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Artistry, Entrepreneurship and Hospitality

You’re not really in Ghana until you’re riding a tro-tro. Tro-tros are converted minibuses and vans, fitted with seats that take advantage of every available space and pack a maximum number of people into the vehicle. They’re Accra’s ad-hoc, independent mass transit and they inspire in me a mix of fear, nostalgia and glee.

Today’s tro-tro conveyed us to my friend Bernard’s house in Medie, a northern suburb of Accra. Bernard is a master xylophonist, the chief drummer of the National Dance Company of Ghana and one of my favorite Ghanaian entrepreneurs. For the past ten years I’ve known him, Bernard has been sharing the traditional music of the Dagara people with audiences around the world, and using the money he makes in the process to sponsor organizations and businesses for his friends and family.

Bernard (center left) and his ensemble

The tro-tro is one of his investments. A brown Mercedes truck that’s seen at least a quarter million road miles, the tro-tro is the main conveyance for the Dagara Bewaa ensemble, a xylophone, drum and dance troupe that plays for audiences around the country. When not conveying performers, it’s available for rental with one of Bernard’s relatives as a driver. Parked next to it is a taxi, also a business investment, also source of income for one of Bernard’s relatives.

The centerpiece of his portfolio is the Dagara Bewaa School, a music and arts school that also serves as his home. With half a dozen dorm-style bedrooms, the school can hold up to twenty visiting college students who come to study xylophone, drumming, dancing and the culture of northwestern Ghana. When not on tour, Bernard teaches – when he is, his vast family runs the show, feeding, housing and educating visitors. The buildings of the school are a savings account for Bernard where periodic hyperinflation can make bank savings unwise; the school itself is a major economic force and employer in the village of Medie.

There are many African artists who have found a way to make a good living sharing their culture with the world. Given the success countries like Senegal, Mali and Ghana have had marketing aspects of their arts and music, it’s clear that culture is a resource as important as cocoa, gold or timber. But what became clear to me on this trip is what a complex and successful balancing act Bernard’s life as businessman and musician is.

In the US, we generally think of artists as removed from the world of business by a layer of managers and agents. And while some artists take visible political stances, we tend to think of them more as promoters and spokespeople, less as activists and organizers. The Ghanaian reality is a bit more complicated. Bernard is celebrity, businessperson and community activist wrapped in a single insanely busy package. (Indeed, we were lucky to catch him – in five years, he’s off to the US to start a semester simultaneously teaching ethnomusicology, earning his BA in music and touring.)

When we arrived in Medie, Bernard was leading a meeting of the Medie Area Dagara Benevolent Association. The Dagara, a minority tribe with a homeland hundreds of miles from Accra, are some of Ghana’s poorer citizens. The residents of Medie, with a lot of encouragement and leadership from Bernard, now pay monthly dues into a fund that provides money for community member’s funerals, and may eventually provide support for members who are un- and under-employed.

As the meeting broke down, the Bewaa ensemble, which rehearses in Bernard’s backyard every Sunday afternoon, put on an exhibition for the crowd. As the performance moved on, the line between crowd and performers got blurrier and the audience, including our group, got pulled into the mix. (Pictured below, Andrew McLaughlin getting his groove on. Not only can he set up Internet Exchange Points, turns out he can dance, too.)

We couldn’t stay longer because the tro-tro had to return to Accra to pick up Bernard’s next load of students coming in on a 7pm plane. (No word on whether they were met with acapella or lost luggage.) Packing for his own trip to New York and his first semester as a college student, Bernard first faces a week of a dozen students encountering Africa for the first time. But it’s just another quiet Sunday in the life of a master musician, entrepreneur and community man.

Lots more about Bernard at www.bernardwoma.com; video and more photos posted when I have more bandwidth.