High Life in the Lowlands
A Ghanaian artist found success by bringing his native culture to appreciative Netherlands' audiences. Jonette Stabbert speaks with Sloopy.
A household name in his native Ghana, Mike “Sloopy” Gyamfi has also become popular in the Netherlands, where he has lived since 1985.
He took on the nickname ‘Sloopy’ because of his love for the popular 70s song, Hang on Sloopy. And the unique moniker proved popular — the artist has produced five albums and had a number one hit in Ghana.
He’s also performed at major music festivals throughout Holland and worked earlier this year with the Wereld Kinder Festival, organising and performing a five-week tour that presented an educational music programme to schools around the country.
A cultural legacy in music
“Bright Life is my version of what is known as High Life music,” Sloopy says. “That is the traditional music of Ghana played with Western instruments. Introduced at the beginning of the last century, Africans played it for colonial masters and people in the higher strata of society, so the lower classes referred to it as High Life.”
High Life music uses modern instruments — guitar, congas, trumpet, saxophone, drums, bass guitar and keyboards, explains Sloopy.
"It started mostly with the brass section, because the roots were with the regimental bands of the time. The army bands used these instruments. The Portuguese slave traders had introduced the guitar earlier. Africans then adapted the use of these instruments to play their own melodies.”
At first, there were two very distinct styles: Palm wine music, played with the guitar, and High Life. As time went on they merged, so there are different interpretations today, but they are all called High Life.
“The lyrics are determined by the post-colonial era,” he says.
There was much poverty in Ghana and High Life provided cheerful entertainment. However, political and other changes resulted in melancholic songs that expressed the difficult times.
“A new era introduced electronic music, finally affordable, so many musicians got synthesizers and experimented with their music, especially younger people," explains Sloopy. "The earlier songs were very philosophical, expressing deep feelings."
Bringing Ghana's stories to the Lowlands
Sloopy wears many hats — he’s a music producer with his own company, AIPP Studios (African Ideas and Promotion Productions), and he’s also a singer and musician, storyteller, an authority on Ghanaian music and a spokesman for the Ghanaian community in the Netherlands.
He’s worked as a presenter with the Netherlands external service (Wereld Omroep) and Radio Akasanoma (Ghanaian Radio Amsterdam).
The current exhibition Palace Secrets (Paleisgeheimen) at the Tropical Museum (Tropen Museum) in Amsterdam owes much of its success to Sloopy.
In 1999, he travelled to Ghana and assisted members of the Tropical Institute (Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen) with preparations. The exhibit, which involves Anansi storytelling, will run until March of 2003. More information is available (in Dutch) for children at www.anansiweb.nl.
Anansi is a traditional form of storytelling that originated in Ghana and then spread to West Africa and many other countries.
“I kept meeting other storytellers, but no Ghanaians who could tell our tales. So I started telling Anansi in theatres here. In a way I am telling the stories of Ghanaians,” says Sloopy.
There are two meanings to the word Anansi. Literally, it means spider, and the weaving of a web is like the weaving of a message or morals into a story.
The other meaning is more closely related to Ghanaian culture, he explains.
Sloopy himself takes part in storytelling activities in schools throughout Holland and in numerous Dutch theatres.
Communication skills are important to a master storyteller, and Sloopy speaks English, Dutch, French, his mother tongue Akuapem and other Ghanaian languages.
He lives with his partner Judith, a Dutch painter and sculptress and their two children, Jesse and Josephine.
The future looks bright as well. New plans include a change of direction.
“I want to study programming and IT,” Sloopy says.
Of course, music will always play a major role in his life, but he would like to eventually design games that will help people to learn more about Africa.
With his cheerful music, happy smile and capacity for making friends everywhere he goes, Sloopy is leading the Bright Life.
Subject: Expat profiles