God was everywhere in the street
Renowned Ghanaian highlife musician, Nana Ampadu, died on September 28, 2021. In this interview from 2007, historian Jennifer Hart talks with him about the music that made him famous.
- Interview by
- Jennifer Hart
On June 21, 2007, I arrived at a compound house in La Paz, a suburb of Accra, Ghana. A relatively modest house, it was the home to Nana Ampadu, international recording artist and highlife legend, who died last week. As the Ghanaian guitarist Kyekyeku recounted in an Instagram memorial, “3 decades ago Nana Ampadu declared that he wanted to make his music his ‘own way’ at a time when the musical landscape was fast changing and the dose of ‘foreign’ elements and influences was overwhelming.” As the leader of the African Brothers Band, which was formed in 1963 and became known as the “Beatles of Ghana,” Ampadu went on to write more than 400 songs in his decades-long career. Ampadu was recognized as Nwontofohene (Singer-in-Chief) by the government of Ghana in 1973. In the interview below, which is excerpted from a longer interview conducted as part of dissertation research on the history and culture of driving in Ghana, Ampadu discusses his experience as a musician in the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s, and we talk about the role religion played in the public sphere of our respective countries during that time. I began by asking him about his 1983 hit song, “Driver Adwuma” (or “Driver’s Work” or Adwuma Yi Ye Den (Drivers) [“This Work is Hard”], popularly known as “Drivers”).
Yeah, we were talking about your song [“Driver Adwuma”]. You said it was released in 1983, but you started in 1977, starting to collect the songs?
Yeah, I started [in] 1977. I said, I want to sing about drivers—the inscriptions on their cars. Because when you read some of them, they are very entertaining. Some of them are thought provoking. Some of them are insinuating … writings. Some of them, you will laugh, you know? So, I said, no, I can make music out of this. So what I will do is I will start to collect the inscriptions. And it took me six good years before I could come out. I got about 140 plus, and I seek them. I scribed through and picked those others that I felt …
The 70 that you thought were good. Yeah.
Yeah, so it was 70. If you have got the record, read it and you see it. Thirty-five for the old cars, and 35 for the new [laughing]. It became so popular and it is still popular—still people buy it. It’s not forgetting because it was the first of its kind in the country. Nobody has, you know, come out with such a beautiful piece.
You’ve started a new one? … For your new song?
Uh huh. For the new song, but for the drivers, this time to advise them, their behavioral attitude, how they must behave. When they are entering the main road, they have to stop and look and then I will add their inscriptions as I did with the first one.
Aha, I see. So me, um, I see a lot more religious ones from what people have told me before … So now you see a lot of “My God is Able” and “God is King” and “God First” and “Onyame Adom” and “Nyame Nhyira wo.”
Yeah, some of them are sung in Ewe … In Ga, “LÉlÉnyÉ.” That is the Mantse [chief].
Yeah, and “Abedi” and “Abele.”
“Abele.” “Abele” means “corn.”
Yeah, and there was one in Arabic or something as well. “Aquay Allah,” or something …
“Acquay Allah,” that is Hausa. “Acquay Allah,” meaning [God exists]. You may not see it today on [a] car. … Things are changing. … On what they want to write. … These times, if you don’t go to the hinterlands, you’re not going to see inscriptions like “Obi dea ba.” You get it? Those letters that portray wretchedness. In the cities these young boys will not write anything that will deprive … no! … demoralize … no! … … a little. But in the villages you can still have some of those cars.
Even when they have old cars now, I met a boy, a young man, who was driving a car, an old car and it said “Destiny,” and he told me that he was so confident that he was going to do better things. He said, “Today I may be here, but tomorrow, you don’t know. I may be teaching at the university or something.” And so, I think, even when they have the old cars now they still … they want to be confident in their future, and they think God helps them get it.
In those generations, that was the tyranny in the system. You know, we could feel, poverty was an element of havoc. You see? People tempted those who were poor. And so they had some consolation to write “Énye se ano mu, eye.” Don’t expect that you will see me in these tattered clothes in the next future.
But now they don’t like to admit that they have the tattered clothes to start with?
Yeah. Now Christianity is unfolding everywhere. That is what’s changing the minds of the people. They’re getting a new perception—a perception of positiveness. Unlike their old times where people would be brooding over life.
And now because of Christianity they think that things will get better …
They think, they’re teaching talk better for yourself and it will happen because you expect it. You get it? Talk better things. Like the one who wrote, “Destiny” and he was telling you, “Maybe today you will see me, I’m a driver’s mate, but next time you see me a teacher. A step forward in the right direction in life.
