"It's true," admits Ghanaian drummer Paa Kow (pronounced like Paco, with a stop in the middle) about playing with musicians from the U.S. "Somebody from home would actually understand what I'm doing more because we are speaking the same language. But music is huge enough for everybody. You get a band and make sure the sound is what is needed. You find better musicians who can feel it, and you get what you want, which is what I'm doing right now."
Paa Kow will play at the Hi-Tone on Tuesday, August 19th. Opening act, Mister Adams, is led by Memphian Adam Holton, who is one of Paa Kow's former sidemen and students. Holton studied at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is home to the West-African Highlife Ensemble. Holton met percussionist-producer Peyton Shuffield in that program, based on highlife, the national sound of Ghana.
"The professor who led that group would take a group [to Ghana]," Holton says. "On Peyton's trip there, Paa Kow happened to be in town. Peyton was like, 'We've got to get this guy to the U.S. People would freak out if they saw him playing drums.'"
Paa Kow came to Boulder and later returned to Ghana with Holton, Shuffield, and others in tow.
"We got to play with a lot of Paa Kow's old buddies in Accra, the capital," Holton says. "A lot of the elder statesmen of highlife, like George Darko. It was eye-opening to go to his home country and see how he was treated there. Just from knowing him over here, you had no idea that at any music spot in Ghana, they all know him and are looking up to him. He's an idol to all the young musicians. They were carrying his drum bags for him. He's treated like royalty over there."
Highlife is a 20th-century hybrid of traditional music of the Akan people from the Gold Coast of Africa and popular music influences from colonial sources. It was music for the elites, hence the name and Paa Kow's stature in his native Ghana. Paa Kow's playing reflects an African approach to drumming that is as much tonal as it is rhythmic. The clave beat that underlies most of what we consider Latin music came to this hemisphere through Ghana and Cuba. Rather than the tick-tock/on-off of western drummers, Paa Kow develops polyphonic, tonal rhythms that bubble like lively conversation. Each drum seems to have 10 voices.
"I think it's part of the tradition in Ghana and growing up in that village," Paa Kow says. "I started making my own drums from cans. Making something and playing and make sound out of it, it helps. That's what everyone does. You can see them making their drums, putting a calf-skin on it. But the sound that would come out of that drum, you won't believe. It was just the tradition. That helps me make sound out of any drum. You can see a drum that is busted. You get a head on top. It all is going to come from you. You can buy the most expensive drum you could ever buy or drums that are just old. But the way you make the drums to sound, that's what's important. That's what it is. And if you can make sound out of even a can, you can make sound to make a better rhythm out of it. That's what I've been believing since I've been growing up."
Paa Kow's parents were well-respected musicians in Ghana during his childhood. He's been a serious musician since he was a child.
"I think percussion is the same as a drum kit," he says. "The reason why I say that is you've got to pick up the percussion and make sound out of it. Making sure that the sound that's making out of it is ready. Playing a cowbell in a band, if it's a clave, I have to keep it. I see the same attitude on the drums. I think that being a percussion player helps you play a drum kit or any instrument. Keyboards, bass, everything; it's all based on the percussion. So I saw that and I was like, Wow, I want to do more. I'm playing a cowbell or only two congas. I want to play the pedals, put my foot on the high-hat stand and make a lot of sounds. I decided from that time, I would play the drum kit, at the age of seven."
Asked if there are any recordings of his parents, he says, "I wish. Back in those days, it's hard to get recordings of stuff. My uncle has an album. He did it with some producer. The guy brought the instruments in from Germany. He was playing shows and everything. But I didn't think of that at that time. I need to check. I bet it's great stuff. My mom was part of the band. She was a singer. But I didn't do any recording with them. I was too young."
After making a name for himself in his homeland, Paa Kow set his sights on the U.S. Meeting Shuffield turned out to be the opportunity that worked for both of them. Shuffield produced Paa Kow's latest album, Ask.
"Peyton came to Ghana in 2006," Paa Kow says. "He came with the students from Boulder, Colorado, and was looking for someone to study with. He asked everyone to come and meet with him. So he gave me a call and he came over. He actually saw what I have. That's the reason why we met in Ghana. I was touring around. I was like 22 and already playing with some big bands in Ghana. That same month, I was supposed to come to the U.S. It didn't happen."
Shuffield arranged a guest position at the Highlife Ensemble and Paa Kow came to the U.S. in 2007. He appreciates all the musicians who have worked with him here as much as they appreciate him.
"In Ghana, we have a traditional music, and we have some called highlife," Paa Kow says. "There is deep traditional music. Coming here changed my vision of it. I'm kind of doing my own thing, which is one sound from home — I still get all the tradition stuff. And being in the States, the musicians I play with are all educated musicians from the music school. It's good with the fusion and the jazz and stuff. But I don't think I'm doing a pure highlife. I have my own vision going on with my music right now. But those are influences, the jazz, blues. I call it Afro-fusion."