In 2015 the American jazz quartet blood drum spirit traveled to Ghana to work with master artists in rural villages and in the cities of Kumase and Accra. This project is the subject of the film We Are One, directed by Sara Pettinella. The film documents the group’s decades-long journey, beginning with drummer royal hartigan, bassist Wes Brown, and saxophonist David Bindman studying and working with Ghanaian teachers in the USA, continuing with royal’s studies in Ghana over many years, and finally the group traveling to the same villages where royal learned many of the rhythms and songs that he had brought home for the quartet to arrange and perform. The film shows the deep historical and aesthetic connections between jazz and West African music, and by extension, with the peoples of the world.
blood drum spirit reaches into the history of African American traditions, while incorporating music from around the globe into original compositions and improvisations. Under hartigan’s leadership the quartet has toured in the USA, Asia, and West Africa, where ensemble members have lived and worked with people from different musical traditions. hartigan, Brown, and Bindman met at Wesleyan University in the early 1980s, and have worked together in various settings ever since, including with their teachers Abraham Kobena Adzenyah, Freeman Kwadzo Donkor and Kwabena Boateng in the jazz-highlife group Talking Drums. Pianist Art Hirahara joined the quartet in 2003.
The film begins in a small town marketplace, with the sounds of saxophone and flute weaving in and out of drums, bells, and rattles while dancers old and young join in. Subsequent scenes move back and forth between the USA and Ghana, following the stories of the quartet’s members. Each has a different entry into playing music as a child; each has a life-long dedication to the art of jazz.
When the quartet arrives in the Ewe village of Kopeyia, they are greeted with drumming. Under a large tree, their hosts sing a song about “missing the train of life.” Going from village to village, and in urban settings, blood drum spirit plays with master drummers, dancers, and singers steeped in centuries-old traditions, including a festival for chiefs, a fishing village near the ocean, and a shrine where women sing a song in honor of Wes’s mother. Each place the quartet goes, the music is different, as are the dances, songs, dress, and in some cases, languages. A dance instructor explains that “you cannot separate the dance from our culture; the dance is the culture.”
Videographer Martin Adi-Dako directed the filming in Ghana. His team captures up-close the dance movements, the drummer’s faces, the colorful clothing, food preparation, printmaking, and rural and urban environments of modern Ghana.
Sara Pettinella conducted interviews and filmed the group playing in the United States. Combining footage from Ghana and the USA, she weaves together the story that has been over three decades in the making.
We Are One captures the joy of a collaborative artistic effort that brings musicians, dancers, singers, poets, and onlookers together across oceans, time, and cultures. This film reminds us, as jazz great Louis Armstrong does, of the deep connection we all share as part of the human family.