Obo Addy was a master drummer in one of the world’s most greatest musical traditions. He was a talented composer and a pioneer in the rise of Afropop. But he was even more important in the Pacific Northwest as a kind of Johnny Appleseed for African music.
Addy, who died Sept. 13 at age 76 after a five-year battle with liver cancer, was born into a large musical family (he had 54 siblings) in Accra, Ghana, where his father, a medicine man, used music in healing rituals. Addy's tribe designated the young Obo a master drummer at age six. Like Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, another Afropop pioneer who’s been based in Oregon for more than a decade, and others of their generation, Addy was influenced by Western pop music as well as traditional Ghanaian sounds, playing in dance bands and also the fabulously fizzy pop called highlife. He combined those divergent influences into a peppy worldbeat sound that vaulted him and his brothers -- especially Mustapha, who won acclaim in Ghana and Germany -- to the first rank of the Afropop movement that exploded out of the continent in the 1970s, especially after they performed at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Moving to Portland in 1978, Addy took a faculty position at Lewis & Clark College, a school well known for its international outlook, and spread the sound and techniques of African music. In particular, he popularized the sophisticated tradition of Ghanaian drumming (which influenced Western musicians such as minimalist pioneer Steve Reich) throughout the Northwest via workshops, classes (including a weekly drumming class at Lincoln High School) and residencies at schools and cultural institutions across the region.
In keeping with his hybrid musical background, Addy also maintained a double career as a performer, leading, singing and playing percussion in the African jazz octet Kukrudu (“earthquake” in his native Ga language) and the traditional Ghanaian percussion and dance ensemble Okropong (“eagle”). The groups toured universities around the US, appearing at New York’s Lincoln Center and other prestigious venues. Addy was also a prominent composer, his best known piece being "Wawshishijay," which the Kronos Quartet commissioned for their groundbreaking album Pieces of Africa. His music was also performed by Portland’s Third Angle New Music Ensemble and used by choreographers such as Mary Oslund.
Perhaps Addy’s greatest achievement was creating, in 1986 with his wife and manager Susan, the educational institution Homowo African Arts and Cultures, which hosted an annual festival of African music, dance, art, food and more for 15 years.
One of the most important figures in Oregon world music history, Addy received many awards for popularizing African music, including a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Oregon Governors Award for the Arts, a Masters Fellowships from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council and the Oregon Arts Commission, and many others. He’s survived by his wife, Susan, six children, two stepchildren and nine grandchildren.
READ MORE ABOUT OBO ADDY IN THE WILLAMETTE WEEK ARCHIVES: