Obo Addy. OB Addy. What's the difference?
This week, a judge decides.
Obo Addy is one of African music's American kings, a 67-year-old master drummer born in Ghana. Just this month, he played 10 shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
OB Addy is Obo's 40-year-old nephew. Also a musician, he plays African-tinged reggae with his band I & I. The band played most recently at the 75-capacity music room of the bar Buffalo Gap in Southwest Portland.
Obo and OB live on the same Irvington street, their two households just blocks apart. Yet they have not spoken in more than 10 years. This long-festering grudge erupted into a civil dispute, played out this week before the broad marble bench of Multnomah County Judge Marshall L. Amiton.
Obo says his nephew doesn't respect him.
OB feels his uncle is using American courts to bully him.
"The man gets a lot of respect," says OB Addy. "And he just abuses the respect he has."
The case boils down to what's in a name.
Obo claims the similarity between the two men's first names violates his trademark rights, and wants the court to forbid his nephew from using "OB Addy" to promote himself.
OB is counter-suing. It's a mess. A mess within the vast Addy clan, a family with music in its genes. A mess within Portland's small Ghanaian community, which is used to settling its own problems ("People are appalled," says one local expat). A mess that could set entertainment-law precedent.
Obo. OB. Regardless of what Judge Amiton decides this week, the Addys' battle has carved wounds unlikely to heal anytime soon.
Few Portland musicians combine national fame, local love and sheer longevity like Obo Addy. James DePreist is a big name in the classical world, but he's in the twilight of his career. Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney are royalty within indie rock, but that doesn't always mean much beyond the subculture's borders. Pink Martini rules the CD changers of soccer moms and sophisticates, but the band is not quite a civic institution. Addy, on the other hand, has charmed the masses and the cultural elite for decades.
In 1996, Addy received the National Heritage Fellowship, the federal government's highest award for artists working in folk or traditional media. He won the Oregon Governor's Arts Award. He plays places like New York's Lincoln Center. A collaboration with the famed modern-classical Kronos Quartet won raves from Time and Rolling Stone. Smithsonian Folkways, the museum's highly regarded record label, tapped him for a track on a 2001 compilation. Homowo African Arts & Cultures, the foundation he started with wife Susan in 1986, attracts benefactors like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Regional Arts and Culture Council and billionaire Blazers owner Paul Allen. His Homowo Festival, an annual explosion of African music and culture, lures thousands of fans and some of world music's biggest stars to the South Park Blocks every summer. Obo has also touched hundreds of Portlanders through hugely popular drum lessons.
It's no exaggeration to say Obo is African music's Oregon face.
"I've played every corner," Obo said in pre-trial testimony in his lawsuit. "[P]laces that people say, 'Don't go there, that's a place where all the rednecks are.'"
"Most folks don't think of the Pacific Northwest as a locus of recent African immigration," reads an LA Weekly review of the Smithsonian album. "Name recognition honors go to Obo Addy, the much-recorded Ghanaian master."
It didn't happen overnight. Addy bounced around when he first came to the U.S. in the mid-'70s after a spell in Europe. In 1979, he settled in Portland, and in 1980 he met Susan Hamada, a New York-born Portland State grad. The two started Homowo in 1986 and married in 1989. Meanwhile, Obo established himself as one of the city's most revered musicians. At an age when many have retired, he remains at the height of his professional power and appeal.
On a recent Wednesday night, Obo put his eight-member drum and dance troupe Okropong through its paces, drums concussing like cannon reports in a studio in the Pythian Building downtown. Peal after peal of rhythmic thunder had a well-dressed crowd quivering. Okropong's female dancers pulled one costume change after another, swirling through dizzy ceremonial gyrations. Obo stood at the center of the storm in a sarong-like scarlet robe that revealed an imposing upper body, surveying his band with justified pride.
Despite his remarkable run, however, something has nagged at Obo for more than a decade, a problem a cliché Mafia thriller might call a stone in his shoe. An irritant Obo can't--or just won't--ignore.
In 1988, Obo's phone rang. On the other end: his nephew, calling from the Portland airport, unannounced.
"He was standing on the sidewalk at the airport and called to say, 'I'm here,'" Susan Addy said in her testimony.
