After 32 years, Obo Addy Legacy Project reaches finale
The audience was always grinning, leaning closer, and even dancing in the aisles.
"It warmed my heart to see that," Susan Addy says, recalling her favorite part of working with the Obo Addy Legacy Project.
That was the most important thing, she says, "The happiness it brought to people. ... When they left, they were smiling."
As Obo Addy and his performers drummed and danced onstage, people clapped and swayed along, taking in the excitement of it all.
"It's not music you can sit still when you listen to," Susan Addy says.
Yet even the best performances must come to an end.
Susan Addy will retire after 32 years as executive director and co-founder of the Obo Addy Legacy Project. The Portland-based nonprofit project, which brought 29 drummers and dancers from Ghana, West Africa, will retire with her.
The project's long-term goal, she says, was teaching people of all ages about Ghana's culture and eradicating stereotypes of starvation and poverty.
"I think that human connection was the most important thing," Addy says. "There's so much racial tension that I thought we were working to dispel."
But this May, Addy suffered a severe illness and underwent surgery. She says it became apparent during her recovery that she was losing grip of the project. She chuckles, adding that at almost 77 years old, she's far past retirement age.
"I woke up every day, happy to go to work, with a smile on my face," she says. "But at a certain point, you have to ask yourself: 'Is it worth it to work this hard at this age?'"
Addy says it was important to keep the program strong as it finished and, though she wishes it could continue without her, hiring for small nonprofit work is difficult.
"If we would have tried to find someone to replace me, It would have been like saying to somebody, 'You're going to work 30 to 40 hours a week and there's no guarantee you're going to get paid,'" Addy says. For her, "this was a labor of love."
The project based its music and curricula off Obo Addy, a percussionist, composer and educator. Though he struggled with liver cancer for almost 10 years, he performed and taught until his death in September 2012.
"Right after he passed away it took a little while to figure out what we were still continuing," Susan Addy, his wife, says. "In spirit, he was there with the performers. And he still is."
Resident performing troupe Okropong had its final show July 5 at the Waterfront Blues Festival. The troupe performed traditional dance and music from various ethnic cultures in Ghana, including Ga, Ewe, Ashanti, Dagomba and Dagarti. Their performances reached over 1.2 million people since the project began, Addy says.
"I've gone kind of crazy about that," she says. "I was the designated driver, so I drove this group all over the country."
Hoping to bring African music to more local levels in Oregon schools, the project partnered with Young Audiences and The Right Brain Initiative, a program striving to integrate arts into all K-8 schools in the tricounty region. In connection with Right Brain, the Legacy Project was able to hire artists and engage students in kinesthetic learning about the cultural roles of music in Ghana and drumming instruction.
"This way it was more about teaching appreciation, showing how drumming is a way of building communities and bringing people together," Addy says.
Beyond these partnerships, she says the project also hosted the Homowo Festival of African Arts for 15 years, which was based off a real festival in Ghana, and hosted the Homowo African Arts Summer Camp for 14 years.
Addy says it was always exciting to invite people from Ghana, such as cobblers who demonstrated shoe-making and artists who traditionally braided hair or drew henna designs on festival-goers hands. There also were weavers and seamstresses showing how Ghanaian clothing was made.
The community is invited to celebrate with the Obo Addy Legacy Project one last time at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 22, in the Lagunitas Community Room, 237 N.E. Broadway, No. 300.
Though Addy says she doesn't think anyone will bring the organization back, Obo Addy's son, Alex Addy, will continue teaching in schools. Alex Addy, now 50, was brought to Portland at age 14 and learned drumming techniques from his father.
Susan Addy says the group's performers often called the project "the mothership," but they always knew they could carry on their training. "I don't think this is going to go away," she says.
Addy also notes that all the legacy project's music, materials, information pamphlets, old posters and more can be publicly accessed through Oregon State University's multicultural archives.
There is a small community of Ghanaians in Portland, and the effects from the program will live on through them, she says.
"I think people will miss it when it's gone, but I think they will have a really fond recollection of when they enjoyed it," she says. People still reach out to say they "remember dancing to Obo's music."