THE PROBLEMS started at the airport. Nine members of the traditional African drumming group Womba Africa had just endured a six-hour flight from Ghana to Cairo followed by a 12-hour flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Now, immigration officials at JFK were detaining them. “How are you going to survive here?” the group was asked.
It was a reasonable question.
Fredrick Quaye Odai, founder of Womba Africa, walks in New York City on Nov. 23, 2019.
The group had one-year cultural visas, little money in their pockets and two goals. One was to earn enough money with their music to not only support themselves but also to send to family in Africa. The other: to compete on the television show “America’s Got Talent.”
Yes, the campy American talent competition show that has become a springboard for every sort of performer — from singers and magicians to comedians and ventriloquists — is wildly popular in Ghana, said Fredrick Quaye Odai, the group’s 29-year-old founder. “If you don’t see it on TV, you see it on YouTube.”
Most of the men had come from humble circumstances. Most had parents who paid the fees for them to attend high school, but three, including Quaye, did not. (Free high school in Ghana began in 2017.)
Quaye had been on his own since the age of 16, when his mother died; his father had died earlier. For three months, Quaye was homeless. Now and then he would scrape together enough money to rent a room in a guest house and sleep.
Quaye managed to save up the equivalent of $200 to buy a sewing shop. It was a plywood box, the size of a small room. He divided it in half, selling the clothing he made on one side and sleeping on the other.
From left to right, Samuel Odaikwesi Laryea, Fredrick Quaye Odai and Samuel Afotey Odai carrry a fontomfrom drum to a rehearsal.
When the shop fell apart, he traveled all over Ghana, selling television antennas from a cart. He often slept outside to save money.
Quaye started playing music casually in 2010. “It filled my soul with joy,” he said.
In 2016, he founded Womba Africa. The group worked on their music full time, eventually playing larger shows. Every night for a year, Quaye reached out via the internet until he finally found people to help them take their music to the United States. The group’s name reflected his drive.
“Womba means ‘we are coming,’” he said. “We are coming with something new. We are coming with energy. There’s some power push in that word.”
At JFK, the men produced documents showing they had bookings to perform, though not enough to cover the living expenses for nine men for a year. The questioning dragged on for three hours, according to Quaye.
Somehow, the men made their case and were granted entry into the country. Quaye wasn’t surprised.
“When you think negative you get negative, and when you think positive you get positive, so nothing is impossible,” Quaye said. “Everything is possible.”
They had made it in. But their challenges were just beginning.
Womba Africa, an African drumming group from Ghana, rehearses in Rochester, NY.
Welcome to America?
After retrieving their luggage, which contained only clothing, costumes and musical instruments, they went to board a bus for the seven-hour ride to Rochester. But they were told that some of their drums were too large. The men had to leave their large drums behind in the cargo area at JFK.
They had chosen Rochester as home base because they knew one person there.
Love Borketey, a Ghanaian dancer, met Shanna Fiorucci, an American, when they both were living in Ithaca. When his visa expired, they spent 2½ years apart, then married in Ghana. They are now living in Rochester; he is an unofficial member of Womba Africa while he awaits documents that will allow him to work.
A week after Womba Africa arrived, two members returned to New York City to retrieve the drums.
People from the crowd join Nii Tetteh Quarshie of Womba Africa, followed by Kate Huggler-Rubin, in a dance as the group busks in Times Square.
The Ghanaians actually found it easier to move around in Manhattan than their home city of Accra, where vehicles and humans move tightly together in the same space. But navigating proved difficult. In Accra, they would find their way by landmark — go to the tree, turn left, look for the pink building — but in New York City the buildings all looked the same. They had to use addresses, which they weren’t accustomed to in Ghana.
The drums retrieved, they found someone at the airport to drive them to Rochester at a cost of $500.
Then came delays in receiving Social Security cards, which they needed to get paid for their work.
Another hurdle: Rochester’s climate.
Stephen Nanakojo Asare plays the flute as other members of Womba Africa accompany him in the holding room of ‘America’s Got Talent’ auditions.
On the day they arrived, in October, the temperatures were in the 50s, but the men were accustomed to year-round highs in the 80s. Shanna’s mother, Anna Fiorucci, came to their aid, collecting and delivering coats, clothing, bedding and supplies from her local community in Rush.
Within weeks, an early cold snap brought a dusting of snow. Delighted, the men headed outdoors to take smiling selfies to share with people back in Ghana. But the men would come to find the snow as an obstacle, and would forget to dress appropriately for the weather.
In mid-November, Quaye and Stephen Nanakojo Asare needed to return to New York City to retrieve a shipment of a dozen small drums. To get to the bus station, they biked two miles in a snowstorm that dropped 11.3 inches on the city. They didn’t wear boots.
