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.” ◀
THE SUBVERSIVENESS AND THE DELIGHT OF THE WORLD OF PUPPETS IN THIS FILM WORKS BOTH FOR ADULTS AND KIDS. — STEVEN FELD
Nii Otoo Annan Opposite page, J.C. Abbey’s puppets: top, Bob Marley, bottom, duck drummer
Nii Noi Nortey