At the beginning of his career at the Akropong Presbyterian Training College, Ephraim Amu’s chief concerns were to develop his music and make the local instruments with which to play the songs. He experimented, quite successfully, with the local lyrics juxtaposed on classical European musical scales. A key point in his early life – to enhance his musical odyssey – was in acquiring the 5 octave Henry Riley folding organ which he was said to have carried over a distance of 80 miles from Koforidua, about the 1920s.
Bible with African stories
Over time, Amu saw the need to focus on how Christianity could be brought to the local flock; the undue European influences did not attract new adherents. He must have surmised that the books in the Bible included a collection of old African stories anyway. They had been retrieved and repackaged (at about the time of King James of Elizabethan England) from various ancient sources, rebranded – with lily white images of fairy-winged angels and characters – and presented to Africans as an original European spiritual commodity.
People tend to take things superficially, without critical thought. But how on earth can a religious crusader in the person of Christ – born to a foster father, a local carpenter, in the thick of the deserts of Canaan – suddenly morph into the image of a long silky-haired European: the images we see plastered in the African churches.
The pagan Romans
It is most appropriate to put the setting of the teachings of Jesus in perspective. At the outset the Romans – the imperial force commanding all that territory including vast portions of northern Africa into the stretches we now know as the Middle East – were disinterested in the religious views there. The only Europeans at the time and place, the Romans, were themselves pagans who shrugged off Judaism and other faiths originating from the alleged sons of Abraham. They saw the local religions – including the new teachings of Christ, “Love thy neighbor” – as adversarial to their purposes of control.
As an invading force, the Romans observed how the various religious sects quarreled among themselves or tried to outmaneuver each other for favour and power. The Roman interests in the conquered areas, however, rested mainly in controlling the local tax collectors from whom they depended on the money to live lavishly and support the legions of soldiers.
When, for example, Jesus was presented to Pontius Pilate for his imperial judgment, the governor was indifferent, except that the trouble makers were to be castigated, especially so to appease some powerful Jewish sects and avoid rebellions. The doctrine of divide and rule did not start today.
The European images of Christianity must not have sat well with Amu, especially the European songs and stiff-starched neck shirts and coats adopted by the local clergy.
But Amu saw one possibility of change through the revival of native songs into the church. He knew that the beats and melodies were perfect for worship; his idea was to bring more gusto into church services in contrast to the flock’s shyness with the imported hymns.
An old song, “Yaa Amponsa”, happened to be one “naughty” example, but good music craving an empathetic advocacy and a new hearing. [It was a love story of a young man attempting to woo back an old flame]. Though the song happened to be a lusty street song with teasing spasms, it was familiar and ideal for worship once the lyrics were sanitized.
Amu must have thought deeply about this particular leap. Finally, it happened. The new sanitized “Yaa Amponsa” which he taught his students made its debut on the grounds of the training college, and caught the delight of the local worshippers.
Rebel with a cause
The success of this effort nudged him on, and he re-introduced other familiar upbeat tunes into the church through the Akropong Church Singing Band which he led. Soon, the illiterate, timid, self-conscious congregations that had shied away from the foreign hymns, dropped each inhibition, put their own moments into the spotlight and lifted up their hearts, guts and voices in triumphant hosannas.
At the onset the European missionaries couldn’t tell the source of the congregation’s new vigour. But, the local pastors smelled a “rascal”. They took offence, and pronounced Amu’s songs and drums “heathen” and “pagan.” The attitude was dictated by small jealousies, perhaps, but also by a sincere conviction that Amu’s successes with the illiterate flock might turn asunder the church’s modus operandi.
With the local clergy having re-defined themselves by excluding or demonizing their own culture, Amu’s net had cast grave suspicions on the purity of their own souls.
The clergy wouldn’t care to look to see that Amu was merely “domesticating” church music, and that he wasn’t at war with Christianity. He was now not merely detested; the clergy had warned him, and kept him at an arm’s length.
The African attire in the pulpit
Besides the foreign songs, Amu questioned the need for the warm European clothes with starched collars and tightly knotted ties worn by the so-called educated who should know the tropics better, and wondered why the elite saw nothing strange in the situation. So stuffed for church, he queried, how could priests lift up children in faith, and embrace them like Jesus, the great teacher himself?
He saw no need for the local elites to copy bourgeois Europe for their religious and social examples when the threads of native wisdom could knit the Gold Coast together.
One fine day, sporting a defiant spirit, he mounted the pulpit modeling a Kente cloth and a jumper, against the backdrop of a ready choir with native fire in its belly. With such a deliberate provocation, he placed the podium close to the nearest exit, with his good foot by the door, to escape if ambushed.
How Amu was fired
Amu qualified for ordination into the church, except for the “devil” image of the African dress in the pulpit, and the “heathen” songs and drums in his heart. The Synod committee, the highest Presbyterian court, cautioned him, and gave him time to go figure the risks. This was a monopoly, they warned, and not a game two sides could play.
And to quit, he refused. To Amu the Christian culture needed resurrection, and he was prepared to be crucified for it. And nailed he was! In the crowning irony, Amu was sacked (in 1933) in a letter signed, Your brother in Christ.
No sooner had he been sacked than Achimota School hired him to continue his music there. The stone which the builders rejected had found a new corner at last.