Obo Addy hadn't been in Portland long when, in 1979, he got a call from local jazz master Thara Memory.
The trumpeter/educator had heard about the drummer from a friend who'd played in Addy's band in Ghana, home of the famed master drummers who were celebrated for their incomparably intricate polyrhythmic music.
"Are you a master drummer?" Memory asked. "I don't know," Addy replied modestly. Memory invited him to bring his drums to a rehearsal with his jazz band. Though Addy didn't know any of the songs, he found it easy to fit his drumming into the Latin and other jazz Memory's band was playing.
"You must be very sensitive to music to be able to do that," the astonished Portlander told Addy—who was a master all right. He had performed in jazz big bands in Accra as well as playing traditional Ghanian music throughout one of the world's richest musical wellsprings, where he had encountered a variety of sophisticated musical cultures, odd time signatures and diverse harmonies. Memory invited him to play a theater gig his small group was accompanying—that very night.
"I have to go home and change," Addy pleaded. "You look fine," Memory replied. Addy's career, which would lead him to become a leader in the burgeoning World Beat movement, was off to a strong start.
In the 30 years since their first meeting, Addy and Memory have been frequent musical partners, and at Memory's urging, Addy even brought his drumming into orchestral settings. Addy has continued his multicultural musical integration, in individual compositions, and in larger contexts—his African jazz band Kukrudu, various collaborations (including with the Kronos Quartet), innumerable educational programs.
Meanwhile, during his four decades in Portland, Memory has become one of its most respected music educators and jazzmen, leading the Thara Memory Superband. He's played with legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, the Four Tops and a host of respected jazz players, including the Mel Brown Septet. He's composed and conducted in contemporary classical music idioms and taught music at local institutions, garnering grants for community music education, particularly the Accelerated Music Program that provides opportunities for at-risk young Portlanders.
Now Addy and Memory are commemorating the inception of their collaboration with a concert featuring Memory's Superband, Addy's Okropong (which plays traditional Ghanian music), guest stars such as Linda Hornbuckle and Patrick Lamb, along with high school students from Memory's American Music Program Jazz Orchestra. And Homowo, the African arts and cultural organization that Addy serves as artistic director, has commissioned the two longtime partners to compose new music for the occasion.
One of them, Addy's "Woyekoo" (which literally translates "everybody can eat some" and figuratively suggests generosity—"it's music we're giving you from our heart," Addy says), will open the concert. The finale, his other new piece, "Beibashe," means "peace will come" and reflects Addy's optimism that after years of war-loving leaders, "so many people around the world are tired of war…this is the time people are yelling, 'Change, change, change!' I think people are going to put their guns down and shake hands." Featuring drums, the Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra, the zingy African xylophone called balafon, and even a rap segment, the new works epitomize Addy's jazz-African fusion. In between, the musicians will play a new piece by Memory that reflects his recent discovery of his family's Gambian roots. "I think this will be something marking the history of African music and American music, and how they fit together," he says.
With two educators and so many students involved, the concert celebrates not only two of the city's finest musicians, but their sustained efforts to share their musical traditions with the community whose culture they've enriched over the years.
Obo Addy-Thara Memory Reunion Concert, Friday, March 13, at Kaul Auditorium at Reed College. 8 pm. $12-$22. All ages.