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Culture

The Gas Station Singer

A service station in an industrial area of Münster couldn't be farther away from Ghana. For Bawa Abudu, it's a place where he can earn enough to feed his family -- at least until the money matches his music's acclaim.

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Bawa Abudu: a star in Ghana and a car-washer in Germany

A gas station on a busy road that cuts through an industrial suburb of Münster seems like a strange place to find an African prince and a popular Ghanian musician. But Bawa Abudu has proven so popular that drivers are lining up just to have him wash their cars, and passing motorists toot their horns, flash their headlights and wave.

The 51-year-old Bawa, son of the chief of his tribe, originally came to Germany in 1980 to purchase used agricultural equipment for the Busanga people back in his hometown of Tamale in Northern Ghana. But his good language skills led to work with the British armed forces in Münster, and he later married a German woman and started a family before eventually landing a job at the gas station.

Reggae and recognition

Teaming up with Jamaican-born British soldiers, Bawa played in reggae bands and then began releasing recordings of his traditional music to widespread acclaim in Ghana. Germans are slowly catching on to Bawa's music, and his new single "Ayamayoto" was recently released by BMG.

Bawa Abudu - CD-Cover

Bawa Abudu CD cover

Despite the acclaim, sales of his music in Ghana and Germany are not enough to support a family. To the people of Münster, Bawa is known as the man who sings while washing cars at the local gas station.

For Bawa, washing cars is just a way to pay the bills, while it also allows him to sing throughout the day. Bawa smiles as he reflects upon his musical success in Ghana and says that it makes up for any sacrifices he has had to make in Germany.

"Each time I go home my music is played all over, especially in the northern part of Ghana, where I was born," he says. "Almost every child can sing my songs. So I'm loved there... I'm great there, and I thank God that people really do like me. Here you're not being recognized, but when you get home you feel like ... someone."

Carrying on the tradition

Featuring the thumb piano, guitar and African xylophone, Bawa Abudu's music draws heavily upon his traditional roots. But perhaps his biggest musical influence was his mother, who is the custodian of the Busanga' s oral history.

"She had to sing the history of our tribe and pass it in music to other generations, and I grew up with this," says Bawa. "My mother was a very important figure in the tribe, and she has instilled a lot in me that I still have."

Carrying on the tradition of his mother, Bawa writes about his tribe's history and ancestors, but he also writes about the modern day problems they face.

"I write about our social problems, I write about our ancestors, I write about life in general and I also write about slavery, colonialism, depression, depravation and things of that sort," he says.

Language is another important aspect of Bawa's music. Mainstream record company producers may make his songs more appealing for a mass market by adding electronic dance beats, but Bawa insists on singing in his native Hausa.

"I sing in Hausa because the Hausa language is the second most-widely spoken language in Africa after Swahili. So by doing that, I catch a lot of people in Africa," he says. "People from South Africa, people from other sides of Africa all understand me."

Car wash crooning

The exact meaning of his lyrics is often lost on the many Germans who come to Bawa to get their cars washed. But regular customers, like Karl Kramer, are surprisingly big fans of the man and his music.

"I have to ask myself whether I'm coming here for my car or my soul," he confides. "Is my soul being cleansed or my car? I don't know exactly. ... He is a wonderful poet and singer."

With loyal customers like that, it's no wonder that the closest music store has run out of Bawa's latest CD four times in recent months. But looking to the future, Bawa hopes that one day he'll be able to support his family entirely through his music and return to Ghana to help establish kindergartens and a music studio.

"My biggest dream is to be able to establish a studio in Ghana and to be able to sort out the young talent and help produce them and find a market for them in Europe," he says.

For now, at least, Bawa is content with the stark contrasts in his life: respect for his work washing cars in Germany and adulation for his music in Ghana.

  • Date 30.03.2004
  • Author Guy Degan
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4qmc
  • Date 30.03.2004
  • Author Guy Degan
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4qmc