“It was hell,” Quaye said, laughing. “There was nowhere to hide so we have to just keep going.”
Again, in New York, there was trouble getting their drums on the bus. But this time, two workers and the manager were from Ghana. Speaking to them in Twi, Quaye eventually persuaded them to let the pair board the bus.
Others would soon join in Womba Africa’s quest.
From left to right, Love Borketey, Stephen Nanakojo Osare, Julian Bortey Kwandahor and Samuel Afotey Odai take a selfie in Times Square.
From landlord to Womba kin
Aaron Rubin and Kate Huggler-Rubin were on a cross-country bike trip when they got a call from Shanna, their tenant and next-door neighbor. The couple owns many buildings in the 19th Ward, a racially, ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood in southwest Rochester.
Shanna told them about a music group from Ghana that was on their way to Rochester and looking for housing.
“That sounds fun,” Aaron remembers thinking. He told her that he would have space for them.
Once the group arrived, he was less happy to learn that they did not have enough money for rent or even a security deposit. But he soon became curious about the men.
When he saw them walking down Genesee Street carrying huge jugs of water on their shoulders, he stopped to ask them what they were doing. They responded that they were purchasing their drinking water. He told them they could drink from the tap. It was a welcome surprise to the Ghanaians — the tap water back home was not drinkable. He also taught them how to use a washer and dryer.
He was puzzled to find buckets in the men’s bathtub. The men explained that in Ghana, most would bathe by pouring water over themselves and then, wearing only a towel, would carry the bathing water to a central spot for drainage.
The men purchased cellphones for keeping in touch with family and friends in Ghana, but they didn’t have access to the internet. They took to ringing the doorbell of the Rubins’ home, asking to use their internet.
“I’d just come home and there’s like three guys on our front porch,” Aaron said. “We’ve got nice chairs out there and they’re sitting down relaxing. I’d bring them food and stuff.”
The men started doing odd jobs for Aaron to help cover the rent. He, in turn, secured several donated bicycles from R Community Bikes. When they needed a lift, he would drive them. On one trip, they passed a dead deer on the side of the road. The men asked Aaron to stop so they could skin it; they needed a hide to repair some of their drums. Aaron kept driving.
Within a week, Aaron and his business partner, Mick Castellucci, were using their company’s box truck to transport the band to gigs.
Quaye said he’s grateful for the assistance from the Rubins and Mick. “They’ve been so good to us,” he said. “They’ve been wonderful. It was a miracle to us.”
They named Aaron their U.S. manager and “Womba kin.” Mick, who has helped them negotiate contracts, has been given the honorary title of asafoatse — warrior — because “he fights for us.”
Samuel Odaikwesi Laryea, center, calls out as the band rehearses in Rochester, New York.
Drumming anywhere and everywhere
Music is part of the fabric of life in Ghana. Even fufu, an iconic dish made with cassava and unripe plantains, is mixed and pounded with a distinctive POOM-pa POOM-pa sound.
Like the pounding of fufu, Womba Africa’s music is defined by rhythm. Julian Bortey Kwandahor, Raymond Odai Laryea, Quaye and the others play various drums and handheld percussion instruments that build the backbone for soft, melodic tunes featuring Stephen on flute and Sampson Okoe Ofori on xylophone.
Louder pieces feature joyful, spirited drumming on large, resonant drums called fontomfrom, which send beats pulsing through your body. Samuel “Artist” Odaikwesi Laryea leads call-and-response songs and adds loud, birdlike calls to the higher-energy numbers.
Three dancers — Love, Nii Tetteh Quarshie (who goes by Tetteh) and Samuel Afotey Odai — contribute athletic, energetic movement.
At their first performance at the Rochester Public Market, they drew an enthusiastic crowd and walked away with hundreds of dollars in their tip jar. But not everyone appreciated the noise level.
“They are a lot of fun,” said James Farr, director of the market. “They are great, but they have a lot of energy and a lot of drums, and it irritates mostly the vendors.”
While the group was ultimately told their drumming was not welcome at the Rochester Public Market, the group was welcomed at the Brighton Farmers Market, which also proved to be a lucrative spot.
When they didn’t have bookings, they would take to the streets of the 19th Ward neighborhood, playing their drums and chanting. Residents would open their doors to check on the source of the racket, and would be surprised to find African drummers in front of their home.
“They loved it,” Quaye said.
When they set up at public parks, they sometimes played for just a few onlookers. Yet Quaye’s face lit up when he talked about three old ladies who happily danced along to their music.
“When we see people enjoying what we do, it makes us feel more better than anything else,” he said. “That is what we want to share to the world.”
Womba Africa has become a draw at libraries, where Quaye explains the culture, history and meaning behind their music and dances. At a November performance at Arnett Branch Library, adults and children enthusiastically joined the group onstage to try some simple dance moves. Among them was Dante Worth of the 19th Ward.
