By Nadia Owusu June 18, 2020
My father, at cocktail parties, liked to get children dancing.
We’d be in the backyard flinging ourselves at and off things: tire swings, tree branches, each other. He’d wander out, beer or scotch in hand.
“What is this?” he’d ask in a loud voice. “The annual Foolishness International board meeting?”
I’d fill with a pleasant warmth.
My father would toss one or two of us over his shoulders. He’d run. We’d chase him to the patio or the living room—wherever the stereo system was.
“Dance time!” he’d say.
He’d teach us moves. Sometimes he’d even do a little choreography. We’d show off, get sweaty. Shy children my father would take by the hand. He’d coax and twirl them until they loosened. I was shy, but not when dancing with him.
“Eiii,” he’d say about any child who was really feeling the vibe.
My father was Ghanaian. Eiii is a sound many Ghanaians make several times a day. Depending on the context and tone, it can mean either that something is very good or very bad. Toward dancing children, my father always meant the sound encouragingly.
Children loved my father. He was playful and funny. For his United Nations job, we moved to a new country every few years: Tanzania, England, Uganda, Italy, Ethiopia. There was little in my life, growing up, that was constant. But at our welcome cocktail party (there was always a welcome cocktail party), I could always count on my father to help me make friends. Those friendships often lasted until we moved again. Most of the children of United Nations employees attend international schools together.
Everywhere we lived, my father’s circle of colleagues and friends was very diverse—multinational and multiracial. They worked for UN agencies, or at various embassies, NGOs, and global enterprises. To parties at their homes—if the hosts were white—my father sometimes brought his own mixtapes.
“You know, I’m African,” he’d joke as he handed them the tape or CD, “I need proper dance music.”
He rarely brought his own music to Black people’s parties. Indeed, the one time I can remember him doing so was because—at that particular friend’s previous party—slow, white country music had been prominently played. That friend was Kenyan.
“What is with you Kenyans and this cowboy music?” my father asked.
“We like the stories,” his friend said.
“I’m an Ashanti,” my father said—referring to his tribe. “We too are storytellers. Even our drums gossip. But what we are listening to now are bedtime stories.”
His friend laughed at my father’s joke, and he laughed again months later, when my father handed him a mixtape.
“Party stories,” my father said.
On my father’s mixtapes: Soukous music from what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo—Papa Wemba and Koffi Olomide. Soca from Trinidad and Tobago—Mighty Sparrow and Maestro. Mbalax from Senegal—Youssou N’Dour and Fatou Guewel. Black American funk and R&B—Earth, Wind and Fire, Aretha Franklin. And always heavily represented: Ghanaian and Nigerian Highlife and Afrobeat. E. T. Mensah and the Tempos; Bobby Benson; Akosua Agyapong; George Darko; Ebo Taylor; Amakye Dede; and, of course, Fela Kuti.
To start the children’s dance party, my father often replaced whatever was playing with something more to his liking. If an adult protested, he’d say, “Eiii, I’m the DJ.” The eiii, in that case, was a reproach.
I recall a party in Addis Ababa. I was either eight or nine. Against the rules, I’d drunk more than one Coca-Cola. Plus, I’d had cake. Even before we danced, my body buzzed.
The dance floor was on the grass by the pool. My father played “Zombie” by Fela Kuti. I had heard the song before, but that night, I heard it anew.
“Zombie,” like a lot of Ghanaian and Nigerian music, is cyclical. The horns enter with a short fanfare. The lyrics are call and response. With each cycle, the song becomes more urgent. The temperature rises, drops dramatically, then comes back hotter.
Kuti sings: Attention! Quick March! Slow March! My father had us follow Kuti’s orders. He led us in a march with our arms held straight out and taut like zombies. Then, with the horn lines, we went wild—arms swinging, legs kicking. By the end of the song, I was out of breath.
“That was funky,” my father said. He low-fived each of us.
I did not know the meaning of the “Zombie” lyrics. I had not paid close attention. In the car home, as I sat with my head against the back seat window, tired and happy, my father explained that “Zombie” was a protest song—against the brutal and senseless violence enacted upon the Nigerian people by the nation’s army.
“Kuti is saying that the army is full of zombies,” my father said. Then he quoted the lyrics, in Nigerian Pidgin, which is mutually intelligible with Ghanaian Pidgin: “Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think.”
“They only think if they’re told to?” I deduced.
“Yes,” he said. “They just do what the government tells them to do, even kill people.”
“That’s wrong,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “and Fela got in trouble for writing and performing the song. It became popular. The government didn’t like it at all. They arrested him, beat him. But, through music, he stood up for what he believed in.”
“Funky and brave,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. I liked that he laughed.
Teaching my sister and me about the history, politics, customs, and culture of Black people, Africa, West Africa, Ghana, and the Ashanti tribe was one of my father’s great preoccupations. On that front, he did not trust our textbooks. Although our schools were called international, the curricula were modeled on either the American or the British system. There was little focus on Africa, even when we were physically located there. And “they will mostly teach you the white, Western versions of everything,” my father said.