Um, yeah, it’s similar to some of the preachers who say, you know, they like this … they call it “Gospel of Prosperity,” and so they say if you believe then you will be rewarded. You will be prosperous, you will succeed.
So you collected the names of the churches also?
Yeah, I’ve had some of the names of the churches, yeah. The new Pentecostal ones, the charismatic ones. Those are the ones that are the most interesting I think.
My church is, um, you know I’m an evangelist? They told you? … Center for Christ Mission.
Yeah, and so do you sing anymore or no? You sing in your church?
I sing in my church. I sing at big funerals, big functions. Yeah, this year when we had the 50th independence I was drawn up with other prominent musicians, yeah, to sing at a concert. A very big concert for dignitaries. And we were given some awards.
But you … choose to go sing gospel music after you stopped the highlife?
No, [I went to perform] highlife … let me tell you one thing. People misconstrue and have a different conception of what is highlife. Highlife is the rudiments of rhythms in Ghana, you see? Highlife is Ghana, when you talk about music. Highlife is the beat, so you can sing the secular music using the highlife tempo, like America is for jazz. You can sing gospel with jazz, you can sing secular with jazz, but people don’t understand it. The moment you sing secular, they say you are playing highlife while somebody sings and says “Oh Lord, I love you!” They play it with the highlife rhythm, they will say it is gospel and forget about mentioning highlife. The highlife is the tempo, the recognized tempo, the indigenous tempo of Ghanaians.
So you’re an evangelist and a musician at the same time?
Yeah, the meeting [connection between the two—being an evangelist and a musician] is an inborn kind of thing. The other day I was telling people, in music you can say I’m going for a timing. It’s not like government officials when they will just check your age and say you are 55, you are 60, go on retirement. Dr. Ephraim Amu retired when he was about 85. He was still a musician when he died.
It’s true, yeah. Very true. So, as a preacher, what do you think of these … or an evangelist—sorry—what do you think of these people now and the new kinds of signboards you see on the taxis?
Most of them are good. I mean, comparing to the old times. Except that some of them are coined … some of them are coining … coinages, you know? Innuendos. They just wrote … coined them themselves, but most of the other writings or inscriptions are very healthy. Reading that … they use to mention God, it encourages a lot of people. You get it? You see, I saw one of them said “Jehovah will do it.” You see? It’s encouraging. God will do it, so it’s not daunting. I like them! That’s why I said I want to repeat it.
And so what will the new song talk about? Because in the first song you talk about how a driver’s life is …
The tiresomeness of driving. You know, how the passengers would come and infuriate the driver … certain pedigree. But now …
Yeah, if you go too fast they say, “Oh, where are you going that you have to go so fast!?” But if you go too slow, they say “Oh, do you want us to sleep in the road?”
Yeah, so I want to advise the drivers on their mode of ethics—driver errors—I want to tell them so that when they want to enter the major roads, you look your right side first, look your … before you enter. Driver, the country loves you. If you know you are drunk, don’t drive. And then I will coin and add their writings. To make them happy. And this one I’m going to do.
So is there a particular reason why you were interested in taxis? Because I look at the … there’s also the signboards on the lorries and the trotros [privately-owned minibuses that serve as the primary mode of transportation in Accra] and the shops there … In the hinterlands we had the old lorries so most of the old … the wretched ones … The Bedfords?
No, the “Wretched Ratchets” were the old lorries like “Obi dea ba,” “Dwene wo ho,” “Onyame nae,” some “ebeye yie,” “yesi Énom eye” … all were on lorries. Mammy truck … we call them mammy truck lorries where the woman sat in to go to market places.
The [signs] were not on shops?
Yeah, some of them were on shops. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like “Onyame nnae,” “ebeye yie.” Most of them were on shops. “God is King” … you’ll find some on shops.
I think it is interesting because people don’t often put them on private cars. So you don’t put it on your own car or your own house or these things. Often they …
Few private cars now have them … But in our days they were very minute, but now you can see, most of these young boys, as I was telling, they will coin a name like “Sakota” or … ”Tola,” “Big Boy” …
Yeah, “Binghi Man,” I saw “Binghi Man.”
Do you see this in America?
No, see, we don’t have this, so this is why I think it is so interesting. Because people come … when I came to Ghana the first time, the thing I noticed was all the signboards about religion, about God … everywhere. All around. All in the street. God was everywhere in the street. You get me? So, we don’t have that in US. You don’t … so, people are even surprised when they see a billboard that has the Ten Commandments on it and there are a few of those on the side of the road. Very few. But you don’t see the writing on cars in this way. And painting on the cars and, um, shop names, the shop names tend not to be religious, but in Ghana there’s so many …
So do you think that religion in America is minute? In some of the states?