“I felt invoked,” Worth said. “The music was so engaging and invoking, I wanted to be a part of it.”
The group got wind of “America’s Got Talent” auditions in New York City set for Nov. 23, a month and a half after they arrived, and they rehearsed diligently to time their act down to the second. But you can’t plan for everything.
Members of Womba Africa are all smiles before their audition for ‘America’s Got Talent’ in New York City Nov. 23, 2019.
What’s it like to audition for ‘America’s Got Talent’?
“Wup, wup, wup, wup,” called Tetteh, the confident, outgoing dancer.
“Woooooah,” his bandmates answered.
Kate Huggler-Rubin and Aaron Rubin had transported the men and their instruments in two vehicles to New York City. On the road, the men had experienced their first American fast food; they liked the French fries but thought the hamburgers needed spice.
On the morning of the audition, the men of Womba Africa drummed, chanted and sang as they walked toward the Javits Center, a glass behemoth the size of roughly 31 football fields. Huggler-Rubin’s eyes welled up with tears. She said it felt like she was watching her Ghanaian sons.
Inside, they were met with a flurry of activity and a series of long, snaking lines. Clearly, thousands of people were chasing the same dream.
Finally, they entered a large room, buzzing with activity and blazing light. Huge AGT logos ringed the room. Folding chairs were set closely together in the middle of the room, where contestants interacted with each other. Interspersed among the chairs were theatrical mirrors flanked by round lights. A camera on a huge boom captured conversations.
This was the holding room where contestants waited for their audition. The men changed into their colorful costumes, designed and sewn by Quaye in Ghana, and quickly attracted the attention of other curious contestants, who asked about them.
Now and then, music would play over the loudspeaker, and at the direction of the show staff, the contestants — Womba Africa among them — would erupt with dancing, jumping, flipping cheerleaders and juggling.
Aaron and Kate Rubin watched quietly from the sidelines. “I think they are having the time of their lives, and that makes me so happy,” Kate said.
The rest of the time, the room took on a low-key lull as contestants chatted, ran through their auditions and took selfies with each other. A man in a Donald Trump mask walked around doing impersonations.
Every so often, a number was announced over a loudspeaker and a large group would line up and depart through a door to the audition rooms.
The guys from Womba Africa couldn’t help themselves. One drummer would start tapping on a drum. Another would join in, then another. Humming would follow. People would take notice. Then show employees would tell them to stop.
But eventually the men were invited to perform on the dance floor in the center of the room. Under bright, hot lights, facing several cameras, they started the piece they had timed down to the second.
It began with a melodic song featuring Sampson on xylophone and Stephen on flute. Then, with a loud thump, the tempo changed to a rapid drumbeat, and the dancers emerged from behind the musicians, launching into frenetic moves. They smiled and oozed charisma. Artist’s birdlike calls added to the spectacle. On the final beat, the dancers’ hands held in the air in a triumphant pose. The crowd cheered.
When they performed a second number, the cameraman swooped the camera between Love’s legs. Love smiled to the crowd and gyrated his hips, drawing a huge response.
The scene might wind up as a few seconds on the show. But next was the big moment: the audition.
One in 100,000
“America’s Got Talent” is shown in 184 countries, and 70 countries have their own versions. Auditions are taking place in nine cities; the show also accepts online video auditions.
Jason Raff, executive producer for all of its 15 seasons, estimated that the staff would evaluate close to 100,000 acts for the 2020 season. Only a select few will audition before celebrity judges.
That day, they were looking for interesting acts — “ones that give you goosebumps,” he said.
He wasn’t surprised by an act from Ghana auditioning.
“I think America is the land of opportunity,” he said. “And I think the ‘America’s Got Talent’ stage has become the biggest stage on Earth, where you could be watching the show in the smallest town all the way across the world and say, ‘I want to be on that show.’ And we’re the people that say, ‘You’re welcome. Come on in.’
“I think the most amazing part of the show is that we’re very inclusive to not only every kind of culture but any kind of talent. I don’t care if you sing or you do something weird with your eyebrows. If it’s unique, we want to see it.”
Down to a minute
Once the group left the holding room, the glitz gave way to an all-business atmosphere.
As Womba Africa headed down the hall to their audition, some of the other contestants offered fist bumps, waved or called out, “Good luck, guys.”
Tetteh responded to several with, “I got you man,” a catchphrase he picked up somewhere and used frequently.
“Wow, they like us,” Quaye said. “We feel like we’re already famous.”
As the group waited in a quiet room with other auditioners, Kate passed out water, bananas, grapes and raisins.
Then they were ushered to a hallway, where they met singers, a poet and a comedian. A man with a ponytail and a guitar over his back asked if he could pray over the men. They agreed, and he held up his hands and prayed fervently. The men responded with several “Amens.”
