Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Kpakpo Kofi Warren Gamaliel Harding Akwei, 4 May 1923, Ghana; d 22 December 2008) Drummer and percussionist, composer, also journalist. For much of his post-war career and on his most famous album he was called Guy Warren; c.1970 he became Kofi Ghanaba (means 'son of Ghana'). He was one of the first to bring African drumming to the West. His father was a teacher who named him after the then American president. At age seven he was taught the Charleston by seamen visiting the British colony of the Gold Coast (later Ghana); as a teenager in Accra, he was given a gramophone by a British army captain, and a record of Artie Shaw's 'Non-Stop Flight', igniting an interest in American music. He landed a scholarship to Achimota College, where he studied music theory, also writing musical shows. During WWII he dropped out of teacher training and somehow (perhaps as a seaman) made it to New York via south America. One story is that he went there with the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra. He is said to have worked with the trombonist Miff Mole, but had to return to Accra, where a quartet including the saxophonist Joe Kelly played for allied servicemen passing through on their wy to the Middle East. After the war he and Kelly formed the original Tempos Band, soon joined by the trumpeter E.T. Mensah, who took over that band (see Mensah's entry).

By 1950 Von Coffey and Eddie Yebuah, pianist and guitarist with the wartime quartet in Accra, had started a band in London, and were joined by Warren. There was nothing like his hand-drumming in Britain, but the British musicians were aware of Dizzy Gillespie's experiments with Afro-Cuban music in the USA; Warren played with Kenny Graham, a young saxophonist who became deeply interested in the style (see his entry), and with Don Rendell and John Dankworth, and also did 'Calling West Africa' programs on the BBC. He returned to Accra with Cuban instruments and recordings of calypsos he had heard sung by West Indians in London, spreading world music wherever he went. He led his own Cubop Quartet; worked as a political journalist favouring the nationalist cause of Nkrumah; he visited Lagos and Liberia, working in local radio and on Afro-jazz fusion; he rejoined the Tempos for a while, and finally made it to Chicago in 1954, where he appeared on Studs Terkel's radio show and met Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn. He is said to have played talking drums with Lester Young. Parker is said to have invited Warren to play at an all-star concert in New York, But Parker was in very poor health and died within a month. In one of the last pictures ever taken of Parker, at the Beehive Club, he wore Ghanaian kente cloth while Warren wore Parker's overcoat.

With pianist Gene Esposito and prominent Chicago drummer and bandleader Red Saunders, he recorded Africa Speaks, America Answers '56 for Decca in Chicago; he worked for two weeks with Duke Ellington, then moved to New York. There, in 1958, he took a trio into the African Room nightclub, and recorded Themes for African Drums '58 on RCA, by this time calling himself Guy Warren of Ghana. The small group on the album included percussionist James Hawthorne 'Chief' Bey, and Lawrence Brown on trombone from the Ellington band. The cover photo on the album emphasized the exotic, a half-naked black man furiously playing the drums, but in fact the album was one of the best of its kind ever made in the USA, showing his mastery of everything from drumkit to talking 'squeeze' drum to the large, upright fontomfrom drums, and the record remains a sought-after collector's item. Max Roach said many years later, 'Ghanaba was so far ahead of what we were all doing that none of us understood what he was saying - that in order for African-American music to be stronger, it must cross-fertilize with its African origins. We ignored him. The sound of Ghanaba is now being imitated all over the US.'

Back in Africa at the 1960 Ghana jazz festival, Warren played his Voices of Africa drum suite. He visited India in the early 1960s, then went back to London, where he played with Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott. Producer Denis Preston recorded Warren's solo drum suite based on the drum music of Congo pygmies; he also worked and/or recorded with Rendell and trumpeter Ian Carr. In 1962 Warren had a fleeting taste of international success when German bandleader Burt Kaemfert had an international hit with 'That Happy Feeling', adapted from one of Warren's Ghanian tunes: it reached the Hot 100 singles in the USA and brought African flutes into pop music.

By 1970 he had changed his name to Kofi Ghanaba. That year with the former Cream drummer Ginger Baker he performed his Accra schoolroom concert, not exactly the height of stardom. Warren had been very influential around the world, but never had any managerial or record company muscle behind him; paradoxically he was so far ahead of his time in Africa that he would have found it hard to make a living in music. He spent most of the rest of his life as a teacher. He became a Buddhist and retired to Midie, a village near Accra. In 2002 he performed in Yaa Asantewaa, Margaret Busby's dramatic tribute to the Ashanti warrior queen.