'Music is everything': Musician, professor in B.C. shines the spotlight on West African music, dance

The work of Kofi Gbolonyo is being showcased and celebrated in Azae Loo, a show at Capilano University's BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts. (Curtis Andrews - image credit)
The work of Kofi Gbolonyo is being showcased and celebrated in Azae Loo, a show at Capilano University's BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts. (Curtis Andrews - image credit)

West African music is being celebrated in the North Shore with a show celebrating the works of a Vancouver-based musician and professor.

Kofi Gbolonyo, a professor of African studies and ethnomusicology — the study of music through cultural context — has long been a champion of traditional African music and dance from Ghana, Togo and Benin.

"Music serves as a platform … to be able to talk about Africa and the African experience," said Gbolonyo, who has taught and performed around the world and works as an Orff-Schulwerk music educator, a musical teaching method that incorporates drama, speech, and dance. He also teaches jazz studies at Capilano University.

On the evening of March 3, the university is hosting Azae Loo in North Vancouver, a show dedicated to Gbolonyo's work, including collaborations with students and performers that explore West African music, dance and jazz.

Among them is a performance by Adanu Habobo, a B.C.-based West African drum and dance group Gbolonyo founded.

For the professor, who also teaches at the University of British Columbia and directs the UBC African Music and Dance Ensemble, shows like this are an opportunity to introduce the rich culture of West Africa, his first home, to B.C., his second home of over 12 years, as he hopes to bring West African music to the global stage.

WATCH | Adanu Habobo performs Tokoe, a West African coming-of-age song and dance: 

"Music is everything," he said, "not just for me but anybody … in Ghana, grows up with music.

"[In Ghana] you wake up doing something you do regularly, music is sounding around you," he added.

"You go to the market, people are singing to advertise their product."

Bringing West African culture 'to the world stage'

Gbolonyo also features West African traditions through Adanu Habobo, which is funded by a B.C. Arts Council grant to teach drum and dance to youth and elders in the African Canadian diaspora.

"Ghana is not really represented a lot in the Lower Mainland, but we're trying to change that," said Curtis Andrews, a musician, professor and one of Gbolonyo's musical collaborators.

"There can be such a disconnect between the culture from which a community is from and how they express themselves here," he said, adding he's not a part of the West African community but often collaborates with them, including Gbolonyo.

In 2011, Gbolonyo started Nunya Music Academy out of his family home in Ghana. This year, in July, the academy will open the doors of a new permanent building with 12 classrooms.

He hopes the school will create opportunities for students to learn and share traditional music with the world, like he has.

"When I was growing up, I didn't know I had so much talent [in music] until people exposed me to various musical traditions," he said.

Gbolonyo says the school invites music teachers from around the world to teach students, and in return students teach them traditional West African music.

"[The academy] brings my village to the world stage and also being the host of the world in my village."

Removing boundaries between performers, audiences

Andrews says Azae Loo is a celebration of Gbolonyo's efforts.

"It'll be a great celebration where people can learn a little bit about what's African music and culture," he said.

Gboloyno says he's looking forward to people engaging and enjoying the African experience beyond a scholarly setting.

He adds the show will remove boundaries between performers and audiences, to enliven the room with singing, drumming and dance.

"It gives people the opportunity to forget about whatever challenges they may be going through," Gbolonyo said.

Azae Loo starts at 8 p.m. at the BlueShore Financial Centre for Performing Arts at Capilano University in North Vancouver.


For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.