Gorges Ocloo, The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa (2023). Copyright: Kurt van der Elst. Reproduced with permission.
Brave women are always forgotten, murderous men are remembered.
Ghanaian-born composer Gorges Ocloo’s new work, The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, uses opera to celebrate a powerful woman and to deliver a searing critique of colonialism. Through an unusual combination of embodied narration and musical recomposition, Ocloo devises a theatrical form that both enriches and complicates the role of opera in anti-colonial historiography.
The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa premiered on 27 April 2023 at Toneelhuis Antwerp, a co-production with Opera Ballet Vlaanderen as part of LOD muziektheater’s All Arias festival. I saw the opera during its one-night only showing at Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Ghent. The piece narrates the history of Asante heroine, Nana Yaa Asantewaa, who led a women’s rebellion against British colonial forces in 1900. The conflict, known as the War of the Golden Stool, was an anti-colonial response to British efforts to seize the Asante people’s sacred symbol: a small throne made of pure gold. Yaa Asantewaa assembled an army of women who fought for a year to protect the Golden Stool. Though their uprising ultimately ended in defeat, with Yaa Asantewaa captured and exiled to the Seychelles (where she died in 1921), the Golden Stool remained in the possession of the Asante.
Today, Yaa Asantewaa is a national heroine in Ghana. But, the opera shows, in a male-dominated society, her legacy remains under threat. The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa reflects on Yaa Asantewaa’s history, on her contemporary heritage, and on current issues faced by Ghanaian women and girls, including patriarchal social structures, demands for sex before marriage, and the tension between Christianity and Indigenous tradition. Thus, the opera combines historical narration with socio-political critique to offer a wide-ranging view of the enduring effects of colonialism on Indigenous societies.
The Golden Stool is composed for and performed in a mixture of English, Dutch, and Asante Twi, by an all-female cast. In the current production, Cape Town Opera-based soprano Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga portrays Nana Yaa Asantewaa, and mezzo-soprano Nonkululeko Nkwinti, also from CTO, represents the antagonists, including British colonisers (referred to as the Ofay) and the male elders of the Asante. An eight-person chorus of dancers, singers, and actors enact and comment on the conflict between Nana Yaa Asantewaa and the Ofay. These performers also reflect on the challenges of contemporary womanhood, and address the competing demands of local and global cultural formations.
Nobulumko Mngxekeza-Nziramasanga as Nana Yaa Asantewaa and Nonkululeko Nkwinti as the Ofay in Gorges Ocloo’s The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa (2023). Copyright: Kurt van der Elst. Reproduced with permission.
Eschewing traditional operatic orchestration, Ocloo scores his entire work for a combination of voice and percussion. In an interview with VRT Radio 1, the composer, himself a percussionist, observes that he was particularly interested in exploring the potential afforded by ‘the purity of the soprano voice accompanied only by percussion’. Ocloo ingeniously combines an array of instrumental innovations, the most important of which is a strange self-playing drumming automaton displayed on-stage. The percussion machine looks a bit like a jukebox. Its bright colours and shining lights appear incongruous alongside the more sombre shades of the opera’s costumes and stage designs, which mostly consist of ochres, browns, and bluish-greys. In an essay by Katherine Lindekens published in the production programme, Ocloo describes his percussion machine as a kind of voodoo altar, which forms the heart of the community on-stage. In other words, the automaton serves as a kind of technological equivalent of the Golden Stool. Other percussive contributions are made by the performers’ bodies, adorned with rattles worn as ankle and arm bracelets. The dancers’ hand-clapping and foot-stamping are amplified by means of a resonant stage floor, which is enhanced with built-in microphones. In another uncanny juxtaposition of the natural with the artificial, Ocloo also incorporates brightly-coloured plastic boomwhackers as accompaniment during a confrontation between Nana Yaa Asantewaa and the male elders of the Asante community.
Ocloo calls his piece an AfrOpera, ‘a musical confrontation between Europe and Africa’. Perched somewhere between medley and musical collage, the score captures the contrapuntal nature of postcolonial sonic worlds, where the music cultures of the colonizer often compete with, drown out, ridicule, or appropriate local sounding practices. A large part of the opera consists of recognizable Western musical snippets, transfigured and recomposed in often surprising ways. The composer deconstructs well-known compositions from the Western canon (in Ocloo’s words, ‘the hits of the Western tradition’) and injects them with African influences. Such well-known tunes as Beethoven’s ‘Ode an die Freude’, Johann Strauss Jr’s waltz ‘An der schönen blauen Donau’, the aria, ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo, and Shostakovich’s ‘Waltz No. 2’ from Suite for Variety Orchestra No.1, appear throughout the opera. The quotations are transformed into rhythmic vocal showpieces, unfamiliar yet recognizable. Ocloo also deconstructs Western (especially American) popular music. A scene in which the chorus reflects on contemporary challenges faced by Ghanaian women incorporates identifiable quotes from Aretha Franklin, Gloria Gaynor, Lady Gaga and Megan Thee Stallion. Again, the emphasis is on rhythmic-vocal transformation, infusing the source texts with a percussive force reminiscent of typical constructs of African music as primarily rhythmic.
