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Ghanaian Music Moves Rural Michigan

by Alana Horton

A woman dances on stage surrounded by two Ghanaian musicans.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Okaidja Afroso and his ensemble perfomed a finale concert at the Bohm Theater.

Okaidja Afroso's week-long World Fest residency brought music into schools, stores, and a Main Street theater, spreading connection and curiosity in small town Albion.

In spring 2023, Ghanaian artist Okaidja Afroso embarked on a week-long residency in Albion, Michigan, a community of 8,000 nestled 90 minutes away from Detroit.

During his stay, Afroso led workshops at local schools, engaged in thought-provoking Q+A sessions, and participated in dinners and welcome events organized by community partner the Bohm Theatre.

Along the way, residents of Albion got a unique opportunity to connect across cultures and explore new horizons.

A group of adults holding children dance together in a line in a colorful room.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Okaidja Afroso gives an educational performance at Kids N Stuff, a unique children’s museum located on Albion’s Main Street, as part of World Fest.

Afroso was in town as part of World Fest, an Arts Midwest program that tours international musicians to small Midwestern communities, fostering understanding and appreciation for global uniqueness and differences.

Afroso’s genre-defying music is influenced by his upbringing in a Ghanaian coastal town and his experiences living in Portland, Oregon for the past 20 years.

“My music is a mixture of Ghanaian traditional music, with influences since coming to America like Afro-Cuban music, Afro-Brazilian music, Afro-Peruvian music, a little bit of classical music and jazz, all of that,” he explains.

“I call what I do sharing. I try to combine performing on stage and community engagement into one thing.”

Okaidja Afroso, World Fest Artist
A band performs to a group of middle school students in a gynamsium.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Okaidja Afroso and band perform at Marshall Middle School. Albion’s older students attend school in the town of Marshall, 13 miles away, following the disillusion of the Albion school district in 2013.

Storytelling is a key component of Afroso’s songs and his stage presence. When coming to a community like Albion, he sees himself as both a musician and a cultural ambassador.

“I call what I do sharing,” Afroso says. “I try to combine performing on stage and community engagement into one thing. I’m careful to make sure we’re passing on the right information, creating good programs that are educative and entertaining, and reaching younger and older people.”

A man hits a drum while others clap along.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Okaidja performs an acoustic workshop at Stirling Books & Brew in Albion, Michigan. The band led onlookers in traditional Ghanaian dances and took questions from the audience.

The school district in Albion has a complex history of integration. Years of budgetary issues following dropping enrollment numbers led to the Albion Public School District dissolving in 2013. Older students now mostly attend school in the more affluent, less racially diverse town of Marshall 13 miles away. Younger learners either commute to other districts or attend Albion’s sole remaining school, Harrington Elementary.

A group of fourth graders from Harrington came to see Okaidja Afroso perform at the Bohm Theatre on a weekday afternoon. Their enthusiasm for the music was contagious. Students danced in their seats and asked the performers questions about their music and what they like to do for fun.

Okaidja was moved by his experience performing for Harrington students. “They were just dancing with joy. It seemed like they are yearning for things like this. It made it really meaningful that we were able to interact with them that way.”

“Kids who don’t see themselves represented in programming are seeing themselves on the stage this week.”

Shane Williamson, Executive Director at the Albion Community Foundation
A woman leaps in the air on stage, as young people clap with excited expressions on their faces.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Okaidja performs for a group of Harrington Elementary students at the Bohm Theater in Albion, MI.

Harry Bonner Jr., Parent Coordinator at Harrington Elementary, was thrilled to see his students engaging with Afroso’s music.

“This exposure and information are so good for our kids,” Bonner says. “It’s a big world out there, and it’s great for them to get exposed to things that open their minds up to different cultures and languages.”

“I hope that we are able to create some cultural awareness in the community,” said Okaidja Afroso. “When kids learn about other cultures, it really gives them perspective and opens their mind that there’s something else out there.”

A marquee of the Bohm Theatre in Albion, MI. A tree blooms in the background.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
The Bohm Theatre sits on Main Street in Albion. Recognizing the importance of preserving Albion’s heritage, the Albion Community Foundation undertook a massive $3,500,000 renovation and restoration project of the theater. The Bohm hosts movies three nights a week and offers a range of events.

As you walk down Main Street in Albion, you’ll see some empty storefronts, remnants of years of deindustrialization and population drops following factory closures in the 1970s. You’ll also see a brand-new Courtyard Marriott, thriving coffee shops, a busy grocery store, and Albion’s cornerstone performing arts venue, the Bohm.

The Bohm has undergone a remarkable transformation after sitting vacant for upwards of 70 years, after the local community foundation spearheaded a renovation and restoration project.

Okaidja and his band performed a public concert at the iconic theater on their last day in town. Community members grooved to the music, and came up to the band after the show to learn more about instruments and to get CDs signed by the group.

Two older adults hold a large, soccer ball sided shaker in their hands.
Photo Credit: Alana Horton
Audience members examine one of Okaidja Afroso’s instruments after the show.

World Fest brings opportunities to children and families in Albion that they would not encounter elsewhere, says Shane Williamson, Executive Director at the Albion Community Foundation.

“Kids who don’t see themselves represented in programming are seeing themselves on the stage this week,” says Williamson. “That has never been more apparent to me or the people who are working at the Bohm.”

These kinds of connections make the hard work of a residency worth it, explains Afroso.

“It sounds cliché to say that it’s important work, but it is,” says Afroso. “This may be the first time that some kids are encountering this, and they will remember it for the rest of their lives.”

Learn more about Okaidja Afroso

Listen to his music, and check out World Fest education videos, by clicking the link below.

A program of Arts Midwest, the 2023 World Fest is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. Arts Midwest is also generously supported by Illinois Arts Council Agency, Indiana Arts Commission, Iowa Arts Council, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, Minnesota State Arts Board, North Dakota Council on the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, South Dakota Arts Council, Wisconsin Arts Board, 3M, Crane Group and individual donors and partners.