Was the drum the first musical instrument you learned to play?
When I was growing up in Ghana, traditional music was everywhere. If I went to the homes of my family, either side of my family, traditional music was played in the house.
My grandfather was an herbalist. He would develop herbal medicines and as part of the healing process he would use traditional music. My grandmother was a spiritualist. She would use traditional music as well.
The drum is part of our culture and it was the first instrument that I connected with fully.
Music was all around you?
Yes. Everywhere I went, every house, everywhere in my village, I could always hear traditional music. People were playing music from early in the morning till late at night.
Did your family want you to be a musician?
My family wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer. We lived in the new Ghana, an independent Ghana, the first African country to be fully independent, and there was a sense of improving your situation from where your parents had started.
My Mum and Dad wanted me to be well-educated, they wanted me to do well at school.
Your family wanted you to take your education seriously?
Yes, but I wasn’t interested in school. I would hardly ever go. I probably turned up to school about 30 days out of the whole school term.
I knew what my family wanted me to do, but all I wanted to do was play music.
My mum would say that I had to go to school and I would put my uniform on and pretend to go to school. When school finished I would rush home and pretend that I had been at school all day when I had either been playing music or had gone to the beach.
What did your family do for work?
My Dad was a fisherman. He fished all his life and my Mum would prepare the fish for sale. She was a merchant or a trader. It was in many ways a very traditional household.
Did you ever think you would become a fisherman?
I did fish but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was play music.
When did you decide you were going to be a professional musician?
As I said I loved music from a very early age, but when I was a teenager a friend of mine called Adie told me he thought I had enough talent to become a professional musician and he introduced me to the leader of the Akrowa Drumming and Dance Ensemble, . That is when I started to take music very seriously.
Akrowa is quite a serious group in Ghana?
Yes, that’s right. Until I joined Akrowa, all the rhythms I was learning came from my local tribal culture. I was being taught by everyone around me and I was picking all the skills up from watching people.
It was through Akrowa I learnt other rhythms from different cultures in Ghana and then international rhythms, rhythms from Guinea, Senagal, Mali, lots of other countries and I also improved my technique.
Akrowa is group that trains people from all walks of life, some with a musical background and some with no musical background.
You had to be playing at a very high level to play on stage with Akrowa.
Who ran that group?
One of the most important musicians from Ghana was Mustapha Tetty Addey. He became internationally famous and he trained a man called Okoe Ardyfio.
Okoe set up his own group, Akrowa, and then trained me, I played with Akrowa, and when I reached the level needed to play with Mustapha Addey, I joined his group.
You played at the highest level?
When I reached a very high level of playing I was picked to play in Mustapha Addey’s band.
Mustapha Addey played all over the world, the United States, Germany, Europe and Africa.
In that group, I was taught technique is the most important thing. As a drummer you need to know the right technique.
Once you have good technique you need to learn all the rhythms, and nothing is written down.
I had to learn each rhythm and all the various parts which go along with each rhythm. There might be 30 rhythms and each rhythm has 5 parts, so you need to know 150 drum parts.
Where did you play?
We played at festivals, in hotels, in towns and villages and at funerals. We also played in schools as well.
I start teaching at Mustapha Addey’s music academy in 2003 and was part of his band in 2005. I was making a living as a drummer at this point in time.
You played traditional Ghanaian music?
Yes and there is something important to say here that for a long time I played only the bell. In our music the bell is a key that unlocks the rhythms. The bell is the most important element of the rhythm because the bell keeps everything together.
Did you play any other type of music?
We didn’t listen to much western music but Afro Beat certainly had an influence.
I have probably listened to a lot of different styles of music since I moved to Northern Ireland, and I have played with groups who play music far removed from my traditional music but my passion is to play and to teach people Ghanaian Traditional music.
Thomas Annang has his own Drum and Dance School in Belfast. You can contact him at the following link – www.facebook.com/ThomasAnnangDrummingandDancing/
part two of this interview is here