In the 1960s, whilst editing Drum Magazine, I travelled to Kumasi to interview one of the most popular guitarists in Ghana at the time, Kwabena Onyina.
Onyina’s music was distinct: he played the guitar and sang in tenor, which was strange enough, as the leading contemporary singers, including the immensely popular Kwabena Okai of EK’s Band (Akan Trio) tended to sing what was to a large extent, falsetto treble.
But it wasn’t his voice alone that made Onyina stand out. He had the knack of using stories drawn from everyday life, to make his point.
And the point? What was it? It was to encourage his listeners to adopt a philosophical approach to life and thereby comfort themselves enough to survive the grief which life was wont to throw in their path. For instance, while recounting the death of someone, he urged the survivors of the dead man not to cry too much, because death, whilst difficult to bear, did have some hidden “benefits” to bequeath us, such as leaving those left behind, a legacy or inheritance:
“Mma ennsu bio Akwasi…
Ono na ogya yen sika
Ogya yen ntoma…”
[Cry no more Akwasi, for it’s death that leaves us money; cloth and other things of that nature.]
When I went to Onyina’s house in Kumasi to discuss his technique and other attributes, I was immensely impressed to find that the companion who was with him and sat through the interview was a young lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ghana, called Kwasi Wiredu. Wiredu was learning how to play the guitar at the feet of Onyina, and whilst studying with the master, he also exposed him to the work of great jazz guitarists like Kenny Burrell. That explained the unique complexity with which Onyina approached guitar playing. Wiredu, the philosopher apparently ensconced in the “ivory tower” of Legon, was responsible, in no small part, for the rich content of the music of Ghana’s most prominent guitar artist of the time.
The death of the philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, was reported on Twitter on January 8, 2022 by his fellow scholar, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in these words:
QUOTE: Kwasi Wiredu, one of the greatest of African philosophers, has died at the age of 90. If you don’t know about him, you should. He was an unbelievably decent man; I know because he was my first departmental Chair. UNQUOTE
One of the other world-famous scholars who knew Wiredu best was his classmate and fellow student at Oxford University, Professor William Abraham. Abraham, the first African to be awarded a Prize Fellowship at Oxford (won by examination!) was a mate of Wiredu’s at Adisadel College, before they both went to Oxford.
An astonishingly affectionate speech given by William Abraham on Kwasi Wiredu, at Wiredu’s birthday, shows clearly that the two philosophers respected each other greatly. It is not often that one hears a Ghanaian who had achieved much in his field, speaking so admiringly of a fellow Ghanaian who is a practitioner of the same “trade”, so to speak:
QUOTE No one (Abraham revealed) has had a more decisive influence on my life, and that includes my own parents. I was undecided between English Literature and Mathematics when we entered College. I was very pleased with the literature classes that I was taking. Then one day, Kwasi accosted me. He asked whether I was aware that if I persisted with my present course of action, I would be apt to spend my old age writing poems about sunsets. That did not seem appealing, so I switched my attention to Mathematics…
“I was not prepared for what he had in mind. He invited me to sit in on his Logic and Ethics classes, which I did, much to my enjoyment. Not knowing how to keep my mouth shut as a guest, I attracted the attention of his teachers… When the time came to take the Qualifying Exams to pursue an Honours course, I could not break the teachers’ hearts and so I sat for the Philosophy exams instead of the Math exams. Kwasi had always known what he wanted to become: a philosopher. He became a philosopher’s philosopher, as Stuart Hampshire was to describe him in graduate school at Oxford.
Kwasi was leader of the group that collected around him. The group included Kwabena Tufuoh, who became a civil servant; Thomas Mensah, who became a distinguished lawyer; and S.K. Riley Poku, who later became Ghana’s Minister of Defence [in the Hilla Limann regime.] UNQUOTE
Prof William Abraham further described Prof Kwasi Wiredu as “truly, the mind of Africa.”
The former Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Ghana went on: “I do not know anyone, in person or by repute, whose thinking is as penetrating or as comprehensive. Early in his career, the subtlety and depth of his mind were compared to Edmund Husserl’s in a review of the best articles in the journal Mind. He is the only African named among the world’s greatest hundred philosophers.
“Let it be also said that I personally never met a more upright person. If this man thought that a course of action would be wrong, he would be simply incapable of pursuing it. If you [had] him for a friend, you [had] a friend for life. I have never heard anyone, or heard of anyone, who had anything ill to say of him. He truly [was] a rare sort of human being, in both intellect and character.”
Please remember that these words were said when Prof Kwasi Wiredu was still alive!
By Cameron Duodu