A chance meeting in a hotel and a missed opportunity… How one journalist, with nothing to talk about, had his love of music transformed by a guitar riff and a drum beat. Cameron Duodu shares his memories from four decades ago.
In the early 1970s, one of the most pleasant drinking places in Accra was the terrace bar of the Continental Hotel. It was a very long terrace that overlooked, at the far end of the hotel, a bubbling mass of foamy water thrown into the air by the radiators of the cooling system.
Now, imagine it is 3 p.m., the temperature on Accra's streets is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and over on the Continental Hotel terrace, water is oozing upwards in a soft shhhhhhhhhhhhh! movement.
Fountain-type action. A cool breeze is caressing your skin. And on your table is a glass of freshly-pumped draught Club beer. Heaven or what? Sometimes – especially on Saturday afternoons – there was even a band playing downstairs, near the fountain. Good, contemporary hi-life plus the occasional calypso.
Heaven or not, I was often there. And I met many other heaven-seekers there. For some reason, people drinking there who recognised me, wanted to talk to me. Everyone wanted to say things that they hoped would improve life in Ghana if written about by a journalist. Others merely wanted to share experiences. Colonel I.K. Acheampong, who was commander of the First Infantry Brigade of the Ghana Army, sat by me and told me that he had just returned from Trinidad, where he and Colonel Frank Bernasko had conducted a court-martial of coup plotters, on behalf of the Commonwealth. ‘They nearly succeeded, but they did not do any forward planning at all. No forward planning!’ he said.
I noted in my mind that he knew how to plan a coup efficiently! I was right and the rest, as they say, is history. (Acheampong led a coup that overthrew the government of the Progress Party, led by Dr K A Busia, on 13 January 1972).
The renowned Nigerian mathematician Dr Chike Obi was introduced to me on the terrace of the Continental Hotel. He told me, unprompted, ‘Sometimes, when I look on the state of Africa today, I get the feeling that we were once a great people who could do all sorts of wonderful things, but that we misused our power and it was taken away from us as a punishment.’
He also said, again a propos of nothing, ‘If you ask a powerful man for something and he doesn’t do it for you immediately, forget about it. Otherwise you will be troubling him – and yourself – for nothing!’ What did he mean? What had he asked of whom, and did he get it or not? Before I could pry, he was gone. A few years later, I heard of his sad death. He took his vast amount of knowledge with him.
One day, I was walking back to my table after visiting the gents’ when a young man I did not know beckoned me over.
I sat with him and his companion.
He said, ‘My name is Ayeh-Kumi. You don’t know me because I didn’t grow up here. But I have seen you on television.’
He was the son of one of President Kwame Nkrumah’s most powerful financial and economic advisers, the former Minister of Industries, Mr Emmanuel Ayeh-Kumi.
I smiled sheepishly and waited.
‘I want you meet this gentleman. He is Carlos Santana. He is a jazz musician and I think you are the sort of person he should be talking to.’
I hadn’t heard of any Carlos Santana. The jazz artists I was familiar with were Joe Pass (whom I’d heard at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London; Count Basie (ditto); Duke Ellington; Errol Garner, Paul Desmond of Dave Brubeck’s Band and Horst Jankowski among others.
But I smiled at Carlos Santana. He had a bush Afro and a slightly-ginger-haired moustache. He had big, expressive eyes that looked as if they were hiding a lot of profound thought. But I found, when we began to talk, that we were engaged in one of those intricate and painful conversations in which there’s no point of reference and therefore making sense to each other is difficult. I mean, I hadn’t heard the guy’s music, so what he said about trying to synthesise Afro-Cuban, Mexican-Latino and African-American jazz and rock, didn’t register with me at all.
It was a tough 10 minutes for both of us. And I am afraid Ayeh Kumi, who could probably have acted as an intermediary, wasn’t much help! He seemed altogether to be too reticent a fellow. I soon made my excuses and left to go back to my own table.
But then, a few days later, it happened! IT was Soul-to-Soul, the concert at which Santana had come to Accra to perform. It took place at was then Black Star Square, on 6 March 1971.
IT was the music-fest of music-fests: a huge concert organised by a group of African-Americans who had obtained the approval of the Arts Council of Ghana to bring mainly African-American musicians to Ghana to perform with Ghanaian musicians live on stage.