Um, I think it is just different. So I think that people understand or … experience religion differently and maybe think about it differently.
And they don’t like to express it in public.
Yeah, it’s private.
You express it within.
It’s a private thing. It’s like the missionaries used to tell you that … they used to preach that religion is a matter of your personal salvation. It’s not about …
But when I was in America, I saw that before I could study America I had the same perception, you know, like many Ghanaians, that when I went to America, I saw many TV channels that were religious channels.
Yeah, it’s true. It’s very true.
And there were a lot of people. I mean, they preach to people on the TV, so I say, “Oh, so these people, they understand God.” You know, when we were in Africa we thought that America was just a helpful paradise [laughing]. I was so sorry about that thing. So when I came back, I was telling them.
Many people go to church. It’s true! Yeah, and there’s many big churches just like in Ghana.
So is it the only African state that you have visited in your research? Have you gone to Nigeria and the other? They are all there …
I haven’t gotten to go to Nigeria, no.
Nigeria, it’s worse!
I have heard, yeah. Yeah, they tell me. [laughing] I’ve only been to Togo, so it’s not so much there. Because they’re Catholic there, you know. They don’t do these things. But I’ve been told by several other people … I know some people who do this work in Liberia.
And also a bit in Nigeria from, like, the late 1980s, I guess. And they also collected slogans—they call them slogans—inscriptions from taxis. And, um, the ones in Nigeria, some of them were religious but not all of them.
Not as many as are in Ghana now.
In Nigeria there are some of them, when you go to the Yoruba area they use … most of them use their gods … the names of their gods on them, on their cars.
Yeah, the Onitshas.
Yeah, I’ve been to Nigeria before. I toured there with my band a couple … about four times and we experienced all these kinds of things.
I haven’t myself seen it. I only have this writing by this man, this Nigerian man who wrote about a similar thing … about the taxi inscriptions … He’s a … I don’t know if he’s an anthropologist or what … and then I met some people who work in Liberia. And they also said … they listed all these taxi slogans, taxi inscriptions, and I went up to them afterwards and I said, “I study these … the religious ones in Ghana,” and they said, “Oh, in Ghana, of course they’re religious.” So, somehow Ghana is known to be so religious.
In Ghana we are religious. Very, very religious, you know. We come to know … because of the missionary schools, you see, I myself was brought up in Anglican church. I grew with it. I was baptized in it. Like my compatriots, all of us. So the moment you come out as a Christian, when you get married and bring forth [children], automatically you won’t let your children go wayward. You will just bring them into it. And this is what we are missing. Whether we understand it or not, we have to let people know that we are Christians. We have it there. Unlike in America where somebody will worship in his heart that you won’t display it. But here somebody will display that he is a Christian, but his ways are opposite of what is expected, you know. Opposite the norms and values of the Christians. But he just goes to the church to let people know that he knows God.
Right, but I wonder because people talk about how in Ghana and Nigeria the religion is so much more than in some place like maybe Kenya or South Africa or Zimbabwe where they also had mission schools and … and yet somehow religion didn’t become quite as popular as it did in Ghana and Nigeria.
Yeah, well maybe that is our style. The way we want to make it. Like, let’s go off a bit and [compare it to] soccer. In Britain [soccer is] their most popular game, but when you go to [the US], it’s not their religion, … soccer. They have a different [relationship to soccer] … So [with religion] this is how Ghanaians, they want to take it, ok? It’s good with us.
Yeah. Do you see an increase in the number of religious signboards and inscriptions or do you see the same number?
Oh, every time! Every time, it’s springing up! Every time! No, the rate, it’s being accelerated. Yeah! Every time.
Ah, why do you think that may be?
Uh … let me take it to the first … the attribution of spiritualism. You know, nobody knows how God works with his people, but the other time I was interviewing on radio and I said, when you hear that a church has sprung up from another church, don’t get annoyed. Because there’s somebody over there where the new church is going who hasn’t repented yet. And so maybe through that church … because he might be a deprived person … he can’t take a car or walk all that the long way to visit a church, but when it’s at his doorstep, I think he can get it. The access to get there will be easier. So, that alone is another way to promote the Christianity. So it’s good. I’m not saying I fully support it, but it’s good for God. That is why it is springing up. Unlike Muslim … even the Muslims have even started. Formerly, when we got this land in 1978, we had only one church, one … mosque. But now, just this area, we have about six. You see, so they too, they are springing up.