J.C. Abbey: Ghana’s Pup­peteer


ig the hole your­self and take out the sand,” Naa Amanua of Ghana sings. “I’m the only one dig­ging. Me alone, what can I do?” The fa­mous song by Amanua, a vo­cal­ist who rose to promi­nence in the decades fol­low­ing Ghana’s 1957 in­de­pen­dence from Bri­tain, is “Walatu Walasa.” A new ver­sion fea­tures an in­tensely an­i­mated mar­i­onette per­for­mance by one of the African country’s trea­sures. In the documentary film J.C. Abbey: Ghana’s Pup­peteer, the lit­tle Amanua fig­ure sings and dances with re­al­is­tic en­ergy and some pe­cu­liar and mes­mer­iz­ing body lan­guage. A screen­ing to ben­e­fit the School for Ad­vanced Re­search is sched­uled for Wed­nes­day, April 20, at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts. The film tells the story of Ghana’s re­build­ing, but does it mostly with a se­ries of mu­sic videos fea­tur­ing more than a dozen of J.C. Abbey’s col­or­ful pup­pets and mu­sic by Gha­nian mu­si­cians Nii Noi Nortey and Nii Otoo An­nan. “Nii Noi is a sculp­tor and vis­ual artist and an in­stru­ment maker and per­former, the most eclec­tic, ec­cen­tric guy on the scene there,” said eth­no­mu­si­col­o­gist Steven Feld of Santa Fe, who shot the documentary with Nii Yemo Nunu. “He plays the one-string gonje and the sax­o­phone, and he also in­vented a fam­ily of African in­stru­ments with sax­o­phone mouth­pieces. Nii Otoo plays all the drum so­los in the film, plus he’s play­ing guitar and bass in a Bob Mar­ley piece.” Feld, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy and mu­sic at the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico, has been ac­tive in West Africa for 12 years. He met Abbey (who is known by his coun­try­men as Ataa Abbey, with the con­ven­tional Gha­nian hon­orific) in 2007. The pup­peteer is now seventy-two. “The 1960s through to the 1970s were im­por­tant pe­ri­ods in the na­tion’s mass ed­u­ca­tion and civic ed­u­ca­tion drives,” Nortey says in the new film. “Pup­pets were very cen­tral. Ataa Abbey, amongst oth­ers, trav­eled the length and breadth of the country learn­ing songs and dances, cos­tumes and lan­guages, styles and forms to in­cor­po­rate the na­tion-build­ing process. So Ataa Abbey came up with a se­ries of pup­pets re­flect­ing the na­tion’s iden­tity.” Abbey’s col­lec­tion in­cludes both mar­i­onettes and rod pup­pets.

The film opens with a clip from a March 1957 speech by in­de­pen­dence leader Kwame Nkrumah. The tim­ing roughly co­in­cides with the first time Abbey saw a pup­pet show. “There was no tra­di­tion of pup­petry in Ghana,” Feld said. “There was a Euro­pean who showed mar­i­onettes there in the 1950s and then some lo­cal guys took it up.” Abbey ap­plied his skill in wood­carv­ing for his pup­pets’ heads, hands, and feet; then taught him­self paint­ing and dress­mak­ing to adorn the fig­ures; and fi­nally the mar­i­onette string­ing and per­form­ing.

“We took our pup­pet shows from school to school,” Abbey tells Feld and Nunu. “The chil­dren loved th­ese rod pup­pets be­cause the body and but­tocks swing when they sing and dance.” The first three pup­pet pieces in the film fea­ture a trio of Abbey’s rod pup­pets an­i­mated with song and dance rhythms from the Ewe, Akan, and Fante cul­tural groups. View­ers see a 2005 film of drum­mer Kofi Ghan­aba per­form­ing, and then a re­mark­able mar­i­onette mak­ing a good show of play­ing the man’s com­plex drum pat­terns.

The pup­peteer’s con­tent over the years ranges from a Nkrumah po­lit­i­cal speech, de­liv­ered by one of Abbey’s handmade pup­pets, to kid-friendly an­i­mals. He cre­ated goat, cow, rab­bit, and mon­key pup­pets (dur­ing a 1977 schol­ar­ship to Prague) for a lit­er­acy story ti­tled, “It’s never too late to learn.” At one point, we view Abbey walk­ing into his stu­dio, greet­ing all his pup­pets, and se­lect­ing a wild-look­ing mar­i­onette to do a show for a small crowd of chil­dren. The fig­ure, black ant, is a gui­tarist with an in­sect head — and four legs. In our in­ter­view, Feld told the story of the day, soon af­ter the 1968 es­tab­lish­ment of Ghana Tele­vi­sion, that Abbey saw James Brown per­form­ing on TV. “Mr. Abbey said a hu­man be­ing can’t do that,” Feld said about the God­fa­ther of Soul’s en­er­getic

dance moves. “You would need four legs to dance like that.” Thus black ant’s four legs, which are beau­ti­fully busy danc­ing to An­nan’s drum­ming.

There is a won­der­ful in­ter­lude in which An­nan plays an as­sort­ment of tin cans and up­turned cook­ing pots. That segues into a feral free-jazz duet with two duck pup­pets on sax and per­cus­sion — Nortey and An­nan play­ing be­hind the cur­tain. Although most of the film’s pup­pets have strongly Gha­nian ref­er­ences, this duck piece re­calls the mu­si­cians’ ex­pe­ri­ences with Amer­i­can jazz. Th­ese in­clude work­ing with Feld in 2005 to record a trib­ute to John Coltrane’s land­mark al­bum

A Love Supreme us­ing African in­stru­ments and a 2012 per­for­mance with Feld, sax­o­phon­ist Alex Coke, and Iraqi-Amer­i­can oud player Rahim Al­Haj at the Out­post Per­for­mance Space in Albuquerque. The new film’s mu­si­cal va­ri­ety fur­ther spreads out with a piece based on the Nige­rian singer Fela Kuti, orig­i­na­tor of the Afrobeat genre; and with reg­gae’s Bob Mar­ley, whose themes of di­as­pora and free­dom res­onate with Gha­ni­ans.

