And then there are the examples of Oko _everybody calls him "Oko" _at his craft, capturing Janet Jackson's twenty-four carat smile, or mischief in a model's expression as she arches one seductive eyebrow towards the lens of his camera.
Photography may pay the bills today, but for connoisseurs of West African music of the 1970s, Nyaku's name would be familiar as a founding member of the popular Ghanaian afro-funk group Basa Basa Soundz. The young Nyaku brothers and their group circulated in a crowd that included the most renowned African musicians of the day.
"We played side-by-side with Miriam Makeba, Sunny Ade, (and) Sir Warrior," described Nyaku excitedly. "We were mingling with politicians and heads of state, playing for foreign dignitaries in our kente cloth." He demonstrated by picking up a small, wooden flute laying among the stacks of photos on his desk, and improvising a light-hearted jazzy tune. "The minute you pick up an instrument, it tells you what to say," adds Nyaku with a smile.
For young African musicians of that era, however, one artist took preeminence above all others. I was Fela's friend and we played in Kalakuta Republic, said Nyaku proudly. Fela Kuti, the renowed creator of afrobeat and a former resident of Ghana, was impressed by the twins' band and played saxophone on the band's self-titled 1976 album. While Fela introduced them to sophisticated recording technology and an international crowd of producers, the young students also got a brutal initiation into the underside of African dictatorial politics during one early performance.
"Our first performance at Kalakuta was followed by the raid," said Nyaku in a reference to the infamous police incident that nearly cost Kuti his life. "We were eyewitnesses to his mother getting thrown out of a window. Femi (Kutis musician son) was still a baby at the time." Jarred by the casual violence they encountered, the twins were still determined to benefit from the state-of-the-art recording facilities in Nigeria. They spent twelve years in the country _"eating delicious amala and ewedu like Lagosians," quipped Nyaku and trying to gain enough momentum to create an international audience.
As opportunities dwindled and an economic collapse during the early 1980s threatened the growth of the Nigerian music business, the Nyaku's decided to seek success in New York City. The problems were apparent almost immediately, said Nyaku. "It's different to form a band here," he said. "You had to have enough front money to engage people for three or six months (at a time)."
Unable to finance his musical dreams, Nyaku bided his time and took a job as a security officer. He also began to turn his pastime of photography into paying work when he discovered that editors in both Africa and the United States were interested in his snapshots from concerts and society celebrations. "One photo I had taken at a party caught the eye of a journalist friend from Columbia University, and he encouraged me to go into photojournalism."
His daytime position as an officer for the international security company Wells Fargo often gave him backstage access to performers at venues like Radio City Music Hall. He also kept busy shooting special events, prominent weddings, and other celebrations. He devoted himself to full-time photography around three years ago, and has continued to add to his growing list of regular clients. His work has appeared in the New York Daily News, Ghana Review International, the Amsterdam News, and of course, The AFRican. He is also currently in talks with a major museum to put together an exhibit of his works.
Despite his fifteen years of professional experience in event photography and photojournalism, Oko maintains the enthusiasm of a novice towards his work. "I look at it as a hobby, even today," said the lively photographer, as he sat down over a bottle of Senegalese ginger with The AFRican. "I'm still growing."
John Oko Nyaku can be reached at (212)864-9249.