Ghana guitar wizard

(Edmonton) Koo Nimo is 77 years-old, but age does not get in his way as he enthusiastically instructs students  during a  two-hour workshop at folkwaysAlive! this week.

The African guitarist is making his western-Canadian debut by participating in two public performances and leading U of A students through hands-on seminars in a style of guitar playing that has roots in his home country–Ghana.

Koo Nimo is a foremost performer of the acoustic palm-wine guitar music of coastal West Africa, and has been recording and performing it since the 1960s. Palm-wine music is named after a popular West African drink that is made from naturally fermented sap from oil palm trees. According to Nimo, the name for the style of guitar playing came from the long tradition of men in Ghana who gather in the evenings to socialize and play the guitar, while sipping on the popular beverage.

The unique style is steeped with strong melodies and infectious beats that challenge listeners to enjoy without thanking the performer with a steady sway or, at the very least, a confident tapping of a foot.
In Nimo’s Thursday workshop, music education student Andy Johnson proves he is both a performer and a fan of palm-wine guitar.

“I really like your movements, you just can’t help yourself when you hear the music,” says Nimo to Johnson, whose body sways along to the music he has only learned to play 30-minutes prior. Johnson replies with a wide smile and insists that moving to the beat helps him learn the new songs.
The 5th year student takes part in the intimate workshop where Nimo gives instruction on how to play a handful of songs.  Johnson is one of three students, armed with guitars, who listen to Nimo’s gentle requests of which notes to strum, stringing together a sequence that Nimo insists they repeat until the entire class catches on.

The students are as patient as their instructor, who is generous with his words of encouragement to the class as they watch him play each song with what seems like no effort.

“Palm-wine looks very simple,” says Nimo during a brief break. “Yes, but it’s tricky,” chimes in Jonathan Kertzer, director of folkwaysAlive! and longtime friend of Nimo.

Kertzer first met Nimo in Seattle in 1998 when Nimo was a professor in ethnomusicology at the University of Washington and Kertzer worked for Microsoft. When Kertzer discovered that Nimo was scheduled to work on a few projects throughout the United States, he couldn’t help but extend an invite for him to visit Edmonton.

Nimo will perform at the U of A World Music Sampler with the West African and Middle Eastern and North African Music Ensembles  tomorrow at 8 p.m. in Convocation Hall. He will also perform a full concert on Sunday, November 27, at Muttart Hall, Alberta College campus of Grant MacEwan University, at 7 p.m. The Wajjo African Drummers will open the performance, under the direction of U of A's West African Music director Robert Kpogo.

Nimo says he is very happy to have the opportunity to visit the University and work with new students, but his feelings are not as warm towards Edmonton’s notoriously chilly winters.

“The weather hasn’t been sympathetic at all,” says Nimo with a smile. He admits that travelling is something that has become harder to do as he has aged. The solution: Bring the students to him.

“You should come to Ghana and stay with me, that way I can wake you up at 1 a.m. to practise,” offers Nimo to his students at the end of the workshop. Throughout the years, he has hosted several students in Ghana from universities around the world. What better place to learn palm-wine than in its place of origin.