Among the more famous American musicians who came to Ghana were Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack, Les McCann and Eddie Harris, The Staple Singers, The Voices of East Harlem and, of course, Carlos Santana, leading a band that featured Willie Bobo on timbale and drums.
I didn’t bother to get seats for the open-air concert and parked my car, with most of my family in it, near the Square, at the High Street end. The spot I picked was extremely good: a very faithful loudspeaker had been attached to a lamp-post there and gave an excellent reproduction of the music that was being played on the stage some 600 yards or so away. Better still, what I was hearing came out in an ‘echoic’ form because the sounds came from the stage, and went back there. I used my cassette recorder to try and record some of it. Very lively and happy music was performed by everyone who mounted that stage. Wilson Pickett and Ike and Tina Turner were the star-turns, but everyone else performed very well. The whole concert was excellent – part of it can be seen on YouTube if you search for ‘Soul-to-Soul Ghana 1971’.
To me, the most enchanting session was when my friend Carlos Santana and his band took to the stage. The first twangs on his guitar, as he played the opening bars of ‘Black Magic Woman’ made me rewind the tape and record over what I’d already done! WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT! Was this magical music or what? And I’d sat next to this man and not known what to talk to him about?
That performance by Santana was, to say the least, to change my perceptions of what the guitar could do. Later on, Isaac Hayes also captured me with some of the long guitar riffs in his ‘The Look of Love’. But it was Santana who robbed me of my guitar virginity – so to speak! It was as if ‘Black Magic Woman’ was composed specially to be played in the open air so that the guitar's notes could echo around the Black Star Square, move to the sea nearby, bounce over the surface of the waves and surf back to reverberate across the tarmac of Black Star Square.
And then the drums! They beat rhythmically for a while and then changed tempo. With the guitars pausing and kissing the sounds they made.
The melody and the words of the song were also magical but I didn’t hear them. It was the guitars that got me. They yelled; they moaned, and then towards the end, everything went quiet and two enormous moans came and went on as if they would never end. Parurrrrrrrrrr----Parrrurrrrrrrrr!
Oh, how can I reproduce those Santanic sounds with mere letters on a keyboard? The huge, long moans the guitar made, echoing across the Square and back through the public address system, and waiting for Santana to change the tune to ‘Oye como va’ and the drums in that number!
The day after the concert, I went to the Continental Hotel at lunchtime to try and find Santana and take him home to treat him to a Ghanaian lunch. But he was nowhere to be found. I didn’t pry too much, for some artists regard a very good performance as a ‘death’ or a ‘second birth’ – take your pick! And it isn’t wise to interfere with such a private thing as a birth or a death!
But luckily for me, I found Willie Bobo, Santana’s drummer. He must have been the most surprised guy in the world when I wouldn’t take no for an answer and insisted on his coming home with me to eat lunch. We served him a beautifully grilled fish we’d bought fresh at the beach that morning, and he seemed very pleased. So pleased that he wrote his real name, William Correa, in my address book and asked me to come and see him if I ever was in Los Angeles (where he then lived.) Regretfully, I wasn’t able to take him up on his offer before he passed in 1983 although I was in LA in 1982.
For over a year after Soul-to-Soul, Santana’s guitar sounds that I had recorded were my constant companions in my car, whether I was doing the school run, or just going out to meet friends.
And do you know something? I preferred my own patchy recording to the professional versions that were soon selling like hot cakes in Accra.
For I could see Santana as he played! I could hear the slight distortions that the open-air concert provided, as distinct from the claustrophobic atmosphere in the soundproof studios in which the professional recordings were made. The music on my tape was ALIVE! That on the professional recordings was synthetic. How I wish I still had that tape of mine. But it doesn't matter – ‘Black Magic Woman’ still does it for me, no matter what version I hear.
Wow! So it is 45 years already? So much has gone! The Continental Hotel has been transformed into the far less accessible Golden Tulip Hotel.
The GNTC shop at North Labone, in whose car park I used regularly to play the Santana song whist waiting for the day’s shopping, bears no relationship whatsoever to the place I used to know.
And Black Stare Square has become Independence Square.
Why was it renamed?
But my memories will always associate Santana with Black Star Square, and the Continental Hotel.
You can take this name-changing thing too far!
* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR/S AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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