"Before we can continue, you need to drink some sweet poison," Kwesi Brown insists as he pours me
a cup of the dangerously potent homemade Ghanaian alcohol. It's a frightening looking concoction,
stored in a glass jar and overflowing with a variety of oddly shaped twigs and branches.
"There's over 40 different kinds of roots in there," Kwesi boasts. "It's used as a medicine, but it will
knock you down and it can kill you."
The drink has become the inspiration for Kwesi's current musical project, Sweet Poison Victim. Out of
the dozen or so SPV shows I've attended, I've never seen the expert Ghanaian drummer without a jug of
sweet poison in tow. Don't get me wrong, Brown is not over-imbibing. He just loves to share all aspects
of Ghanaian culture with nearly everyone he meets — which might give you a hint about Sweet Poison's
Sweet Poison Victim is a loose collective of about ten musicians, all bringing a unique musical
background to the band. Their sound encompasses indie rock, soul, hip-hop and Latin music all
underpinned by Brown's buoyant African rhythms.
"The music we're playing in this group is kind of universal," says multi-instrumentalist Clarence
Jones, better known as Gritts, who is also a member of local hip-hop act Hinx Jones. Bassist Karl Selm
agrees, adding that Sweet Poison Victim has yet to fuse their varied influences into a cohesive sound.
"So far we really have our 'Western' songs and 'African' songs. At this point you can definitely tell the
two styles apart,” says Selm.
I recently spoke with Kwesi Brown after a Sweet Poison practice session. We discussed music and his
childhood in Ghana as we shared a glass of sweet poison.
NUVO: How did you become interested in the traditional culture while growing up in Ghana?
Kwesi Brown: I grew up in a family where I was torn between the Christian religion and the traditional
religion of my ancestors. My grandmother is a traditional priestess and my dad is a Christian preacher.
The western world perceives the traditional African religion as voodoo. During the colonial period, the
missionaries said the traditional drums were associated with godlessness and you couldn't go to heaven
if you played those drums. The British banned traditional music from the schools.
I would be in my father's church and I would hear the drums in my grandmother's shrine and I would
go run over there. From the beginning when I would hear the sound of the traditional drums it would
draw me in and pull me to that place.
My dad did not want me to go to my grandmother's place. Anytime I went there I would be punished and I had to spend the whole weekend at the mission learning how to play trumpets, wind instruments
and keyboards. But he couldn't stop me — I was always more interested in the traditional music.
NUVO: So you studied traditional music at your grandmother's shrine?
Brown: I got into music through worshipping at my grandmother's shrine. I didn't know that I was studying, but in a way you could say I studied music there. When you go to the ceremony, you are a part of it. No one sits you down and tells you to do this or do that. I watched and learned all the time by observing the elders and then doing it myself. That's how we learned back home. If you don't know how to do it right they will kick you out. Americans are so nice. If you're not doing well here they say, 'Oh, but you're trying.' In Ghana they will tell you, 'Get out, you're not doing well.' They are not going to lie to you, they kick you right out.
NUVO: You have a Ph.D in ethnomusicology; how did this childhood interest in music lead to a career in academics?
Brown: I joined many cultural dance groups when I was growing up. Eventually I formed my own cultural group with my brothers. We did a performance for the British Consulate in Ghana. There was a British guy there who was very interested in my music and through him I traveled with my brothers to play music in England. We received a grant from the government and we taught African music and culture in schools all over Europe.
I came to America to get a masters degree in ethnomusicology. There are a lot of scholars in the West
who write about African culture and music. I was reading these books and I thought they were flawed
with inaccuracies. So I thought the best thing was for me to get myself equipped to write my own and
that brought me to America for grad school. I currently teach Ghanaian performance and culture at IU
NUVO: You've recently shifted your primary focus from teaching music to teaching public health. Do you find ways to connect these two disciplines?
Brown: For me, music is a part of everything and it's part of the reason I went into public health. When I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation I was studying how music was used in healing. I went to some shrines in Ghana and I didn't like what I saw. During the ceremonies they would cut young children to protect them, but by doing that, they were spreading diseases and tetanus. So I needed to study health to correct these things.
I grew up in music, there's no way I can forget it. In Africa, music is a big part of our lives. When you
see Africans play music, the rhythmic patterns we play, the different layers of rhythms — that is how we
see life. Life is not a single line, we have different rhythms in this world.
Music is our life and we use music to teach the lessons of life. If you're playing in a group and you can't
follow the rhythm they will tell you that you have 'sweet ears,' because you always want to listen to
the other players and you go off time. They will tell you "Don't watch the others, you have to focus on
what you are doing." If you can't focus, you have a problem. If you can't hold the rhythm, you have a
problem. You have to fix your life.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. Tthis week's edition features a selection of West African Highlife music.
1. Prince Nico Mbarga - Sweet Mother (RAS Ltd., 1976)
2. Sir Victor Uwaifo - Joromi (Philips, 1969)
3. Bunzu Soundz - Kokrohinkro (Makossa International, 1976)
4. Tony - Safo - Nyame Nni Wo Akyi (Ofo Bros, 1975)
5. Safohene Djeni - Mahu Wo Asie (self released, 197?)