Countless scholars write of the African traditions behind the blues, music that defines the Mid-South. Samuel Charters' The Roots of the Blues: An African Search is just the tip of the iceberg, exploring in depth what has become a cliché of music history. While few would dispute the truth of this, it's rare that we in the home of the blues can experience the sounds of Africa. Aside from occasional recording projects that bring the two worlds together, like Otha Turner and the Afrossippi Allstars or Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, what can we hear of the continent that is mother to us all?
This is beginning to change, with the Memphis-based African Jazz Ensemble gaining notoriety and the ongoing presence of African drumming and dance in performances by the New Ballet Ensemble. And soon we'll have a chance to hear more of it, with the return of Paa Kow, a trap set master from Ghana who has assembled a unique ensemble appearing next Wednesday at the Hi-Tone.
Kow grew up in a small village in Ghana, making his first drum set from assembled odds and ends, including a drum pedal made with a sandal and a door hinge. "I started when I was, like, 5," Kow says. "I played with my uncles, and was in a band with my mom. From there, it just took off. I moved to the city — all the best artists were in Accra." Under the wing of Ghanaian pop star Amakye Dede, Kow quickly made a name for himself and was touring in other parts of Africa and in Europe.
By 2007, after befriending a traveling student from the University of Colorado, Kow was invited to teach there as a guest artist. Ultimately, he ended up settling in the Denver area, assembling a band of Nigerian and American players to perform his unique hybrid compositions. "I call it Afro Fusion, because I'm not really doing traditional highlife music. I'm an explorer — so it's pretty original, you know?"
Kow is also prolific: His 2012 debut, Hand Go Hand Come, was a double CD. Since then, he's released 2014's Ask, and next Wednesday, he'll be promoting a new album, Cookpot. Over the past 10 years, with these releases under his belt, he's built up a fan base in unexpected places. "I have a good foundation in Lincoln, Nebraksa. Omaha, it's great. Iowa. It keeps getting better and better. I've been here a while, and people start realizing what I do. The fan base is getting better."
His eclecticism may be a key to that. While Ghanaian highlife, with its extended jams over polyrhythmic grooves, underpins much of the music, there are more diverse flavors in the mix. "I like Weather Report; Earth, Wind and Fire; Herbie Hancock; Buddy Rich. So, it's a lot of influences," he notes. Such musical touchstones demand excellent players. "I like the jazz background of the musicians. Because it's very complicated stuff, you know? When they know what they're doing already, it makes it easier."
Kow's band now typically includes organ, multiple percussionists, guitar, bass, and several horn players, but this wasn't always the case. For a time, he and a much smaller ensemble relocated to Memphis. "I moved my band I started in Colorado, and it was only a four-piece then. It was just drum set, trumpet, percussion, and bass. That's what I had at that time. But we made a good thing out of it." The group was a notable presence on the local scene. "We played at the Cooper-Young Festival. I played a night at the Levitt Shell, and at the Hi-Tone, I played a couple times, before I moved back to Colorado. So I know Memphis. Yeah, I lived there before, I love Memphis."
It's notable that the Levitt Shell hosted one of his shows at the time: They have become perhaps the most reliable curator of world music artists in the Mid-South. Many recall an electric (and controversial) show there in 2015 by Seun Kuti, son of the outspoken pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti. With this in mind, I asked Kow if his songwriting reflected the same combination of politics and jazz as Kuti's music.
"No," he said. "I'm not trying to do political at all. I just wanna be happy. I want everybody to be happy. And it's not really spiritual, no. When the music comes, I give it out. It's a personal thing. The music always comes, and then I give it out, you know?"
Paa Kow performs with the Obruni Dance Band Wednesday, September 13th at the Hi-Tone, $10 cover.