Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Oct 5th 2010 3:30PM by Steve Hochman
Mohammed Alidu and the Bizung Family, 'Land of Fire'
And almost immediately after finishing that trek, he's got a longer journey booked: He's moving back to Ghana, his home country, which he left in 1999, living in London, Madagascar and the US in the years since.
The most valuable item he's taking back with him, though, is already packed.
"The education I got," he says
It's an education, he notes, that he "never paid for" – lessons learned from the many people he's met and worked with along the way, lessons in music and in life.
"We're born to have that education," says the musician, who, in contrast to a reputation for being a man of few words, is quite chatty on this topic. "I learned from other people. When I meet people I make sure they see I am open and peaceful. That is important to have when you leave your home. You don't have boundaries. You are not in your zone. You have to let people see who you are and then you can learn from them. With my travels I learned so much and was able to build such a strong foundation and be myself. So when I go home I think I'm ready to offer some knowledge to my brothers and sisters about what my journey was about."
And he'll have a place to do that. With support from the Playing for Change Foundation, a music school has been built in Alidu's home town of Tamale in northern Ghana. Alidu, 38, is taking the position of artistic director.
The school grew out of Greg Johnson – brother of Playing for Change head Mark – accompanying Alidu on the musician's annual visit home in 2009. Greg Johnson suggested that it would be a good location for a Playing for Change music school.
"That was a dream I could go for," Alidu says. "I said, 'If you do that, I'll move back and teach.' So we get back and he tells his brother I would want to go there. They said yeah, they would do that. So we went back and talked to the community and did a lot of posters around town, a lot of people showed up at the culture center and we talked about the foundation, and a lot of people were interested. We get back, put the design with my brother in Ghana, start to do the budget for it and get it done, and it opened in February. Has 150 students learning the traditions. We teach the drums and xylophones [balafon] and goje, which is like a violin of horsetail. We teach dance and traditional dancing – and talking drum. So I'm going home to make sure that I fulfill my dream. Want to share what I learned with the young generation."
Nothing of the sort existed when Alidu was young, but, arguably, he didn't need it. He got his musical grounding at home. His father – who he says was born in 1898 and died in 1988 when Alidu was 15 – was a musician who performed for the regional potentates and made music a central part of the family's Bizung tribal legacy.
"My father had a talking drum for each of us in the house, all the boys," he says. "By the age of 3 you have your talking drum. I was playing with him since. So many times playing at the king's palaces, every Friday morning I play with him from 5 to 6:30 in the morning. I grew up with that. I learned a lot from my dad. I just wanted to be around him. Anywhere he player, I wanted to go with him, like I was in front of Elvis."
Ironically, Elvis wasn't part of his young musical world, or anyone else from outside. There was no radio in their home, no exposure to recorded music. But after his father died, friends brought more music into his life, most significantly that of Bob Marley.
"Whenever with friends, we wanted to listen to reggae music," he says. "And with my friends I'd be playing like a water bottle and someone else would be playing a rock and we'd do some harmonies, just having fun, wanting to make some noise."
His sonic world expanded rapidly, especially when he started playing with the Ghana Dance Ensemble in 1995, traveling to the US, and then in 1999 moving to London as a member of a European pan-African arts troupe. Working with musicians and traditions from all over sub-Saharan Africa opened his ears considerably and he became intrigued by the contrasts and relationships of the intertwining cultures. After a brief stay in Boulder where he was teaching a class, another kind of relationship – with a woman – led him to Madagascar in 2005. Under very rough, very poor conditions, he collaborated with local artists and began work on the cross-cultural music that would eventually become the 'Land of Fire' album. A year later he made the full move to Boulder, recruited to teach drumming at a nonprofit camp for high school students.
In Boulder, he met the Playing for Change team when they were doing a benefit concert and was asked to join in the mission to, as the organization puts it, "connect the world through music." Alidu also connected with the musicians who would become the core of his own Bizung Family band and was able to realize what had become a vision of music that reflected his own life – the grounding he got from his father as the starting point and ever-present foundation of an ever-expanding embrace.
But no matter how wide that embrace becomes, at the center – as evident in such song as the reggae-leaning 'On Y Va' – is always his talking drum.
Mohammed Alidu and the Bizung Family, 'On Y Va'
"Talking drum is what I play, in America, everywhere I go," Alidu says. "That's how people understand me and what I am. Who I am. What I grew up with and my root. My story, my history, my home. Everything from that. No way I can stop playing that."