A decade and a half after that phone call, the two Addys are locked in a war Obo claims is all about a younger man's defiance.
"The way it is, when you bring people here...who don't know anything, they have American dream in their minds because they saw Michael Jackson," Obo said in testimony. "[T]hey all think they can come and overnight they will make money."
OB and Donica Fields Addy, a native Oregonian with lightly salted red hair, live in a 1912 bungalow just down the street from the Northeast Fremont Nature's. On a recent afternoon, Donica serves blazing bowls of Ghanaian shrimp stew over white rice. The living room's pumpkin walls contrast with the deep burnished browns of its many African statues, ornaments and masks. Verdant reggae whispers from the stereo.
OB's lifelong devotion to music is practically a matter of DNA. His grandfather was a famous tribal priest and musician in the days when Ghana was called the Gold Coast, a British colony. His father, Yacub, left Ghana when OB was a child (and rarely returned, OB says), leading some of the first Ghanaian bands to tour Europe after the country's 1957 independence. There's Obo and Obo's son and bandmate Alex. Another uncle, Mustapha, who's also a star in Europe, is reckoned by some critics to be the most famous Addy of all. Chata, OB's cousin, plays regularly at Billy Reed's in Northeast Portland. OB's brother Kpani lives and plays in Hood River. There's even another related OB Addy out there, though he uses the stage name Lord Addy.
OB says he started playing as a kid with pick-up groups at public markets, soaking up the scene in Accra, Ghana's capital. As the first sub-Saharan African nation to win independence under black rule in the modern age, Ghana has long been a cultural Mecca on the continent's Atlantic rim. The Oregon-sized nation has suffered coups d'etat and dictatorships, but its many ethnic groups get along. Today, Accra's nightlife attracts musicians from across West Africa.
As he came of age, OB hooked up with the band led by his uncle Mustapha. In 1987, Yacub asked his son to join him in the United States. OB got his visa, moved in with his father and joined his band in the D.C. area. OB says his relationship with his father had always been strained, and it wasn't long before tensions flared.
"My father got pissed at me for whatever reason," OB says. "To this day, I cannot explain it. He basically kicked me out of the house. I slept outside for a few weeks, then came here."
When OB showed up at PDX, his uncle Obo was already a Northwest cultural star. OB moved in with Obo and Susan and joined his uncle's bands. "I was happy to play, happy to be in a band," OB says now. Shortly after arriving, he met Donica Fields at a Park Blocks show; the two were living together within a month.
"I could tell right away he was a soulmate," Donica says.
Even as OB's love life came together, the roots of conflict with Obo were already planted. In fact, they'd existed since the day OB got his name.
Each Ghanaian ethnic group has its own system for naming newborns. Among the Ashanti, for example, every boy born on Sunday is named Akwasi. The Addys are of the Ga tribe. The Ga traditionally name children according to birth order. Couples of Obo's generation named first-born sons Kpani, first-born daughters Akuye. (Obo has four daughters named Akuye, by four ex-wives.) Third-born sons are named Obuama. Pretty much everyone named Obuama goes by OB.
At first, things were fine between OB and his uncle. It didn't take long, though, for their relationship to crash. By OB's account, his uncle tried to forbid him from talking to his brother Kpani and cousin Chata, also in Portland. Both of these other Addys had split with Obo in bitter, contentious circumstances. Obo says he just didn't want OB starting a competing traditional band with Kpani and Chata.
Either way, by 1991 OB was on the outs with his uncle, and in the process of forming a new group with his brother and cousin.
And Obo was about to sic his attorney on the lot of them.
The three younger Addys called their new band Suumo Kome, setting out to play traditional Ghanaian music like their fathers before them. Donica acted as manager and landed the group a few gigs around the Northwest. In October 1992, the four received a letter from Obo's attorney of the time.
The lawyer's letter accused them of trading on their past association with Obo, of costing Obo bookings and money. It threatened them with $1.25 million in lawsuits, plus criminal charges.
"It's a very sick thing," Kpani Addy says of his uncle's litigious ways. "I said, 'If he is ready to go to court, I'm ready.'"
