Ghanaian tenor out to transform opera music

Ghana is best known for such musical genres as highlife, hiplife, afrobeats and gospel. But one Kumasi-born artist is bucking that trend by carving a name for himself as Ghana’s first opera singer, (see here).
Nino's staff is a reminder of his journey*

Nino – aka Agyemang Kofi Offeh – has been singing and composing since childhood. Thanks to his father’s interest in classical music, Nino developed a passion for this genre even though he started out singing gospel and highlife.

Despite gaining some success as a highlife artist, Nino couldn’t shake the feeling that he was destined to do something else. A turning point came when he was hospitalised after having a car accident that could have cost him his voice and limbs.

“I remember lying in the hospital bed and watching myself performing my highlife tracks on TV and hearing my songs on the radio, but I thought - I haven't done what I am supposed to do," he said

Inspiration
As softly-spoken as Nino is, his singing voice is a clear contradiction. His sentences are punctuated by a rich booming tenor when he breaks into Handel’s Cogeti or Nessun Dorma (None Shall Sleep) –from the Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot – just to hammer home his point. His passion is infectious.

“If I were to be the President of Ghana, I would rule the nation with music because music is the centre of everything,” he said. 

It is this love for opera that propelled him from his home city of Kumasi to London where he has worked on honing his talent to a more international crowd.

Inspired by Black opera singers including South African Pumeza Matshikiza and African American tenor Noah Stewart as well as Italian greats Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, Nino has been driven to succeed.

The Ghanaian tenor taught himself to sing some of the world’s best-known opera classics with the help of YouTube. He and now boasts Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, and Latin, among the main languages he can deliver in. 

Twi opera
He has also performed in his native tongue Twi but without the infrastructure necessary to compose and produce a piece, it has been difficult for him to deliver a song in true operatic style, he said.
Ghana has a symphony orchestra which was established during Kwame Nkrumah’s presidency by Ghanaian composer Philip Comi Gbeho. The National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Ghana performs works of composers from Ghana and other African nations as part of its African Composers Series, which was established in 1996.

Although Nino said he has collaborated with the orchestra, he said a stumbling block for him is that the orchestra is geared up to playing choral music and not opera.

“…with opera music you must have a timpani (or kettle) drum, for example, so if you give [The Symphony Orchestra] a composition that demands that - how are they going to play it? They are going to play it with what they have - piano, violins etc - and that will spoil the beauty of the song,” he said.

Another more pressing challenge is the limited interest Ghanaians have in this style of music. And the sometimes negative reactions from those in the west to a Black man singing opera.

It is considered to be for the upper classes – not something that ordinary people can appreciate, Nino explained. As a result, it requires a re-education.

He is reminded of an incident when after singing in Italian at an event in Ghana, someone shouted out in Twi from the audience: 'Hey... yen tiase-o' - (we don't understand), adding also that Nino should explain it to him.

"I found it quite interesting because music in itself is not just about the language, it is about the composition of the song. We have some songs that have no lyrics but we still like the song. I, for example, listen to Irish singer Enya and I don't know what she is saying but it still means a lot to me."

But he is far from despondent about the reactions of some.
“I just live to be a redefinition,” he said. “...able to inspire a lot of people by getting the zeal and passion to venture into new areas.  “You don’t need the whole world to say what you are doing is good. Do what you feel like doing and you will, by all means, get people following you and appreciating what you are doing.”

Nuslam
Far from shying away from promoting opera in his native tongue, Nino believes he is helping to shape modern opera by bringing in Ghanaian influences into his work. He calls this fusion Nuslam.

Nuslam synchronises elements of palmwine and highlife music with the rhythms of opera. Fans can expect a taste of this new fusion music soon as Nino is working with an orchestra in the UK to develop an album for Christmas, which will include Nuslam and a song in Twi.

Since he started out more than three years ago, Nino has developed a growing fan base having performed at Ghana’s National Symphony Orchestra in Ghana at the 2014 BEFFTA (Black Entertainment Film Fashion and TV and Arts) Awards, TEDx Accra and wowed crowds at Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien’s charity function.

Nino with midfielder Michael Essien at the footballer's charity event*
Young talent
Even youngsters with a similar passion for opera are now making themselves known. 

“I never knew Ghana had men and boys that could sing soprano [the highest vocal range typically associated with classical female singing voices],” he said. “But it made me think that if Ghana has people with this talent – all they need is a little push and support from the music industry.”

When Nino returns to Ghana, he hopes to have garnered enough support and hopefully funding from both the UK and his home country to pass on his skills to these youngsters.

His dream is for there to be an opera house in Ghana. But in order for that goal to be foundations need to be built, he said. “Opera has to be a movement, not a solo thing," he said. "And that means cultivating the interests of the young and finding talented musicians able to learn and play the required instruments. That is how you build an orchestra."

For now, Nino is focussing on his UK tour which starts on 18 September and is keen to celebrate what he calls Op-era 2015 - Hope Opera. 

"I call it Op-era because I think this is the time for a new Africa, a new change of mind-set and perception about Africans doing music." by Kirsty Osei-Bempong

To learn more about Nino and his music check him out here.

 * All images are used with Nino's consent.

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