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Rocky Dawuni brings African reggae to Whistler Presents

Ghanaian musician plays free concert in Whistler Olympic Plaza on Saturday, Aug. 30



It has been said that reggae took root in Africa in just two days.

When Jamaican legends Bob Marley and the Wailers played at the independence ceremony for Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980, there were riots as people tried to secure a spot to hear them. The Wailers then returned the following day to perform in front of 100,000 people.

As in so many other parts of the world, Marley's messages of deliverance, redemption, independence, self-determination and love captured millions of imaginations in post-colonial Africa.

Ghanaian reggae artist Rocky Dawuni has certainly benefitted from that concert 34 years ago. He recalls the impact hearing reggae had on him in his childhood.

"I grew up in a military barracks and it was sort of like a cultural petri dish. All the soldiers came from different tribes, different religious backgrounds, different musical backgrounds, and they all lived together," he recalls.

"In the barracks, the soldiers were into reggae music and Afro-beat. African soldiers like to see themselves as revolutionaries. The music that was pushing revolution was what I heard all around me as I was growing up."

It was also during the era of the military leader Jerry Rawlings, who staged a coup d'état in Ghana in 1979.

"Politics and art was really at its peak at that time and at the same time, too, was the traditional music that had always been around," Dawuni says.

"There was a military band where I grew up that was doing a lot of reggae covers and I remember going to one of the rehearsals. The lead singer was somebody I looked up to and I was so taken by the music... I wanted my music to communicate all the things I had been sponging from in that barracks and reggae was really the first go-to. It was love at first sight."

Dawuni's first album was The Movement, released in 1996. There have been four others; the most recent is Hymns for the Rebel Soul in 2010.

His latest single is "African Thriller," part of his upcoming album Branches from the Same Tree, which is due for release early next year.

"It's going great. My music has always bordered on the confluence of African music, traditional music, reggae and then also different global sounds, from American blues to rock and roll," he says.

"I'm in a good position to fuse all those different styles of music and a lot of times the albums and performances have reflected that. The new album is steeped in Africa, and steeped in Afro-Beats and Highlife (a genre that originated in Ghana), but it also reaches out to blues, samba and hip hop... a great fusion."

As well as his own music, Dawuni has also performed with Stevie Wonder, Bono, Janelle Monae and Peter Gabriel, among others.

He says he plays his music "to uphold the good in everyone."

Dawuni performs a free concert at Whistler Olympic Plaza, part of the Whistler Presents series, on Saturday, Aug. 30 at 8:45 p.m. This is his first visit to the resort.

Canadan roots reggae band Messenjah opens for Dawuni, taking to the stage at 7:30 p.m.

Dawuni says the concert will be "a great communion of togetherness or oneness."

It is humbling to hear how Dawuni has used his unique position to promote peace and positive human development in his home continent. He is involved with UNICEF, the UN Global Fund and other organizations, and has been named one of Africa's Top 10 global stars by CNN.

All this keeps him busy. Just before his Whistler concert, Dawuni left his home in Los Angeles (he splits his time between the U.S. and Ghana) in order to visit Rwanda, 20 years after the genocide there killed up to a million people.

He was the guest of the Kigali genocide museum, Rwanda's ministry of culture, and the NGO Aegis Trust, which promotes post-genocide peace building.

In our interview, which took place before he left, he said: "I'm going there as an emissary to engage different parts of the community who survived the genocide and be a part of the peace-building process that has been going on. Apart from that, I am going to visit some refugee camps in Rwanda. There are still some big refugee camps there... people are still displaced within the country.

"People like us who are there to push the peace need to be very, very vigilant."

Dawuni also uses such visits to also promote his work with the UN Global Alliance Foundation, a project to get people to use more efficient cooking stoves in order to save fuels and improve health and the environment.

It's a long way from the stage at first glance, but Dawuni is an artist for whom social change is something to be lived. Another case in point is his founding the Independence Splash Festival in Ghana, which promotes a wide array of causes from clean water to education for girls.

"From the beginning, I came from a place where there were just so many issues that I felt needed attention. A lot of times, communicating those issues was lost," he says.

"I believe that every voice and every platform could be adapted to helping shine a light on these issues. And as an artist, too, once you are given that role of being able to communicate publicly, you have to also understand the sacredness of that role and utilize it purposefully for empowering the same people who helped push you forward."

He adds: "My responsibility to social issues is something that is really ingrained in the nature of my artistry. It's all part of the same thing, the music and the people. All one thing."

Dawuni says he is frequently asked where he finds the energy.

"For me to sing about empowerment and positivity, the words only ring true if it is part of my lifestyle," he says. "When I am singing I want to sing from a position of knowledge rather than a lyrical adaptation or some sort of artistic gimmick.

"So while it's taxing and sometimes you get very little sleep, for me it's gratifying and food for my soul."

It's part of the reggae tradition, he adds.

"Reggae became the outlet to communicate aspirations of people who never had the opportunity for being heard. It has always been on the side of the underdog," Dawuni says. "Although the different kinds of reggae have veered from this original path, I feel it is pretty much the only music that has established itself as a voice for the people. And for the people, it doesn't matter what race or class or political affiliation or tribe they belong to... it's a human thing."


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