Interview: Sabbey Drummers International (October 2014)

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I’m Upstairs at the Ritzy for the debut performance of Sabbey International and I have with me the two founder members of the band, Afla Sackey (Afrik Bawantu) and Yaw Asumadu (Ozi Ozaa).

Rhythm Passport
Sabbey International is one hundred percent traditional and one hundred percent acoustic. What is the main inspiration behind the formation of this band?

Yaw
This is where we come from, this is our roots and for some time now we have been playing a lot of contemporary African music but I realised that we had to go back to our roots, make traditional music and make it sound better and more appealing. Most people think African drumming is a cacophony but I thought to myself if we are educated enough to understand and appreciate African drumming then we should also try and educate other people on this tradition as well. As it happens I spoke to my friend and brother Afla. We have played in contemporary bands for a long time but realised that if we did not go back to our roots then we will be at a loss.

Afla
This is a project we have been talking about for the past fourteen years. We wanted to create something that will reflect our roots i.e. the Ghanaian tradition, but due to certain circumstances we ended up forming our own contemporary band. As time went on we realised we had totally left our roots behind! At last we’ve managed to make time and develop a totally different sound with our traditional sounds being the main focus. The result is what you are going to hear tonight.

Rhythm Passport
From what I have heard in your rehearsals and the sound check tonight I can see your Arrangements are very complex. Is it strictly arrangements derived from traditional music or is it a merger of traditional and modern rhythms?

Afla
I think that what we play is a mix of several things. It’s much more creative but it’s all derived from the roots. We pick up material from folk tradition and create our own unique version of it. Also it’s not only traditional rhythms from Ghana we try to explore but other African avenues. For instance we have this exciting song from Burkina Faso which we have adapted and it’s just fantastic.

Rhythm Passport
Another instrument you use prominently in the band is the bamboo flute. An instrument like that does not take centre stage in most bands but it does in Sabbey International. You have Kanti Qena a Peruvian flutist joining you to add more colour and harmony. What role does the flute play in the band as a whole?

Yaw
As I said at the beginning, most people still think traditional African music is mainly drumming and singing, but the bamboo flute has always had an integral part in Ghanaian musical tradition, especially the Ga people along the coast of Ghana and the Frafra people from the north. People here in Europe are not accustomed to it and we think by adding this melodic instrument it will add a bit more texture and form to the sound. Afla also suggested we bring Kanti on board. Kanti, being Peruvian shares so many musical similarities with us and so far it has been quite a remarkable experience – West Africa meets South America. Every country has its own tradition. If you stick to your tradition that’s fine but why not orchestrate it by incorporating other musical elements to conform with the 21st century? You have to know that by picking elements from your culture that are being overlooked and incorporating them into your music it makes things a bit more interesting.

Afla
As far as I know, as you said there are things that happened in the past with people playing the same songs and everyone has become bored of them. It’s all about the presentation. Traditional music is traditional music but it depends on the way you play it. That’s why these days people have the mentality of thinking African music is noisy music, but it’s all about the orchestration process. If the songs are well orchestrated then the music becomes cutting edge.

Yaw
And to add to what Afla said, you have to educate people to change their perception of African music in terms of composition, melodic and rhythmic arrangements.

Rhythm Passport
What should we expect from you (Sabbey) in the next few years? Should we expect an album?

Afla
The album is a must, and we expect the band to go to the next level because we have got more to give. We have more creativity and even more interesting ideas in the pipeline.


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