Summer Music Series: Band Leader From Ghana Mixes Traditional, Contemporary In Manchester

Jul 13, 2018

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

The multi-talented musician Theo Martey has traveled the world with West African drumming groups. After settling in Manchester in 2001 he formed the Akwaaba Ensemble and they've been touring New England ever since.

While Martey plays traditional West African music, he also mixes contemporary recording effects and nontraditional instruments into his work. Martey spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about his music.

(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Let's talk about how you got started with music. When did realize that you really loved music?

I mean, I grew up in Ghana and I was spotted, you know. One of the band leaders started a group and he asked me if I wanted to be trained, or you know, part of the group. So, you know, that's where everything started and just started to train with them. And then, you know, right on, everything just kept going from there.

And then you came to the United States, though you did a lot of traveling before that. Where did you go and what were you doing?

I did, you know, tour with the group called Brekete in London before I came to the United States to settle here because my family, you know, my brothers and sisters and family were around here so I came to visit and I decided to want to stick around.

I hope we can listen to a little bit of music. Let's start with the first track from your most recent album. It's called, in parentheses, "I'm In Need." Can you pronounce that first name for me?

"Hehi Hami."

And that's the translation?

Yeah, the translation is I'm In Need, Hehi Hami.

Tell me about the origins of this song.

This song is an old song which I decided, you know, I wanted to do it differently. You know, it was more of a traditional folk song, a song that has been around for a very long time.

So when you say old you're talking centuries.

Centuries, yeah. So I took this song and you know just modify a little with Western instruments and you know traditional instruments, all blend together.

Can I ask you something about this song and some of the others on this album as well. You make a lot of use of Auto-Tune, right? Is that what I'm hearing, Auto-Tune? What do you like so much about that?

I mean, some Auto-Tune and some not Auto-Tune, you know. Some are my, you know, natural voice, too.

Because it gives it a really contemporary feel when you do that.

Right, and I want my sound to be more broad, you know, than straight-up traditional, which I do the traditional side too, as well. But also, you know, things are changing and you want to have a little feel to sound, you know, where people enjoy more.

I want to ask you about another song on this album. It's the title track, which in the translation is "Lost in the World." How would you say the name of that?

"Jei Elaaje Wo."

This one is more mellow than most of the tracks on your album. Let's listen to it a little bit.

You know, I wanted to tell a story about what we're going through in the world and you know, what's happening in places of war and all those places and everything, tragedy, things that are happening.

Is that how you feel, lost in the world?

I feel like, yeah. I feel like, you know, where we are all not connected. And we are living in a division kind of world but you know, in my thinking, if everybody are more connected together I think it would be great for humanity.

That was Theo Martey, founder of the Akwaaba Ensemble. Listen for more of our Summer Music Series every other Friday on All Things Considered. And take a cue from Martey and add Peter Tosh's "Mama Africa" to your summer playlist.