Moving Forward with Martin Obeng

March 19, 2015
Africa's Moving Forward

What continent is always on the center of a map of the world? Africa. Kwaku Kwaakye (Martin) Obeng, an instructor of Ghanaian drumming in the Brown Music Department, reflects the centrality of Africa in his most recent album, Africa’s Moving Forward. The history of Africa and its interactions within its borders and with the rest of the world are taught in every school. Its history is central to the history of America and many other nations across the globe with the creation and eventual abolition of slavery. Obeng’s collaborators on the album are all accomplished Western trained musicians, none are Ghanaian, but all have a deep appreciation and respect for African music and culture.

Africa’s Moving Forward is Obeng’s fourth album, but he has contributed to the works of 15 other artists as well as to several books. His most recent album was created and recorded from 2007 to 2010 featuring nine other artists and including genres such as reggae, high-life, West African, Afrobeat, and jazz. Obeng explains, “Each song has serious meanings and some will appear in instructional books.” He will be using them for his students and those who want to learn rhythms from compositional aspects.

Obeng’s inspiration comes from his history of playing the drums from the age of five in Aburi, a town in the Eastern region of Ghana. He was surrounded with music as a child and heard his call to traditional Ghanaian music early, which he eventually used as a court drummer for local traditional leaders. Since that time, he has been unable to separate himself from drumming. He says, “I dream, and I think, and I feel things. I can hear the rhythms from an abstract perspective. I love composing. I like composing while driving with my windshield wipers because of their rhythm, there is a metronome there.”

His love for composing and his native country is clear in all of his songs on Africa’s Moving Forward. The songs, “Africa” and “Buggin Me” reflect on the lives of legal immigrants in America who are judged to be illegal because they are people of color while working tedious, low-paying jobs. His hope is that here at Brown, the Cape Verdeans seen working around the campus will eventually be seen in the classrooms as students and professors. He laments the brain drain that has occurred in Africa for so long making many believe it cannot move forward. In his song “Africa,” he claims that Africa is indeed progressing and says, “If we all go home and give back, I think Africa will be successful.” But, the wealth and opportunity elsewhere is enticing to so many Africans that returning to their home nation is unlikely.

Many of his songs are tributes to musicians and people he admires for their courage and influence. On the album, Obeng features a rendition of the song “Blue Monk” by Theolonius Monk, a renowned African American Jazz pianist. In Obeng’s version, he imitates the piano lines on donno drums. In his song “Susu Bribi”, which means, “ponder over something”, Obeng pays tribute to the great African American poet Maya Angelou, who despite never formally receiving a college degree, received 50 honorary doctorate degrees. The song repeats “deepest condolence” to reflect Obeng’s sorrow over the unrecognized talent of so many African people without college degrees. “Fella Funk” is a song intended to pay homage to Fela Kuti, the creator of Afrobeat music from Nigeria. Obeng remembers hearing Kuti perform in Ghana before he reached world renown. The final song on the album, “Harzard”, is in honor of Obeng’s friend and colleague, Jay Hoggard, with whom he has played music for a long time. The song is meant to describe Hoggard’s creative and experimental musicianship.

Other songs on the album reflect the influence of Obeng’s past on his current music and inspiration from abroad. The song, “Gha Bra”, (an abbreviation of Ghana and Brazil) shows the marriage between Ghanaian and Brazilian rhythms that Obeng discovered at a Brazilian music festival. He collaborated with Rogério Boccato to incorporate music of the two cultures into a cohesive, fascinating piece. The piece “Oprenten”, named after a hand drum, also serves to realize a new dimension of African drumming by using the idea of African Chamber Music Obeng has been developing. “I Like to Play” is a personal piece named after Obeng’s childhood passion of playing the drums. The song begins with a native proverb known by everyone in Ghana: “The river crosses the path. The path crosses the river. Who is elder?” The proverb reflects the deep respect for elders and community in Obeng’s native culture. He explains,“Music is not played by one person but by a group, a community.”

Through his compositions, Obeng wants to spread his love for traditional Ghanaian rhythms and his hope that one day appreciation for African immigrants and culture will be prevalent across the world, that it will be at the center of everyone’s hearts. Obeng’s heartbeat and that of all Ghanaians, Africans, African Americans, and musicians can be heard in each beat of the drums in his songs.

To listen to Africa’s Moving Forward go to