My father was also worried that my sister and I would not know Ghana in a deep way; and more than that, he was worried that we would only have a weak sense of home. Our mother is Armenian American. Our parents divorced when I was two and my sister was a year old. My father had primary custody. We were distant from our mother. She lived in America, and we saw her rarely. It would be hard for us to know her culture. My father taught us to say—when asked where we were from—that we were Ghanaian. Yet, from Ghana, in many ways, we were also distant. Some winter and summer breaks, we visited our grandparents in Kumasi. But we stayed only a few weeks at a time. We didn’t speak Twi. When, among my father’s family, I said eiii, everyone laughed. Obruni, some in my father’s hometown called me—foreigner.
Still, to make us feel Ghanaian, my father tried. After school, before dinner, he often gave us lessons. He taught us about the pre-Christian Ashanti gods. Nyame, the sky god. Asase Yaa, the earth goddess. Anansi, the trickster spider who accidentally spread wisdom around the world while trying to steal it all for himself. The abosom—spirits who take the form of trees, rivers, animals, and stones.
Both my grandfather and grandmother came from royal families. My father taught us about the roles my ancestors played in advising the asantehene, the king, and mediating disputes among people in their villages.
In the Ashanti tradition, ancestors are to be venerated. They watch over and protect us, unless they feel ignored. If they do not get their due, we can expect punishment. On our balcony in Rome, my father showed me how to pour libation.
We learned about the Ghanaian fight for independence against the British, and about the vision of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, for Pan-Africanism—unity between all people of African origins, both on the African continent and across the diaspora. I was drawn to this idea. Despite my lack of Twi, no matter where I lived, I was included in Pan-Africanism. I was connected to all Black people, and they to me.
For the same reason that I loved learning about Pan-Africanism, some of my favorite lessons my father taught me were about music.
Ashanti rhythms, he told me, are among the roots of some of the best Black inventions—the blues, jazz, highlife, Afrobeat, funk. Those rhythms survived the Middle Passage.
“You can hear echoes of Ashanti rhythms in Black American music. Then, through trade, tourism, and radio, Black American music forms traveled back to Africa, where they influenced the creation of highlife and Afrobeat. We know, for example, that Fela Kuti was inspired by James Brown.”
This story, to me, seemed miraculous, though I didn’t, then, work to understand why. Now I realize that it was a story of survival, of resilience, of strong roots and wide branches, of mutuality, homecoming, and hope.
My father died when I was thirteen. The many years passed have taught me that I will never stop grieving.
Through my teens and early twenties, for no good reason, I rarely listened to highlife or Afrobeat. Hip-hop and R&B were what I turned to, almost exclusively. Then, when I was twenty-nine, after eighteen years, I returned to Ghana. There were many reasons why it had been that long. My father’s cancer. The instability that followed his death. The cost of the ticket, once I moved, at eighteen, to New York. But at twenty-nine, I got a job with decent pay and paid time off.
I flew into Accra and took a bus to Kumasi to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Almost immediately upon arrival, in a profound way, I felt my father close to me. I saw his face in the faces of people bustling around the airport. I heard him in the voice of a stranger beside me as we waited for our luggage. He had been met by a large group.
“Look at you,” he said to a girl of four or five. “Madam. You are an old lady now.” It was my father’s sense of humor.
Most of all, though, I located him in the music. On the bus to Kumasi, highlife and Afrobeat. In my uncle’s car, highlife. All day, my grandparents played highlife on the radio.
How stupid I’ve been, I thought. I could have been listening all along.
Back in New York, I added to the hip-hop and R&B highlife and Afrobeat. Alone in my room, at the cocktail parties in my mind, I danced with my father.
Years later, I met the man who would become my partner. Professionally, he plays the saxophone. Jazz, funk, Afrobeat. We visit Ghana often. While there, he takes Ashanti drumming lessons, and we both take dance lessons. We go to hear live music in the old and new traditions. We have befriended a group of jazz musicians in Accra—the Ghana Jazz Collective.
These days, musicians like Sarkodie, from Ghana, and Davido, who is Nigerian American, have achieved global success with a mix of, among other genres, hip-hop and Afrobeat. A circle is endless.
“Eiii,” my father might have said, delighted. “Dance time!”
On our last trip, a little less than a year ago, my partner and I went together to meet the highlife legend Koo Nimo, who my grandmother said used to liked her very much when they were young. He told us that, in Ashantiland, drum, dance, and song play central roles in all aspects of life. My father said this to us often. At Ashanti funerals, there is music and dancing. There is joy—a celebration of the departed person’s life. I thought of how, at home, I danced with my memories of my father. I was keeping the tradition—veneration and celebration, strong roots and wide branches.
Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer and urban planner. She is the author of So Devilish a Fire (2018) and Aftershocks: A Memoir, forthcoming in 2021. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Literary Review, Catapult, and other publications. Nadia grew up in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Kumasi, and London. She is an associate director at Living Cities, an economic racial justice organization.