Questions with David Kagan of Obruni Papa (Video)

Dec 17, 2014 • Articles, InterviewsNo Comments

Obruni Papa is a 2012 mockumentary which follows NYU-trained performance artist David Kagan as he records an African pop album in Ghana.

We spoke to David Kagan to learn more about his thought process for the film. View the interview below:

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Where did the idea for Obruni Papa come from?
In 2009, I went to Ghana with my then partner John to visit his family and see the greater Accra area. I’d never been anywhere in Africa before and it was an eye-opening experience for a guy raised in white-bread American suburbia. I felt lucky to get an insider’s view through John’s family, but felt self-conscious about being that “white guy” foreigner as we traveled around. This was all the more painfully obvious when things would happen like a three-year-old running up to me at the market pointing and exclaiming “white man!” or by the constant shout-outs and/or catcalls of “obruni papa,” which is where the title of the project came from. The term itself (Twi dialect for “white man”) has many meanings dependent on inflection – it can be a term of affection, a matter-of-fact statement, a ploy to try to get perceived money out of someone, or a diss. I was very uncomfortable with this omnipresent nickname and knew that there must be an interesting art piece in it somewhere. If a thing makes me squeamish, then I know there’s something worthwhile in it to explore.

Why did you decide to film in Ghana?
A few years after my initial trip, I was awarded a grant by the Art Matters Foundation funding an international project. I immediately thought of Ghana and knew I wanted to go back and work there. Music and sound art had become central in my art practice over the intervening years and this was the place to be. I was surrounded by music on that first trip – stopping roadside in a village and listening to a jubilant brass band play at a funeral, drifting off the sleep at night to the eerie chanting of an all night Pentecostal service, or Daddy Lumba music videos blasting from TVs at every spot we hit. It seemed very logical to go back to Ghana to make music, but I also wanted to address that awkward, uncomfortable feeling I had the first time. No matter what I was going to do in Ghana – there would be no escaping the problem of being a white American artist navigating a developing country. So, I decided to double down on the issue and shoot a satirical-documentary of the project, playing a character that’s a variation of myself – more formal, awkward, and clueless.

Was the project a collaborative effort with the students and staff at Legon or was it all you own ideas?
The core of “Obruni Papa,” was based on my concepts. I came to Legon with song lyrics, general thoughts on melodies for tracks, a black suit, and a video camera. I had a loose idea of what I wanted to the “narrative” of the film to be and what the music might sound like. Of course, once I got to the university and met the students a lot of things changed – but this was basically the point. The students (under their lecturer Ben Boateng) composed the music and were the inspiration for most of the visuals. It was exciting to see frictions come up between the students’ views and my ideas. I liked to push the students buttons by presenting lyrics about things vaguely counter-Ghanaian culture like atheism or choosing to be unmarried, or turn the Ghanian slang phrase “hit the spot” into a sexual double-entendre. It made for some interesting discussions – although in the end they probably just thought I was nuts. No lyrics ended up being changed because they were found offensive, though, but sometimes the students simply had better ideas than I did.

Yes, I also noticed that some of the visiting students were visibly uncomfortable with your song ‘Atheism is Sexy’. Where you prepared for this type of reaction?
This moment in the film was completely unplanned and unscripted. One morning the director of the music program informed me that students from a visiting American college (Berea University in Kentucky – a Christian school no less) will be coming by presently to listen to the collaborative work we had done so far. Ronaldo, the head student engineer, picks the two most potentially offensive songs, “Hello White Man” and “Atheism Is Sexy” to play for them. He chose these at random, I later found out, when he confessed he hadn’t been paying attention to the words of the songs. It was a complete Sascha Baron Cohen moment – it was awkward, nerve-wracking, and hilarious. I knew it would probably be the strongest segment of the film – and it had absolutely fallen in my lap!

You initially went to record an African Pop Album. Is it available to buy/download?
Yes, the album is available to download at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davidkaganandgnoteband It features the five songs featured in the film and an additional track, “Gate Of No Return.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the song writing process? Did you look to any artists/songs for inspiration for the album?
Lyrically, I was writing songs rooted in my experiences on the first trip to Ghana. I had varying modi operandi: sometimes I was attempting an approximation of a Ghanaian pop song, using idioms, sayings, or slang as in “Hit The Spot”; sometimes I was writing from a clearly western mindset such as “Atheism Is Sexy”; sometimes I fused the two as in “Hello White Man.” My lyrics were based on a range of sources from actual conversations with Ghanaians to quoted proverbs lifted from a Lonely Planet Ghana. As I said earlier, sometimes my lyrics didn’t quite measure up. Fauziah, the lead female vocalist on the project, reworked a song I’d written about a neurotic head twitch I had as a kid (“Headroller”) into a paean to universal brotherhood and love. She did this while I was out of the room – cheeky!

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In terms of inspiration, while I was brainstorming I was listening to some brilliant compilations of 70s Ghanaian and Nigerian disco/funk on the Soundway record label. I discussed this with the music students when we got into the process of putting together the sound. Also, I was aware of Daddy Lumba and highlife in general as being quintessentially Ghanaian and wanted to incorporate that vibe. I had imagined the general feel I thought some of the songs might work as – but it was really the students who knew better and had more of a say as to what style a finished song would turn out. The exception is “Atheism Is Sexy.” I knew that one had to be reggae.

Not musically per se but conceptually, I was thinking about Paul Simon and his Graceland album. It’s a prime example of the complex dynamic of a western creative-type operating in a non western/non-first world scenario. Some great things came out of the project (world recognition for the African musicians involved) but many critics felt Simon was aiding and abetting apartheid by refusing to make any sort of political statement in the music itself. This is good stuff – I’m very inspired and intrigued by problematic situations with no easy solutions or moral stances.

So what’s been the general response for the film?
The response has been generally positive – people have mostly seemed to appreciate me getting my hands dirty muddling around with racial/socio-economic issues in my own extremely awkward way.

Can we expect any future satirical works from you? Any upcoming projects?
Yes, I like to get under people’s skin so there will definitely be more satire. I’m currently developing a project called “The Documentary About Nothing” – so we’ll see what that ends up being! You can always follow what I’m up to at www.davidkagan.net or my Facebook Fanpage – www.facebook.com/davidkagan4

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I’d like to Thank David Kagan for this interview.

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