August, 2015

Alasko in his school days in the early 1960s, during his “Tokyo Joe” phase (referring to the hairstyle)

After Nia and I checked in to the Mayaga, I told Henry we’d meet him at Cool Base that evening, after we rested a little.

“I’ll tell Alasko,” he said.

Alasko is one of our best friends. Way back when, when I was a chemistry teacher and Henry was a lab man, Alasko was our school’s assistant bursar. I was first drawn to him by his collection of odd hats and the red bicycle he rode that was two sizes too small for him. Shortly thereafter I became infected by his calm zaniness.

By the way, “Alasko” is not his birth name. The name came about when, as a kid in school, he became enamored of a certain United State. So his mates started calling him it (sort of). I know another Ghanaian guy named Oklahoma.

Later that afternoon, Nia and I came out and walked around the market. I wanted to find my friend Margaret’s stall. But the market had shifted a bit in layout. The thoroughfare leading to Margaret’s stall was wider, and I couldn’t find the tree. The butchery houses were still there, but I couldn’t find her stall. “Oh well,” I said to Nia. “Let’s move on to Cool Base.”

Alasko in 2015

We ambled to the southern end of the market and into the venerable bar. The place was nearly empty, and had seen better days; days which I well knew. We took a table in the rear courtyard and ordered a Fanta and a Star Beer.

Soon two men rolled in on bicycles: one on a black bike, the other on a big white bike.

“What the heck?” I exclaimed. A white bike? Big?

I leapt up to embrace Alasko. “What’s with the bike?” I asked. “Where’s your little red one?”

“I have made some chromatographic changes.”

“And dimensional too. But one thing I believe has not changed,” I said, and motioned to the barmaid. “Bring this man a Star Beer!”

Sweet Mother

Sweet Mother in 2008

As the evening progressed, we drank Star and chewed barbecued meat from the nearby kiosk. The sky turned to a rich creamy yellow.

Where’s Sweet Mother? I wondered.

I had phoned Sweet Mother as soon as Nia and I had set our bags down in the Hotel Mayaga.

“What will you take for your supper?” was the first thing she asked me.

“Um…tee zed!”

“And soup?”


That was my Sweet Mother. Her real name is Sheitu Seidu, but she has always been Sweet Mother to me. And not because she is caring and motherly (though she is); it’s just the name I’ve always known her by. Sweet Mother is also a career woman, a longtime firefighter for the Ghana National Fire Service.

But where was Sweet Mother now?

“Excuse me a sec, I need to call Sweet Mother,” I said to Henry and Alasko.

“Sweet Mother, Sweet Mother,” sang Alasko as I dialed, dancing in his chair to an imagined, infectious, highlife guitar melody. As the phone connected, I watched Alasko and grinned. If there is one image of Alasko that stays with me through the years, it is of him dancing: with others, by himself—usually by himself. He can go on and on like that for hours.

“Sweet Mother, Sweet Mother,” I sang as the phone began to ring. I closed my eyes and in my mind I saw Alasko in days of yore, dancing in the Cool Base courtyard, shimmying and singing Prince Nico Mbarga’s irresistible, timeless, unstoppable tune. The best known version is sung by a lady Nigerian artist named Tilda:

Sweet mother, I no go’ forget you
For the suffer wey you suffer for me.
Sweet mother, I no go’ forget you
For the suffer wey you suffer for me.
When I dey cry, my mother go carry me
She say, “My pikin wat tin’ you de cry, yo yo
Stop stop—stop stop
Stop stop make you no cry again oh.”

Some songs have legs, and this is one of them. “Sweet Mother” is to African music much as “Stairway to Heaven” is to classic rock and roll. It’s also from the same era. “Stairway” came out in 1971: “Sweet Mother” was released in 1976. Four decades later, “Sweet Mother” remains one of the most popular songs in Africa. Sometimes referred to as “Africa’s anthem,” it was voted Africa’s favorite song by BBC readers and listeners in 2004. Every single person knows this song.

“Sweet Mother” almost didn’t make it onto turntables. When Prince Nico Mbarga submitted his demo to EMI Records in Nigeria in 1974, they rejected it because they felt it was too childish. A similar thing happened at Decca. Then EMI dropped Prince Nico and his band, the Rocafil Jazz, from their contract due to their inability to break past their strong local following in Igbo land (southeast Nigeria), where they had a standing gig at a hotel.

What was Prince Nico to do? He signed up with a Nigerian label, called Rogers All Stars, and proceeded to record and release “Sweet Mother.” It became a monster hit continent-wide.

Prince Nico turned out to be a one hit wonder. But if your one hit was “Stairway to Heaven,” I suppose you could feel pretty good about that. He went on to record nine albums for Rogers All Stars by the early 1980s, and then moved to London where he performed in a glam-rock fashion in nightclubs. After that he moved back to Nigeria and, after his band broke up, launched his own record label. Later he formed the New Rocafil Jazz Band, but by the 1990s he had retired from music and was focused on managing his four star hotel in the town of Ikom, on the border with Cameroon. Can you guess the name of his hotel? That’s right: The Sweet Mother Hotel.

Sadly, Prince Nico Mbarga is no longer with us. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1997.

But in a way, he’s still here. His song is immortal.

Sweet Mother and Nia, in 2015

“Hello?” said the voice at the other end of the line.

“Sweet Mother, Sweet Mother!” I sang. “Where are you?”

“Yes! I’ve just finished preparing your tee-zed. I’m now coming!”