But others in the group had no appetite for legal grappling. Suumo Kome soon fell apart, leaving OB at musical loose ends. He assembled a reggae band. I & I debuted in 1994 in OB and Donica's backyard, after a traditional ceremony honoring their newborn daughter.
"When we got the Ghanaians up and dancing, I knew we had a good thing going," Donica says.
I & I, with Donica again taking the business reins, was soon playing all over Portland and the Northwest. Sometimes the band billed itself simply as I & I, but often appeared as "OB Addy and I & I." Not everyone finds this similarity with the name of OB's better-known uncle baffling. "It's more amusing than confusing," says Mary Jo Dill, booking agent at Buffalo Gap. But some have mixed up the two names.
Newspapers, including Willamette Week, have mistakenly listed OB's shows under Obo's name. Last summer, when I & I played Eugene's Country Fair, the annual hippiefest's program captioned four photos of OB, dreadlocks flowing, as "Obo Addy." In testimony, Susan Addy claims I & I landed one gig at the now-defunct club Balzer's because the bar thought it was booking Obo. Obo says his fans sometimes become confused.
"They come back and say, 'I went to see you, and there was this dreadlocks guy playing copies of Bob Marley,'" Obo said in testimony.
On May Day, 1998, Homowo, Obo's foundation, issued a letter addressed to "booking agents, music critics & club owners."
"Recently, it has come to our attention that a member of Obo's family is representing himself as OB Addy," the letter read. "Please be aware that there is only one Obo Addy! OB Addy is really Ahmed Addy, a distant nephew of Obo's.... His press materials say that he is OB Addy, a part of the distinguished Addy family. While we are happy to see Ahmed pursue his musical career, we do not want you to be confused by the name similarity."
Obo claims that his brother Yacub, a Muslim, gave his son the Islamic name Ahmed at birth. (Many Ghanaians use Christian or Muslim names in addition to tribal names.) OB says Yacub didn't add "Ahmed" until 1987, when his father filled out his U.S. immigration forms. OB says he's never used the name in daily life.
"I can't change my name," OB says. "In Ghana, they would see me change my name and say, 'Oh, he don't respect nobody.'"
And to the reggae singer and others, OB is his name.
"Everyone all over the world, in Ghana and here, they call him OB," says OB's brother Kpani. "Obo himself calls him OB."
With his nephew resolute, Obo filed the suit last February.
"Obo filed this suit with extreme reluctance," says Jeff Pitzer, the older man's attorney. "Obo feels he has to take action to protect the distinctive quality of his name. He's spent 30 years working hard--and he's still working hard--to establish that reputation."
About the only things the two sides in Addy v. Addy agree on is that back in Ghana, such soiled family laundry would never be aired in public.
"In Ghana, you have a problem with someone, you go with them into the chief's house," says OB. "What's said in the chief's house stays in the chief's house. I wanted to talk to Obo like this, but I don't think he liked to do it."
Both sides blame the other for sabotaging traditional dispute resolution. OB says he thought he and Obo would meet with the family chief last fall in Ghana, but that Obo failed to materialize. (In testimony, Obo says he canceled his trip due to a fear of flying.)
Some Portland Ghanaians are embarrassed by the intractable dispute.
"Obo is the senior of the two," says Akwasi Sarfo-Kantanka, a Portlander of Ashanti heritage. "He should know how to resolve this."
Within the Addy clan, Yacub has made statements backing his brother Obo, but OB's mother sent letters from Ghana supporting her son. The Addy family chief, Nii Tetteh Tsuru II, issued a statement pleading for an amicable resolution. OB's side presented the chief's statement as evidence in court, while Obo's attorneys fought to have it thrown out.
The rift has only grown more poisonous since Obo filed suit. In his countersuit, OB claims his uncle and Susan interfered with I & I's booking efforts. A private investigator hired by Obo's attorney has called ex-members of I & I, quizzing them about marijuana use within the band. "The reggae scene is a pot-smoking scene," Obo said in testimony. "Rastafarian, dreadlocks, all pot-smoking."
