Published: September 25, 2014
By: Donna Armstrong
Kobla Ladzekpo, master drummer from Ghana and adjunct associate professor of West African music and dance at UCLA, retired at the end of the spring 2014 quarter after thirty-eight years of teaching. In addition to his position at UCLA, Ladzekpo served for thirty-six years as co-director of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) Music of West Africa Ensemble and retired from that position in 2007.
“Since his arrival at UCLA in 1976, Kobla has demonstrated a superior mastery of the music and dance of Ghana, as well as repertoire from neighboring countries Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. The breadth and depth of knowledge he has shared with students, faculty, and the UCLA community has enabled UCLA to maintain its status as one of the major programs in African music within the United States. I salute and thank him for a job well done.” (Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, 2014; UCLA Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology; African music specialist.)
Ladzekpo comes from a family of composers and dancers who have served for many generations as lead drummers and composers among the Anlo-Ewe people of southeastern Ghana. Ladzekpo and his brothers Alfred, C. K., and Kwaku have shared that knowledge with generations of U.S. students through teaching at several California universities. (Alfred served for forty-one years as co-director of the African Music and Dance Program at CalArts, retiring in 2011; C.K. is currently director of the African Music Program at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has served for forty-one years.) Kobla's wife, Dzidzorgbe Beatrice Lawluvi, who assisted Kobla at UCLA, also served for forty-two years on the faculty of the African Music and Dance Program at CalArts, and retired in 2014. A formally trained dancer in her own right, Kobla’s daughter Yeko Ladzekpo-Cole has taught music and dance at several universities in Southern California and assisted her parents in teaching at UCLA and CalArts.
With his wife, Beatrice, Kobla Ladzekpo formed the Zadonu African Music and Dance Company and founded his own recording label Zadonu Records. He has performed in countries around the world and has been a frequent lecturer at universities in Australia and the United States including Naropa Institute in Colorado. He has also contributed to several film soundtracks, including Mississippi Masala and Ali. The Ladzekpo family is well known for producing “The Africans Are Coming,” a staged presentation of diverse music and dance cultures from Africa.
Karin Gaynell Patterson (Ph.D. ’07, UCLA Ethnomusicology) interviewed Kobla for her 2007 dissertation “Expressions of Africa in Los Angeles Public Performance, 1781-1994.” The description of his early years provides information on how the study of African music and dance developed at several U.S. institutions of higher education:
Kobla Ladzekpo was born in Anyako, Ghana. His family is of the Ewe culture group, primarily located in the coastal regions of Ghana. In Ewe custom, every village has its own performance groups. Kobla’s father was a drummer and dancer; Kobla and his brothers Alfred, C. K., and Kwaku were all destined to become instructors of Ghanaian music and dance in California. Despite the fact that missionary school education did not allow drumming at school and students were punished for transgressions in this area, Kobla Ladzekpo went to Accra and participated in a group with music educator Philip Gbeho. In 1956, this group performed for Louis Armstrong during his visit to Ghana. Ladzekpo said that, unbeknownst to him, the event was filmed and that, years later, his niece in Arizona recognized him in the film. He believes that a film document of the event may still exist (Ladzekpo 2004). In 1957 Ladzekpo was part of the group organized by Gbeho to honor Ghana’s independence from colonial rule.
Ladzekpo attended the University of Ghana in Legon, expanding and polishing his knowledge of Ghanaian drumming and dance. He went to New York in 1964 as an exchange student at Columbia University, where he met Willard Rhodes who would later be instrumental in Ladzekpo’s relocation to Los Angeles. He stayed at Columbia until 1966, assisting in the instruction of Anlo-Ewe dance and drumming. During this first trip to the United States, he found that it was difficult to find people interested in learning African music. He recounted an incident when he took an ensemble to Harlem to perform African music and encountered opposition from the locals for bringing an all White ensemble to Harlem (Ladzekpo 2004). In 1967, Rhodes and Nicholas England established Columbia’s Center for Ethnomusicology as part of the music department. Rhodes contacted Nketia who had studied at Columbia in 1958 and was then the director of the newly established School of Music at the University of Ghana. They arranged a job for Ladzekpo upon his return to Legon.
Ladzekpo was one of the first professors hired in the African Music Program at the University of Ghana, which taught the music of various Ghanaian ethnic groups (e.g., Asante, Ewe, and Ga). Ladzekpo noted that teachers who developed their careers at the University of Ghana now teach all over the world. Ladzekpo was soon back in the United States, in upstate New York at New Paltz State University. Here Ladzekpo discovered more community interest in learning African music and dance than during his first trip to the U.S.; he remained there from 1967 to 1970. In 1970, Nicholas England (whom Ladzekpo had also met at Columbia) became Associate Dean and founding Director of CalArts’ World Music Program. He asked Ladzekpo to become an artist/lecturer at CalArts. After coming to the Los Angeles area Ladzekpo earned his M.A. degree in anthropology at the California State University in Northridge. (Patterson 2007:180-183)
When Ladzekpo was hired at UCLA in 1976, he replaced Ghanaian (Asante) master drummer Kwasi Badu, who taught at UCLA from 1968 to 1974. Other early instructors of African music at UCLA have been: scholar J. H. Kwabena Nketia (1963 and 1968-83); Ewe master drummer Robert Ansane Ayitee (1966-67); and Asante master drummer Robert Osei Bonsu (1966-67).
The department is grateful for the tremendous effort by Kobla Ladzekpo in helping to bring the study of African music and dance to UCLA.
Patterson, Karin Gaynell. 2007. “Expressions of Africa in Los Angeles Public Performance, 1781-1994.” PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles.
Stewart, Jocelyn. 1993. "Members of Valley-based troupe use the traditional art and expression of West Africa to teach about their homeland," Los Angeles Times.