Abbey’s mar­i­onettes are charm­ing “per­form­ers” of mu­sic and their fancy foot­work and wacky limb move­ments are both whim­si­cal and cap­ti­vat­ing. “That re­lates to the tech­nique,” Feld said. “The Euro­pean tra­di­tion is to use nine strings at the most. Mr. Abbey uses as many as 12, which gives him ex­tra abil­ity to cre­ate move­ment. The Fela pup­pet has the shoul­ders mov­ing and the hands on the sax­o­phone, the sax mov­ing up to the mouth and down to the ground, and the el­bows mov­ing with that rolling Fela thing he wanted. It also has strings run­ning into the head to move the eyes and lips.”

The funk­i­ness of the pup­pets with their strings all over the place adds to the in­ti­macy of the shows. “Peo­ple ask why we couldn’t have done some­thing about that, but we would have had to do a large-bud­get film pro­duc­tion with pro­fes­sional cam­era op­er­a­tors and light­ing, and re­string­ing the pup­pets with some­thing other than fish­ing line, sort of san­i­tiz­ing the pro­duc­tion. But the rea­son be­hind ethno­graphic documentary is that it’s a cin­ema of con­tact. This is a to­tal col­lab­o­ra­tive project.”

Feld lamented that pup­petry is a dy­ing art form in Ghana. “It came up at a par­tic­u­lar time and was as­so­ci­ated with na­tion-build­ing and then it kind of van­ished from tele­vi­sion, re­placed by an­i­ma­tion, and the young peo­ple are not in­ter­ested in carv­ing pup­pets; they’re in­ter­ested in do­ing it with com­puter an­i­ma­tion. But the sub­ver­sive­ness and the de­light of the world of pup­pets you see in this film works both for adults and kids.”

Feld re­ceived fel­low­ships from the MacArthur Foun­da­tion, the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the John Si­mon Guggen­heim Me­mo­rial Foun­da­tion. He first worked in West Africa in 2004. That was af­ter decades of study­ing the sound world of the Bosavi rain­for­est re­gion in Pa­pua New Guinea, and then record­ing a se­ries of CDs on the his­tory and cul­ture of bells in Europe. Among his books are Senses of Place (edited with Keith Basso for SAR Press, 1996) and Jazz Cos­mopoli­tanism in Ac­cra: Five Mu­si­cal Years in Ghana (Duke Univer­sity Press, 2012). His CD record­ings in­clude Bosavi: Rain­for­est Mu­sic From Pa­pua New Guinea (Smith­so­nian Folk­ways, 2001); Por Por: Honk Horn Mu­sic of Ghana (Folk­ways, 2007), and Ac­cra Trane Sta­tion:

An­other Blue Train (with Nii Noi Nortey and Nii Otoo An­nan, VoxLox, 2007).

“What to me is re­ally im­por­tant and how this J.C. Abbey project fits in with every­thing I’ve done is that rather than just fo­cus on tra­di­tions as some­thing of the past, we look at the eth­nic and cul­tural and lin­guis­tic di­ver­sity of the country and fo­cus on what’s mod­ern by talk­ing about [the mod­ern Gha­nian mu­sic genre] high life and con­tem­po­rary dance mu­sic af­ter in­de­pen­dence. By do­ing what th­ese guys J.C. Abbey have done, which is to give us an al­ter­nate his­tory of mu­sic in Ghana, they’re ask­ing, Who tells the story of a na­tion’s mu­sic? Is it just the elites and the uni­ver­si­ties or is it the artists in the streets who have lived th­ese 50, 60 years of his­tory since in­de­pen­dence? So the rea­son why James Brown and Bob Mar­ley and avant-garde jazz and pop mu­sic and hip-hop are in there all to­gether with this world of tra­di­tions is the an­swer: This is what it means to be a con­tem­po­rary Gha­nian.” Feld has pre­sented screen­ings of J.C.

Abbey: Ghana’s Pup­peteer in New York, Lon­don, and Por­tu­gal, at Tufts Univer­sity, MIT, the Univer­sity of Michi­gan, and sev­eral other places. Soon he will be mov­ing on to other things. “I have done 12 in­tense years in Ghana now. I will con­tinue to go and visit once a year to make mu­sic with our group, Ac­cra Train Sta­tion, but I’m go­ing back to my Pa­pua New Guinea work. Mickey Hart and I are remix­ing

Voices of the Rain­for­est, the CD we did 25 years ago, in 7.1 sur­round sound at Sky­walker Stu­dios. It’s re­ally far out, and in time I’m go­ing to fundraise and make a movie to go with it.

“I’m tak­ing next year off. I got a fel­low­ship from the Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Study in Be­hav­ioral Sci­ence at Stan­ford, and I’m go­ing to write an­other book about Pa­pua New Guinea. I like to work in sound, writ­ing, and film, be­cause my con­cern is to try to con­nect with dif­fer­ent au­di­ences, to make this ma­te­rial leg­i­ble or ac­ces­si­ble to all kinds of peo­ple.” ◀


Nii Otoo An­nan Op­po­site page, J.C. Abbey’s pup­pets: top, Bob Mar­ley, bot­tom, duck drum­mer

Nii Noi Nortey

Steve Feld

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