By Derek Miles
What began as a spontaneous project during Ghanan drummer Paa Kow’s first visit to the United States, has grown from humble roots into a powerful ensemble that takes the beat of the West African traditional sound, adds some American flavor, and puts it all behind Paa Kow’s stellar drumming chops for a sound that he refers to as “Ghanerican.” But as worldly as it all sounds, it took a local connection through the CU’s College of Music for many of the pieces to come together.
Paa Kow grew up in the town of Enyan Denkyira and at an early age began to fashion instruments out of found items. With no electricity in the town, he used his hands, mouth and feet to make music, and he built his first drum pedal out of wood, a door hinge, nails, string and a sandal. Years after those initial musical experiments, Paa Kow was living in Accra, the capital of Ghana, when he was visited by then CU student Peyton Shuffield. They played around the capital together over a few months and Shuffield encouraged Paa Kow to travel to the States.
Later that year, with the help of some CU professors, Paa Kow was invited to CU to teach and also play in the annual West African Highlife Ensemble concert. During his stay, Paa Kow began to form the group, even though in their early days they didn’t even have a name for the act. On his website, Paa Kow explained that at one of their early gigs they asked the audience to give suggestions for band monikers. “We don’t have a name yet, but by all means, we’ll keep playing for you,” they told the crowd, and in doing so they inadvertently named themselves. Soon thereafter, however, Paa Kow had to return to Ghana. But the spirit of the project had already consumed the American players and eventually, the band went to visit him in Ghana so that they could experience his culture first-hand. Eventually, Paa Kow moved back to the States and the band, despite the early geographic problems, started to focus full-time on their music.
Though there were various personnel changes since the first incarnation of the band in 2007, and a short relocation to Memphis, lately the group has settled into a tight, eight member, Colorado-based unit. The band consists of horn duo Joel Michael Timm on trombone and Noah Fulton-Beale on trumpet, as well as Peyton Shuffield and Justin Fichtner on percussion, Aaron Fichtner on guitar, Soloman Goldbas on keys, Andrew Simons on bass, and of course, Paa Kow on drums.
“My vision was to put together a huge band — an African orchestra. Each musician I need. The band can’t be cut down,” Paa Kow said in a recent interview with The Marquee. “It’s a huge sound. It’s how an ensemble band should be.”
In 2008, Paa Kow and company released Ghanerica, and just last year the group released Hand Go Hand Come, which was recorded at The Crucible Recording Studio in Eldorado Springs, and features a laundry list of Colorado players.
While Paa Kow is known for his drumming, as the group’s core songwriter, he uniquely writes most of the songs on bass, takes them to the band and collaborates to form the finished pieces, which are clearly danceable and include lyrics in both Fante — Paa Kow’s native language — as well as English.
“The ideas just come,” Paa Kow said. “Sing it, and then try to play it.” Obviously, he places a huge significance on the presence of percussion to fill out the sound of the band. Rhythm is key, and it is readily apparent in the group’s complex polyrhythmic arrangements. But aside from the inner-workings of the songs, the main idea is for the music to be original.
“If you’re playing someone else’s music, people forget who you are,” Paa Kow stated. “If you can play all original music, even if they don’t understand what you’re saying, the rhythm, the cowbell, the drums, the composition, it’s powerful and they will not forget it,” he said. “I don’t want people to come to my show and then forget it.”
Having lived in the U.S. for about five years, Paa Kow is overjoyed with how things are going for his band and how supportive the music fans are in Colorado. He is excited about the band’s growth and expects to keep that momentum as the driving force for their future. “Ghana is my home, but this is where I want to be,” he said. “I feel like here is home to me.”
:: Paa Kow’s By All Means Band ::
:: Boulder Theater :: April 18 ::
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