Bortier Okoe is a musician, singer, composer and Master Drummer from Ghana, West Africa, who is bringing the music and culture of his heritage to his new home in Australia. Bortier delivers songs in English, and his native Ghanaian languages of Ga, Twi, and Ewe, complete with all the colour and dance of his homeland. Upon unveiling his new album Wicked Kingdom this week, BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to Bortier about how his unique journey involved giving up a promising career in soccer, the unique place music has in Ghanaian culture, and its power in challenging times.
Congratulations on the release of your new album Wicked Kingdom this month. What has been the most rewarding part of sharing it with the world?
I think the most rewarding part is just to finally release it. I recorded this some time ago and this album has some powerful elements. The songs on this album are unique – each track has its own message and its own rhythm. I’ve been waiting to share with my fans and music lovers, so I feel like I’m rewarding them by releasing it now, during this time of uncertainty. I feel like I’m contributing to people’s lives by giving them music to listen to and to feel good.
And how is it different from the music that you have released before?
The sound and the creativity on this album is definitely a bit more unique on this album. This album displays numerous polyrhythms and highlights traditional drums infused with modern instruments, giving it a unique, organic sound.
And is there a theme that ties the message of the album together? The title itself is quite intriguing…
The whole album talks about hope, guidance and a better life for everybody, encouraging people to be more spiritual. The title track, Wicked Kingdom, talks about external forces controlling us, and that the world can be better place, if we, as human beings, can accept the challenges that life brings yet consciously move forward together. It focuses on equal rights for all people, and makes you think about the freedom that you do have. Those in power control the world, but we, the common people, need to stand up and set the direction of the world.
Do you remember how your love of playing music began or did it feel like something you were born into?
Music is part of everyday life in Africa and I was born into a musical family, so it was no surprise that I became immersed in the music and culture at a very young age. In my teens, I played nationally as a professional soccer player, and at the same time I was doing musical gigs until my 20s. This created a challenge for me, as I had talent in both pursuits. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the music chose me; I was drawn into it, thus finishing my soccer career. So, I saw my future in the music arena, as music can be not only physical, but also spiritual.
And tell us about Ghanaian music, how is it different from other music in Africa?
Ghanaian music has a few differences, even within different groups or regions. Each and every country in Africa has a signature musical style. I classify my style of music as Ga Roots or African World Music. I use this genre because my roots are Ga, and the way that I express myself through music does show that Ga influence. That is, it’s versatile; not just one particular kind of rhythm, instrument choice or style.
What was it that brought you to Australia and did that change how you valued the music from home?
When I grew up I realised that it was my responsibility, as a Master Drummer, and somebody who has learned the system of the culture and music, to travel and share with people who have no idea about Ghanaian culture. I travelled to Australia to share my own art and music, and also to learn from other people. I want to bring hope and happiness, and a brighter life to the world.
Given you play so many instruments, is there one that you usually begin writing a song on?
Writing a song is always a different process. Sometimes it’s just a melody that comes into my mind. Sometimes the Kpalogo drum gives me an inspirational rhythm, which becomes a melody which I then write as a guitar tune. The melody dictates the instruments required. The lyrics are usually not something I sit down to write; they are based on inspiration.
Tell us about your organisation African Soul. What are you trying to bring to Australian audiences with your various programs?
African Soul is an African cultural arts and musical education platform, which brings African culture to the community while focusing on unity and the joy that music can bring. It brings music, culture and education to the wider community, as well as being a window to the background and roots of Australian-born Africans who may not otherwise have been to Africa.
When I came to Australia, I formed a cultural music and dance group, Telema Bii, a sister ensemble to the one in Ghana. African Soul supports any opportunity to share and teach about Ghanaian culture and holds school workshops and performs at community events as well as private functions.
What can the world learn from Ghanaian culture, especially in what are challenging times for many of us?
You may have heard that “It takes a village to bring up a child.” The whole community will help each other in times of need, giving their time and sharing what they have. Ghanaians are friendly and warm hearted. Nobody is a stranger, and when there is a party, everybody comes to enjoy the music and dance together. The music is not just for dancing, but also tells stories, and gives advice and guidance. The Ghanaian culture encourages everybody to express themselves, particularly through music and dance.
Ghanaians don’t live to a tight schedule. They have freedom to do things without strict planning. One of the common phrases you’ll hear in Ghana is “Don’t worry.” The people are pretty easy-going and don’t stress the small stuff. It’s a good attitude which results in a pretty relaxed lifestyle.