There are numerous examples of legal fights over names. If your name is McDonald and you open a hamburger stand, sorry, you can't call it McDonald's. Astoria resident Samantha Buck Lundberg is currently being sued by Starbucks because she named her little coffee shop "Sambucks." A federal judge recently ruled that an ex-member of the Beach Boys had to stop touring with an act called Beach Boys Family and Friends.
But can an individual entertainer's personal name be a trademark? Obo's attorney says yes--he says his client has established his name as a trademark susceptible to "dilution or blurring." OB's attorney says no--individual names designate people, not brands or products. The case could set legal precedent sorting out this very question.
OB is represented by Anthony Davis. The 31-year-old Stanford law grad nurses a snowboarding jones, drives a boat-sized blue vintage Olds and writes screenplays in his spare time. Last year, he quit high-wattage Portland firm Davis (no relation) Wright Tremaine to launch his own practice with a couple of partners. Davis Dixon Kirby operates out of exposed-brick quarters in downtown's 110-year-old Dekum Building. A copy of Outkast's Stankonia CD sits on the same shelf as Basic Legal Practice.
In Davis' view, Addy v. Addy has more to do with Obo's ego than his career. "This case is essentially a family dispute run rampant," he says. The lawyer argues that since OB has played around town for years, the statute of limitations on Obo's complaint has expired. He also holds that Obo doesn't own a valid trademark on his name, and that his client has every right to use "OB Addy," the name he goes by in his daily life.
Portland trademark lawyers not connected to the case say its outcome is very much in doubt.
"This is a terribly sticky one," says lawyer Anne Glazer. "It seems harsh to tell someone they can't use their own name. But at the same time, to the extent Obo Addy has sold goods and services under his name for years, he may have been damaged by confusion.
"In trademark cases," Glazer adds, "the judge has a lot of leeway to do what's fair."
There's no question, however, that the fight has inflicted ample pain.
"It makes Obo sound like this terrible, awful man who is doing terrible things," Susan Addy said in testimony. "I mean, I think he's hurt. It's not anger. But he can't understand why his nephew would be doing this to him."
Meanwhile, OB Addy, though he hasn't spoken to his uncle and neighbor in a decade, knows what he would say if he did.
"I want to say to him, 'This is my name,'" OB says. "'I don't know who would think that I am you, or you are me.'"
Last Friday, OB Addy arrived at the Multnomah County Courthouse with his massive crop of dreadlocks tamed in a red, green and gold knit hat. He wore a blue-and-white Ghanaian gown, sweeping to the floor. His uncle Obo sported a charcoal three-button suit over a leopard-print shirt, no tie. Susan Addy sat at one end of a bench in the courtroom's small gallery. Donica Addy sat at the other end, her rusty mane echoing Susan's orange jacket. Pitzer and Davis sparred over pre-trial motions for an hour. Then, Judge Amiton called the lawyers into his chambers to discuss the trial, which may conclude the day this paper hits the streets.
The front of the courtroom emptied, leaving just Obo Addy and OB Addy, each sitting alone at a table strewn with piles of documents, detritus of a decade-long feud. The two men sat in silence, not looking at each other, waiting for the trial to begin.
Obo and Susan Addy declined to answer questions for this article.
For more information on Obo Addy's career, see www.oboaddy.com and www.homowo.org .
Obo's father, Okonfo Akoto, is said to have fathered 55 children by 10 wives.
Before meeting Susan, Obo married about a half-dozen times. According to his court testimony, one wife died; another marriage ended with an annulment, and the others ended in divorces.
OB Addy estimates that there are about 300 Ghanaians living in Portland. The community organizes an annual Ghana Independence Day celebration in early March.
According to the
, Ghana's population is about 20.2 million.
According to the philanthropy website Guidestar.com, Homowo African Arts & Cultures took in $115,740 in grants and donations in 2000, down from $174,168 in 1999.
OB and Donica Addy both work for Multnomah County, supervising and managing community-service inmates.
This year's Homowo Festival is scheduled for Aug. 8-10 on the South Park Blocks.
Okropong's show at the Pythian Building was a dress rehearsal for the band's Kennedy Center run. It was sponsored by the law firm Stoel Rives.
I & I's next scheduled shows are March 8 at the Green Room and March 29 at Dublin Pub.
Yacub and Chata Addy both declined to answer questions for this article.