As they waited, the men fidgeted, joked, tapped on drums and hummed songs quietly.
People emerged from audition rooms, comparing notes and swapping contact information. An operatic voice echoed through the hallway.
A man dressed as James Brown came out of a room. Seeing him, a young man sang, “Oh, I feel good.”
“Nanna, nanna, nanna, na,” sang back several guys from Womba Africa.
Just before Womba Africa’s audition, a woman announced that audition times had been cut from 90 seconds to 60. “I hope you can work with me on that,” she said.
As a fretful Aaron tried to negotiate the situation, Womba Africa huddled to strategize, speaking in their native Ga.
Finally, the group was called into an audition room, where one woman sat at a table with a laptop. She reinforced that they would have 60 seconds, and she would raise her hand to stop them once that was up.
She called each group by number. Womba Africa was first. Their energy was high as they performed their abbreviated song.
The woman listened, without expression. Next, a woman sang “Amazing Grace,” followed by a country singer and then a comedian doing a bit about Harry Potter. Faced with the judge’s deadpan expression, he delivered his act to the contestants in the room.
The judge, still expressionless, thanked the group and told them there would be no decision until some time in January. As the contestants filed out, she asked Aaron if Womba Africa had been filmed in the holding room. He said they had, taking the question as a hopeful sign.
“I believe they are going to give us ‘yes,'” he said, “because we nailed it.”
A Times Square debut
Aaron, eager to give the group a chance to earn some money, decided Times Square offered the best opportunity.
They headed down 11th Avenue, pausing briefly to check out the new high-rise buildings in Hudson Yards.
Sampson gazed up at one of the towering buildings and said that he couldn’t live there. It was an interesting remark, considering that in Ghana, Sampson lived with his parents and sisters in a one-room dwelling with no indoor plumbing, its walls blackened from the fried fish his mother cooked and sold.
They stopped at a parking garage, where they stowed some instruments in cars, and dug into containers of Ghanaian food that Artist had cooked in Rochester and reheated that morning.
Tetteh checked his phone; his brother was getting married in Ghana that day. He had no regrets. “Business first,” he said. “This is my time.”
The Ghanaians lugged their heavy, wooden instruments for the mile-long walk to Times Square. Quaye paused only once, to get a better look at the funny faces on a pair of white bulldogs being walked by their owner.
Womba Africa set up and started playing, the sounds reverberating through Times Square. A crowd quickly gathered. Costumed characters dressed as Batman, the Joker and the Statue of Liberty watched the group warily. A young man approached Aaron, telling him that Womba Africa was performing in his group’s usual spot, and that there would be trouble if they didn’t move. Aaron stood his ground, and the man relented.
The dancers beckoned people from the crowd to dance with them; at one point Tetteh led something like a conga line. Onlookers smiled, raised their phones to take pictures and applauded heartily. But the tip jar remained mostly empty. Aaron observed that Rochesterians were much better tippers than New York City tourists were.
While busking had a low return, a woman Quaye had met at the audition booked the dancers and two of the musicians for an unusual gig the next day: a lavish, Aladdin-themed bar mitzvah party in Queens. Dressed in Arabian-style costumes, the men helped with the grand entrance of the guest of honor. They were paid $800 for their time — more than they had ever earned in a day.
A winter’s wait
Samuel Odaikwesi Laryea, center, calls out as the band rehearses in Rochester, New York.
Bookings slowed between Thanksgiving and Christmas. As expected, there was no word from the show, which was now embroiled in a controversy surrounding Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough not returning as judges, with claims of a “toxic culture” in the show.
Meanwhile, Womba Africa kept working toward sending money home. Beginning with Kwanzaa, performances picked up. Aaron started teaching Tetteh how to drive and helping them look for an old school bus. He is remodeling a space in the 19th Ward for Womba Africa to rehearse and give classes.
But one thing is certain: Womba Africa realized their improbable dream of getting to “America’s Got Talent.” The rest of their story is in someone else’s hands.
Reporter Tracy Schuhmacher focuses on Rochester’s food and drink scene and human interest stories. Email her at TracyS@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram as @RahChaChow.
These performances may require advance registration; check with the organizations for details.
Fairport Public Library, 1 Fairport Village Landing in Fairport, 1 p.m. Feb. 1.
Hamlin Public Library event will be held in the Hamlin Town Hall gymnasium, 1658 Lake Road North in Hamlin at 1 p.m. Feb. 18.
Pittsford Community Library, 24 State St. in Pittsford, 2 p.m. Feb. 23.
Henrietta Public Library, 625 Calkins Road in Henrietta, 7 p.m. April 2.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Womba Africa: Drummers from Ghana try to make ‘America’s Got Talent’