Francesco Saverio Longo
Last summer I spent five weeks in southwestern Ghana in preparation for my MA Music in Development dissertation. From late June to early August I lived in the Nzema-speaking seaside village of Ngelekazo, to keep exploring the sonic and musical aspects of everyday life in a rural setting. Travelling across the Jomoro District, an area extensively wedged between the Gulf of Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, I visited again places and people that took part in an earlier fieldwork while I was studying Anthropology at Sapienza University of Rome in 2013-2014. As a recipient of the 2017 John Taylor Music Travel Grant, in fact, I had the opportunity to fly back to Ghana to expand from a new angle the project I have started four years ago. This time I diverted my focus from musicians’ struggles to look at how loudspeaker-mediated sounds inform the ways in which rural modernities are experienced, negotiated and expressed.
While in Ngelekazo my partner Cecilia and I lived with a family that owned a sound system, Step 2 Soundz. A valuable economic resource in an area with dramatic unemployment rates, this ‘soundz’ – as sound systems are commonly dubbed – is a family enterprise that takes advantage of transnational economic and affective networks. The owner, Simon Kalley Ackah, works in Rome as a bricklayer and decided to buy it for his nephew (Apparatus) and his brother-in-law (DJ Spirit). Even though ‘Ghana is hard’, as people often say to complain about the economy, a public event or celebration isn’t complete without the presence of a PA system. Aside from business, Step 2 Soundz family compound rapidly became the epicentre of youth leisure activities in Ngelekazo, as occasional dancing parties were thrown just outside its premises.
Known as ‘picnics’, brass band parades are still a very much alive sonic and social institution of Southern Ghana. St. Peter Claver Catholic Brass Band (SPCCBB) hails from Nawule, a hilly village that hosts a renowned Christian sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima. SPCCBB is one of the most respected bands in the Nzema area, often hired for a wide range of events that span from funerals to political rallies. Their repertoire includes hymns, highlifes, local tunes and popular songs. A recent introduction in their routine is ‘Onaapo’, a jama tune recorded by Dee Aja for then incumbent President John Mahama’s 2016 campaign. Since Mahama’s electoral defeat against Nana Akufo-Addo, the tune has been humorously appropriated by NPP supporters. Whether constituted of NPP or NDC sympathisers, I can certainly tell that the crowd was ignited by SPCCBB’s rendition of the song.
Digital technologies revolutionised the modalities of music production and circulation, at the same time tearing down and reinventing the music industry. As a result of the increased access to recording technologies, music production has become largely decentralised. The Nzema area is punctuated with small, even domestic recording studios that have started to appear during the last decade. Artists are struggling to build and sustain a music scene, oscillating between DIY practices and a search for official recognition and patronage. I first met 4mula together with now engineer and radio host Kingsberg in 2014, when they were setting up a studio in Aiyinasi, a market town in neighbouring Ellembelle District. 4mula has since become a major player in the local dancehall/hiplife panorama. He claims the title of borkor belemgbunli (king of the hustle), as he juggles between a larger than life attitude and precarious patronage relations.
When people talk about ‘local FMs’, they are not referring to proper radio stations (there are five in the three Nzema districts of Western Region). A local FM is a privately owned PA system that broadcasts through horn loudspeakers. There is one of them in almost every community, while larger settlements can have more. Depending on the personality and the political affiliation of the owner, local FMs in the Nzema area can transmit anything from Ivorian zouglou mixes to angry political rantings, but their primary purpose should be to deliver important messages upon payment. Nowadays local FMs overlap the Akan sonic institution of ‘beating the gongon’ (iron double-bell), which is one of the many sounded expressions of the chieftaincy political system. The effects of the liberalisation of auditory spaces have been in some instances dramatic, fomenting latent conflicts and inspiring court bans.
Photos by the author except when otherwise noted.