodious voice made up for that.
When the song ended, we all yelled our delight. My father opened some more bottles of beer and entreated them to stay and play a few more songs for us. But Papa 'Sei insisted that they had an appointment somewhere and must go. He disarmed my father by saying, “Now that you've got to know him, I shall bring him back and you will be able to hear some more of his music.”
Unfortunately, as was usual with Papa 'Sei, he was never able to fulfil our expectations. Kwasi Manu never came back to Asiakwa. But to me, it was as if a boy in Britain had experienced a live performance by Paul MaCartney or Eric Clapton, or if he were in America, by Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan.
I entertained the notion, for a time, that my father would be able to bring Kwasi Manu back to sing for us, such songs as the one in which he used such memorable phrases as “The eyes don't recognise what is sorrow, otherwise I would nod off as I sit down!” or the one in which he reproached a young man for being “too much of a man-about-town to go to the farm in order to bring food to eat!”
I didn't hear of Kwasi Manu again – until rumours spread that he'd died. Up to now, I don't know where he was from; where he lived most of the time, and how he died. But he's been part of me all my life. How many of our modern musicians are working to make such an impression on the young ones who are listening to their music?
Once again, I appeal to the Arts Council: find the music of Sam and Kwasi Manu, Kwaa Mensah and EK Nyame, Otoo Lartey and the other greats of our early years, digitise them and make them freely available nationally. You can go to the archives of Decca and other record producers and get the stuff! I know private collectors, like Porf Collins, hold some of them, but they are a national treasure, and not be subjected to the vagaries of capitalistic enterprise.