Adja in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

RIP Adjanohun Loetamini.

I’m saddened and shocked to hear about the passing of Adja, one of the most incredible human beings and musicians that I’ve known. Adja was a musician and artist in the town of Grand-Popo, Benin, where he was revered and much loved locally and regionally (eg. in Burkina Faso where I once traveled with him), not to mention by the constant stream of Finnish artists who came in contact with him during their stay at Villa Karo, the Finnish-African culture center in Grand-Popo. That’s where I also met Adja, and during my three-month stay we recorded, performed, partied, laughed, danced, philosophised and traveled together – across Benin, Togo and Burkina Faso – and became very good friends.

What confounds me is the realisation that once such a gentle soul and a vigorous force of life walked on this Earth – and now he is no more. (I remember watching him walk barefoot across the Burkina Faso-Togo border, red dust from the red soil rising under his feet, looking so carefree and content with his customary black instrument case in one hand where he always kept his flute; afterwards I asked him why he didn’t have to queue to have his passport and other documents checked like the rest of us. He said that as a musician he was free to travel everywhere since musicians were revered in that part of Africa. Not sure how true or universal this was, but I observed him living it. Then he told me about the significance of the red soil uniting people across the borders, making the nations and divisions built on that soil seem more like that ephemeral dust hovering in the air.)

Under the stars in hot Ouagadougou nights we debated about the cosmos and meanings of life while the dusty speakers at our neighbourhood bar kept blasting the most amazing West African funk, disco, afrobeat, dancehall and gospel – raw, distorted, full of soul – and beer and pastis flowed; we chatted up women at the FESPACO film festival, trying our different approaches just for fun (Adja’s down-to-earth exuberance proved more popular); when this singer failed to turn up for my rare live gig in Cotonou, leaving me performing my electronic backing tracks alone on stage, Adja, who was to perform with his band CLAN right after me, immediately joined me with his brother and together they improvised vocal, guitar and percussion parts to my tracks they’d never heard before, bringing that human liveliness back to the music (or as Adja would tell me: in Africa they never improvise, they just play); and whenever during our travels I might feel down, confused or stressed by the challenges inevitably brought forward by the cultural differences, it was Adja who was consoling and cheering me up – and who wouldn’t be reinvigorated by those deep compassionate eyes, patiently listening ears, infectious smile and (literally) elevating bear hugs of his!

At the Fespaco 2013 film festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Adja had his own shortcomings and challenges like the rest of us, naturally, but what always struck me was the humility and balance he kept exuding regardless or because of those; he always seemed to be the most content and happiest wherever he was, whatever he was doing.

And I never remember seeing him without a musical instrument of some kind in hand: he seemed to be able to play any instrument he got his hands on and to find his voice in any given (musical) situation. Never a virtuoso though – at least not in the archaic Western sense and in the same way that, say, Lee “Scratch” Perry was never a virtuoso singer or Moe Tucker was never a virtuoso drummer – he instead embodied music as a living philosophy, rooted in and emanating from the very environment and life he was inhabiting; his playing radiated from a much longer now and greater here, free of current trends and institutionalised aesthetics. It was cosmic music: pure, sincere, raw, open to the outside world, diffusing the distinctions between art and life, music and nature, inside and outside. When we recorded his guitar for the song ‘Adja’ from my album Sahara, it was me who had to retune/detune my synthesizers to accommodate the living (and lived) character his guitar had aquired. Even though most of our recordings didn’t make it to that album, I never forget the commitment and enthusiasm with which he proceeded to record those various instruments of his over my tracks. He was simply a pure joy to work with.

I never learned how old Adja actually was, but based on the wisdom he’d gained, I think he was close to 200; judged by his vigour, he was probably around 18. My bet, however, is that he was simply a timeless person, a childlike sage, a maestro, leaving his footprints on that red soil before continuing his walk from one realm to another. ‘Säkenöivä voima’ indeed (the direct English translation “sparkling force” doesn’t quite capture the depth and grace of this Finnish expression). Walk and rest in peace, you beautiful soul.

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