Gorges Ocloo’s The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa (2023). In the background, the percussion machine is visible. Copyright: Kurt van der Elst. Reproduced with permission.
Ocloo himself describes his transformation of Western music as follows: ‘I play a game with the appropriation of cultural symbols, just like the British did with the Golden Stool. But I don’t steal the music, I just borrow it briefly’. The composer hence commandeers the musical possessions of the West to experiment with their possibilities and capabilities from an anti-colonial perspective. Colonized peoples find themselves negotiating, practicing, defending, hiding, disavowing, or emulating a range of sound cultures, both familiar and strange, in an increasingly noisy colonial modernity. Ocloo turns this hierarchical dynamic on its head. Extending the battle between the Ofay and the Asante to a musical confrontation, the composer ponders the meaning of such concepts as ownership, representation, and cultural identity.
Despite its Western musical signifiers, The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa firmly inscribes itself in African performance traditions. The piece incorporates techniques that remind strongly of communal theatre, traditional storytelling, and even the Ghanian concert party described by Tobias Robert Klein in African Theatre 19: Opera and Musical Theatre. In particular, the opera situates itself less as a theatrical showpiece, and more as a communal event. The audience becomes participants in the piece right from the start. Nana Yaa Asantewaa faces the stalls with a West African greeting: ‘Agoo’, she chants. ‘Listen’. When the audience remains silent, she explains that the expected response is ‘Amee’. This means ‘I am listening’. She repeats the exchange until the whole audience joins in a boisterous, hospitable ‘Amee’. This traditional exchange is a greeting, but it is also a form of demanding and giving respect. By breaking the fourth wall, Ocloo thus not only conjoins the musical heritage of Western opera with the participatory dynamic of traditional African theatre forms, he also infuses the whole event with a reciprocal ethics of response and responsibility.
As an AfrOpera, The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa plays with the idea of opera as a product of the West. The work does not, however, seek to reconstruct a notion of African operatic performance as pre-colonial tradition. Rather, it appears to promote opera as a contemporary African form, embedded in the material and social economies of the present day. It does so through its use of modern technologies such as the drum machine, and of popular music such as the intertextual references to Megan Thee Stallion and Lady Gaga. Admittedly, my first reaction to the scene on contemporary Ghanaian womanhood, in which the chorus spoke with American accents and punctuated their songs with the types of gestures seen in Hollywood films and music videos, was discomfort. Somehow, I found these references to a world beyond Ghana jarring. They did not seem to fit, just like the lights of the percussion automaton felt alien to the scenography. On reflection, however, I recognized in my own desire for a pure form of operatic or cultural performance a denial of African modernity. The performers’ Americanisms, like the percussion machine, are a reflection of globalization and its reach. Rather than arresting its subjects in a premodern fantasy, The Golden Stool emphasises that Africans, like Westerners, are integrated with modernity and with the globe.
AfrOpera is hence not about recovering some lost form of precolonial theatrical authenticity. Nor is it about emulating an imagined Western tradition of large-scale operatic extravagance. Instead, Ocloo’s AfrOpera appears to fulfil a more socially embedded function. With its commitment to historical recovery, anti-colonial self-assertion, and post-colonial hybridity, The Golden Stool, or the Story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa is more activism than acting. Here, AfrOpera emerges as a heterogeneous cultural practice that combines entertainment, pedagogy, and commemoration. Like traditional Western opera, it uses its sonic and visual resources to celebrate a significant figure from the past. But the work reaches beyond memorialization. It develops a platform where people can communicate and work through contemporary challenges, thereby transforming opera into a vehicle for social activism and education. Finally, AfrOpera also presents a route towards community building. When Nana Yaa Asantewaa breaks the fourth wall with her greeting, she encourages each performer and audience member to welcome the other into their space. Thus, AfrOpera becomes a form of hospitality—a way of saying ‘Agoo!’, ‘Amee!’ to those who have too long been voiceless and ignored.