Ghanaian music is well-known for such genres as highlife, hiplife, and gospel. But one Kumasi-born artist is bucking that trend.
Nino, born Agyemang Kofi Offeh, has been singing and composing since childhood. Thanks to his father’s interest in classical music, Nino developed a passion for the genre even though he started out singing gospel and highlife. Despite gaining some success as a highlife artist, Nino couldn’t shake the feeling that he was destined to do something else.
A turning point came when he was hospitalised after a car accident that could have claimed his voice and limbs. “I remember lying in the hospital bed,” Nino says, “and watching myself performing my highlife tracks on TV and hearing my songs on the radio. I thought, but I haven’t done what I am supposed to do.”
Nino’s singing voice contradicts his normal softly-speaking voice. His sentences are punctuated by a rich booming tenor when he breaks into Handel’s ‘Cogeti’ or ‘Nessun Dorma’ (None Shall Sleep) from the Giacomo Puccini opera ‘Turandot’. He speaks passionately about music. “If I were to be the President of Ghana,” he says, “I would rule the nation with music because music is the centre of everything.”
It is this love for opera that propelled him from his home city, Kumasi, to London where he has worked on honing his talent to an international crowd. Inspired by Black opera singers including South African Pumeza Matshikiza and African American tenor Noah Stewart as well as Italian greats Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, Nino has been driven to succeed. He taught himself to sing some of the best-known opera classics with the help of YouTube, and can now deliver songs in Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, and Latin.
Nino has also performed in his native tongue Twi. But without the infrastructure necessary to compose and produce a piece, it has been difficult to deliver a song “in true operatic style”.
His home country has a symphony orchestra which was established during Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency by Ghanaian composer Philip Comi Gbeho. The Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performs works of composers from Ghana and other African nations as part of its African Composers Series, which was established in 1996. And although Nino has collaborated with the orchestra, he says a stumbling block is that the orchestra is set up to play choral music not opera.
“With opera music you must have a timpani (or kettle) drum,” he says. “For example, if you give [the Symphony Orchestra] a composition that demands that, how are they going to play it? They are going to play it with what they have, piano, violins etc. That will spoil the beauty of the song.” Another challenge is the limited interest Ghanaians have in this style of music. Sometimes there are negative reactions from those in the west to a Black man singing opera.
Opera is considered to be for the upper classes, though ordinary people can appreciate the music as well. As a result, it requires a re-education. Nino talks about an incident when after singing in Italian at an event in Ghana, someone shouted in Twi from the audience: ‘Hey… yen tiase-o!’ (We don’t understand), asking that Nino explain to him. “I found it quite interesting because music in itself is not just about the language, it is about the composition of the song. We have some songs that have no lyrics but we still like the song. I, for example, listen to Irish singer Enya and I don’t know what she is saying but it still means a lot to me.”
But he is not despondent about the reactions of some. “I just live to be a redefinition,” he says, “to be able to inspire a lot of people by getting the zeal and passion to venture into new areas. You don’t need the whole world to say what you are doing is good. Do what you feel like doing and you will, by all means, get people following you and appreciating what you are doing.”
Nino believes he is helping to shape modern opera by bringing Ghanaian influences into his work. He calls this fusion Nuslam. Nuslam synchronises elements of palmwine and highlife music with the rhythms of opera. Fans can expect a taste of this new fusion soon. Nino is working with an orchestra in the UK to develop an album, which will include Nuslam and a song in Twi. Since starting out more than three years ago, Nino has developed a fan base, having performed at Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra at the BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion and TV and Arts) Awards, at TEDx Accra, and at a charity event arranged by the Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien. Now, youngsters with a similar passion for opera are making themselves known.
“I never knew Ghana had men and boys that could sing soprano [the highest vocal range typically associated with classical female singing voices,]” says Nino. “But it made me think that if Ghana has people with this talent—all they need is a little push and support from the music industry.” When Nino returns to Ghana, he hopes to have gathered enough support, and hopefully funding, from both the UK and his home country to pass on his skills to talented youngsters. His dream is to see an opera house in Ghana. In order to reach that goal, you have to build the foundation, he said.
“Opera has to be a movement, not a solo thing,” says Nino. “And that means cultivating the interests of the young and finding talented musicians able to learn and play the required instruments. That is how you build an orchestra.”