Living a musical life: The many journeys of John Kofi Dapaah

John Kofi Dapaah

John Kofi Dapaah‘s journey in music begins in Ghana where he was born.

There have been other stops along the way. At age six, he moved to Muroran, a port city south of Sapporo on Japan’s Hokkaido island, with his family. His father was studying for his Master’s degreee in Chemistry, and later his PhD.

“I found once I got there, I felt very comfortable. … I had a great time there actually.”

Young John was learning too in Japan. A teacher, Tabuchi Masako, was found in his family’s Baptist church and she introduced him to the piano and classical music. For a young boy with a speech impediment, music became a different way to communicate with the world.

“I was inclined to classical piano right away. I’m a person who stutters. It was an outlet for me because I had a really hard time speaking.” The impediment is still there but, these days, Dapaah speaks articulately and passionately for himself. In fact, today, he is celebrating the release of his first CD called Reflections, which includes music by four composers — Schubert, Schumann Chopin and Bach. More about the record later.

John’s family moved again from Japan to Ottawa when he was 11. His father now works for Health Canada and his mom is a nurse at CHEO. The family settled first in Nepean and later in Kanata. John, who went to St. Pius X High School, never lost his love of music. But from age 11 until he entered Carleton University he learned the piano on his own. He credits his Japanese teacher with grounding him firmly enough that he could explore the instrument alone.

His ability got him into Carleton’s school of music where he started by studying jazz with Steve Boudreau and Mark Ferguson. But the classical side was calling.

“Once I started doing jazz, I found it came to me more naturally. But I made a decision to study jazz on my own and go back to my classical roots.”

So in his second year he started working with Verna Jacobsen and Nicole Presentey, who is still a key mentor. Dapaah did his fourth year of study in Graz, Austria, where he studied with Dr. Eike Straub. After graduation he took a year off to cellect his thoughts and then went to McGill University in Montreal where he completed a Master’s degree.

His road took another turn this time as a working musician. It has been hard work, as anyone who tries this discovers.

He has a studio called Piano Place where he now teaches as many 45 students. He’s playing solo concerts regularly in the Ottawa-Montreal area and he’s produced his first CD. He practices during the day, teaches at night and performs on the weekends.

The disc, Reflections, contains Dapaah’s take on: Four Impromptus (D. 889, Op. 90) by Schubert; Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15; Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 62, no. 1 in B major and Bach’s Schafe können sicher weiden, as arranged by Egon Petri (1881 – 1962).

“These are pieces that I have playing in concert and recitals for a few years now. I was comfortable enough with them to put them out there under my own name. I titled the record Reflections as a way to indicate I was reflecting on how far I have come as a pianist and an artist.”

He added that he has a natural affinity to these composers. He continues to work with the music of Chopin and Schubert and he’s venturing into Rachmaninoff, which he is hinting might be on a second CD sometime down the road.

These days, for a young musician a CD is a calling card. It is hard evidence, proof of a musical life. For Dapaah, he hopes this disc will raise his profile and gain him more attention from programmers.

“I have found that the hardest part (of being a professional musician) is getting the name out there.”

That said, he’s making his living his way.

Dapaah is mostly a solo pianist but he does play regularly with a jazz trio along with J.P. Lapenseé and Jamie Holmes and in a duo with soprano Angelique Francis.

He has played in Chamberfest, and the Cathedral Arts Series. He’s even performed for Governor Generals of Canada (Michaëlle Jean and David Johnston). He is also a composer. One of his pieces for string quartet has been performed at the National Arts Centre as part of a piece of choreography.

And on Feb. 18 in Hudson, Quebec, he’ll play music from his CD. For those interested in hearing Dapaah playing the music on his CD, he’ll be at Ottawa Pianos on March 31 at 7:30 p.m. If you want to hear the CD now it’s available on itunes, google play, and Amazon.

Next, Dapaah says he will try to break into the American market. And with concerts down the road in Montreal and Hamilton, Ontario, he thinks all the hard work is starting to pay off.

He has to work hard. He’s married to Kristina and a new father to a two month old girl named Hannah Rae.

“My daughter Hannah Rae is making me work harder. You have to take care of this little person now. It’s not just you any more. … I have played piano for her a few times and she gets a funny reaction every time.”

But he has also assumed another job as a role model for people of colour.

“It’s hard for black kids because they don’t see someone like them (playing classical music). More recently people have been looking at me. I’m getting more black students in my studio. Folks are recognizing they might be able to do that too.

“I take the role model thing very seriously. In the past two years it has become more of a theme in my musical career because people have been raising it.”

He has experienced less than positive experiences, he says, especially in auditions, where some people have wondered what he was doing in the hall.

“But then I start playing and they get it. I think it’s always going to be an issue. But it will get better if we can get more black people into classical music.”

Most of all, though, John Dapaah wants to be taken seriously as a classical musician. His new CD will certainly help with that.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.