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West African rhythms fuel a fight for freedom
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Yawo records a song for the new CD. The native of Togo now lives in Minneapolis. (Image courtesy Matt Hupton)
Most musicians dream of making it big on the world stage one day. But for a local West African singer, there's a lot more at stake than fame and fortune. Yawo, a native of Togo, hopes the CD he's producing in a tiny studio in northeast Minneapolis will help fuel the resistance against the dictator in his home country. He wants the music to connect with people in Togo, and with other freedom fighters like himself who have fled the country and are spread around the world.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The band that now bears Yawo's name got its start eight years ago in the somewhat unlikely location of Des Moines, Iowa.

"We traveled around the Midwest trying to play African music in cornfields," recalls guitarist Matt Hupton. He produces the band's CDs on his own label, called Caveman Records.

"If you're in a place like Des Moines, there's not too many places to play," says Hupton. "I mean, you might get a gig at the Spaghetti Works or something."

In an effort to connect with a different type of audience, the group eventually landed at Cedarfest, the annual summer music festival in Minneapolis. Yawo found what he'd been looking for.

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Image Trumpet player Stephen Kung

"People were in the streets," he says. "They were enjoying the music, they were curious about different styles of music. It just felt like home."

A few weeks later, Yawo moved to the Twin Cities and Hupton followed soon after. Together, they started looking for new musicians to revive the band. Trumpet player Stephen Kung was an early recruit.

"When I first started playing with this group, Yawo was trying to get us to play a certain rhythm. And I could not get the rhythm down at all, coming from a jazz background," Kung recalls. "I felt like I was trying to play drums on the trumpet. And then I woke up the next day and realized the complicated rhythm I was trying to get was so ridiculously simple."

A lot of Yawo's songs are based around the traditional rhythms of the Ewe tribe in Togo. He says the music is called Agbadza.

"It's cyclical music, as opposed to western music where they are taking you on a journey," says Yawo. "Also, the traditional setting is in a circle."

Yawo uses traditional rhythms on the new CD to sing about the struggle for freedom in Togo. His home country has suffered under the same repressive regime since before he was born.

In 1991, Yawo helped lead a general student strike against the regime in the country's capital city.

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Image Matt Hupton

"I was explaining the reasons of the strike to students," he recalls. "The government had some people in plain clothes in the crowd. Those people disturbed the gathering. They were torturing people and putting acid on the back of people. They finally took us into custody."

Yawo says their mothers went onto the streets to protest the students' imprisonment. They were released and Yawo left for Iowa two months later. The United States government eventually granted him political asylum.

Yawo is currently working his way through the U.S. citizenship application process, but he is still deeply connected to the struggle in Togo. He says a song called "Melawe" on the new CD is a tribute to the struggle.

"Melawe means 'We are going to do it!'" he says. "It's a song calling for action. What I'm saying is the dictator is trying to take away freedom. It’s not an easy task to get our freedom back. But we can do it."

Yawo says he'll make sure the CD reaches people in Togo through Voice of America and Radio France International.

"In Togo, people will be interested in what the song is talking about," he says. "But it might be banned in two days!"

He also hopes the CD connects with members of his generation from Togo who are spread around the world.

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Image Yawo sings

"It's a reality a lot of people have left the country," he says, "And we're trying to find a way to bring change by peaceful means. Hopefully that can be done."

The songs tell the stories of West Africa and, in many cases, use traditional rhythms, but guitarist Matt Hupton says the music is not simply West African.

"Because the band is such a cross-cultural group, I think there's a lot of different things going on in the music," says Hupton. "And that makes it something even newer and more modern."

There are 15 people in all from a variety of backgrounds who perform on the new CD. One percussionist is from Senegal. Another is from Brazil. And then there's trumpet player Kung.

"I'm half Chinese and half Danish, and I grew up in a Polish Catholic hick town in Wisconsin," Kung says.

Yawo says he wants the CD to reach all types of peace and freedom lovers around the world.

"I hope it's not the normal album, where I release it and it's (a particular) style," he says. "I hope the album is curious about cultures, and that cultures are curious about it."

Yawo recently quit his customer service day job to concentrate on teaching and playing music fulltime. He hopes he can eventually make a living touring with the band across the country and around the world. And he says he dreams about returning someday to a free Togo, and playing music for a hometown crowd.

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