A large gathering at The Drum in Birmingham tonight (2/2/2008) paid tribute to Roi Kwabena who died from cancer earlier this year. There were academics and entertainers who provided eloquent testimony to the contributions Roi had made to equality and justice.
Roi had a habit of sprinkling water on the ground at the start of his talks and performances. The African tradition of paying respects to ancestors took place at the start of the evening. Roi’s family were given a place of honour, including his mother and then a libation was made to remember Roi and others who paved the way for us benefiting or lives. A table was laid out as an alter and an elder performed the ceremony with the audience chanting “ashay” (be with us) after each name was said. The elder then took some of the water into his mouth and blew it into the air in every direction. Next he took white spirit “because it evaporates more quickly than water” invoking the spirits of those named. At this point all were asked to name someone they wished to be remembered. Family members and outstanding leaders were included. I mentioned Frantz Fanon. “Ashay” came the response.
A dancer then entered. Gracefully descending the steps she bowed before the alter and then acknowledged Roi’s family with blessings. Her dancing accompanied by the 21 drummers was an affecting experience. the mood ranged from calm, fluid, movement to twisting and turning becoming increasingly intense. Finally she picked up the scarf she had dropped earlier as if picking up a young child, holding it aloft as in a naming ceremony when presenting to the deity
Among the twenty one drummers wre some young people, one about 6 or 7. Roi took his drum around with him and used itas an effective means of communication.
There were tributes from across the world. Fred D’Aguier, the celebrated author, sent a tribute from Trinidad. His name appears on the wall of notable black achievers at the Liverpool Museum of Slavery. A tribute also came from there, and from Birmingham Public Library for whom Roi did a considerable amount of work. He became Birmingham’s Poet Laureate
On one occasion Roi’s sister came to the Central Library to see Roi being lifted off the ground by security guards as if to eject him. On investigation she found that there was a lot of laughter and joking. Roi had just come back to Birmingham after a long absence in the Caribbean and his return was being celebrated with riotous humour!
Professor Stuart Brown, Director of the Centre for West African Studies at Birmingham University paid tribute to Roi. His use of the drum to illustrate a lecture there had led to an irate lecturer from an adjoining room interrupting to complain about his quiet being disturbed. While others in the audience were highly embarrassed and tried to defend Roi, he himself was highly amused and continued with the session.
Others I met at the tribute included Vanley Burke and Mukhtar Dar, both involved in the organisation of a highly professional event. Leon Blades, who wrote an introduction to the programme, and Roy MacFarlane were there to read their tributes in poetry and prose. Roi’s spirit had been invoked at the outset. This was a fitting and heartfelt tribute to Dr Roi Ankhkara Kwabena 1956-2008. His funeral was held in London on 26th January, 2008.