Thanks to the social connections that I was able to develop through Forecast, I had already met Va-Bene, and was already thinking of ways to bring her into the project after learning about her associations of the banjo with the Ghanaian church, so it was natural to reach out to her when the idea to work in Ghana came up. Last July, during the Forecast work week, we were talking about my love for the banjo, and she said, “It reminds me of the church!” That blew my mind. It was so far from my perception of what the modern banjo is, let alone that of most people in the United States. How does a North American “hillbilly” folk instrument become part of a church service in Ghana? It turns out Va-Bene was once a Christian pastor. And when she was a child, there were these church bands that are still common in parts of Ghana, and that’s where she saw a banjo for the first time. This is why I especially wanted to collaborate with Va-Bene and connect to her story. It is a deeply personal one that can expand into a great artwork, but also points towards a much bigger, complex network of cultural dynamics that the pathways of music cling to.
The banjo returns to West Africa via Christian missionary activities after multiple centuries of transformation on another continent, becoming part of the global influence of jazz music, and then is taken up in a different form by Ghanaian Christianity: an endless chain of appropriations across cultures and histories. Her story connects the past to the present and addresses the sometimes surreal, cognitively dissonant cultural heritage we carry in the long shadow of colonialism. Moments like this trigger me to think about how much you can actually go back. In a lot of the discourse around colonialism—and especially when people talk about decolonizing things—there’s this feeling of lifting colonialism, as if it’s a blanket you could take off. But looking critically at the ways culture is transmitted between people and regions made me realize there is no blanket you can peel off; but that colonization fundamentally alters the cultural DNA of both colonizer and colonized; it’s the “colonial virus” as Va-Bene would say. You can’t go back, but you can see the pathways behind you and choose how you will now work to move forward. Ve-Bene’s experience, together with her own battles with religious colonialism in her artistic work, and being present with her in Kumasi, blessed me with a much more complex understanding of these issues. This kind of micro/macro dynamic where multiple time periods, traditions, and power structures exist simultaneously is part of how the micro-commissioning model fits into the broader scope of the work. I would feel like this work was successful if others are able to take away a similar alteration, or virus, in their thinking.