Akwaaba Ensemble

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One of the fist things one learns after landing at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport in Accra is the word “akwaaba.” In the Ashanti language, Twi, it means “welcome.” This past weekend, the Akwaaba Ensemble, led by Theophilus Nii Martey, visited Peterborough.

Ten years since spending an undergraduate semester abroad at the University of Ghana in Legon, one of the phrases most emblematic of my experience is “welcome.” In the US, the word is almost exclusively a polite response to “thanks.” In Ghana, however, the phrase takes on a new significance beyond a mere formality. Ghanaians say “you are welcome” unbidden by expressions of gratitude. It is an explicit affirmation of generosity and hospitality that honors host and guest alike.

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Similar is the refrain: “feel free.” In Ghana one is often told to feel free by those who host you in their homes, their restaurants, their taxi cabs, their classrooms. The phrase is more an imperative than permission. Guests are not just free to be at home, but required to be genuine. The expectation of intimacy can be jarring, but it means that acquaintances rapidly become dear friend. It’s deeply civilized.

DSC03760Though guests, the Akwaaba Ensemble held court at Harlow’s. Martey as bandleader made the audience feel more at home in their own local. Electrifying percussion kept the dance floor full, and buoyant highlife grooves implored us to feel free.