A Nation of Enablers

Poetra Asantewa

There isn’t a corner or tuft of earth in Ghana that doesn’t contain music: on farms; in long Monday morning queues and rusty old cars; at the back of a classroom; the reception of a hotel; both ends of an emergency ward. Even the unlikeliest places have music. If you’ve ever been to a public toilet in Accra, you’ll know it’s only for people who had no other option, who chose the lesser shame of the stench of putrefaction over soiling their pants. Yet still, there’s a radio small enough to sit in your palm tucked into the neck of a window and blasting music for the incredibly long—and fast—ten seconds you spend inside. 

There’s music everywhere, but somehow the music industry in Ghana remains a turbid assemblage. Some say it’s a wonky structure upheld by the spidery legs of patriarchy—appeasing to, and sustaining, male sensibilities. Some say thriving within it is entirely based on luck. Hard work and talent? Merely garnish. Some say it’s a movement, a community, a defiance even—anything but an industry. Others say it’s nonexistent, and to call it an industry is to give it too much credit. And yet, Ghana continues to pioneer, lead, shape-shift, sustain, manipulate, and reinvent sound. What, then, keeps the music going?

To move your entire body like a well-coordinated choir is an art: 
feet conforming to the beat per minute, 
hands in sync with a swaying torso, 
shoulders inching backwards—dramatically pushing the chest forwards and backwards, 
waist responding to the rhythm in enviable fashion 
and a face with a mean expression that both agrees with the beat 
and coordinates with the body in motion. 

Suggested Listening

Poetra Asantewa: The Anatomy Of A Paradox (Self-Released, 2019)

Poetra Asantewa: Motherfuckitude EP (Self-Released, 2015)

To dance well—to know how to dance in a club or bar or house party—is a thing of the ordinary. You rarely get applause or a pat on the back; in truth, you are merely blending into the crowd. The only time you get singled out is if you’re a bad dancer or an exceptional one. 

It was a few months from the pandemic that nobody knew was on its way. I had made the decision to enjoy my last summer in Chicago instead of going to Accra. I had missed the ordinary. I had missed dancing; I danced in my apartment all the time, but I missed the sweaty congregation of people in an open bar. I missed the random communion of bodies inspired by a song we all loved. I missed going to Republic bar with my friends, ordering a plate of yam chips and chicken wings, and stopping in the middle of chugging a mug of Kokroko to dance because Pappy Kojo’s “Balance” came on. Or driving to Labadi beach after a long day at work, comforting our tired selves with sticks of kebab and a bottle of coke, playing “never have I” and dancing to lovers rock and hiplife songs. I missed dancing with people. 

And so, somewhere in July, when Gina suggested we sign up for a dance class, I immediately said yes. But when she mentioned she was going to join the ballet class, I paused. As far as I understood, ballet was not for adults. At least not a dance you start learning as an adult. Plus Gina’s slender body was more suited to the ballerinas I had seen in the media, whereas after fifteen minutes of yoga, I was ready to roll up my mat. According to the dance studio’s website, ballet was for everyone. There were beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes. Anyone could join the beginner ballet class, regardless of age or size. There was also a contemporary movement class, which sounded like a viable option for me, as I thought it would make room for hip-hop, contemporary music, and maybe even afrobeats. But one look at them during a dance
session—their interpretation of free form and its translation to sudden arm jolts and elbow air jabs—and I could feel the disapproving stare of my ancestors penetrating the back of my head. And that’s how I became the newest ballet student. 

On the first day of class, after five minutes of warm-up exercises, our first lesson began. After a brief history of ballet, the instructor informed us that she was going to teach us how to plié in the first position. I remember her demonstration and thinking, “That looks easy. I can do that.” Reader, I could not do it. I bent forward and failed miserably on my first try. It looked simple, but there were a lot of things to be mindful of: your toes have to be out to the side with your heels touching; you move up and down with your spine straight and your knees moving sideways, directly to the center of your foot—not backwards, not forwards. Soon we were doing demi-pliés, grand pliés, degagé, port de bras, rond de jambes, adagio, penché. I could hear her instructions even when I wasn’t in class: “Do not droop your arms. You want that nice, rounded shape of the shoulder going down the back. Extend your arm. Let your feet brush the floor. Make sure your shoulders stay square.” It was both simple and hard but very rewarding when I got it right, and I got it wrong a lot of times before getting right. Every other week, I ached somewhere new. I pulled a muscle, overstretched my calves, and wrenched my knee. Each time, I would go home, practice some more, and wait for the pain to disappear. And it always did. That is, until I noticed a pain in my right knee that had overstayed its welcome. I ignored it at first—mainly because it was barely noticeable, only present when I tried to squat or extend my knee. But it persisted, and, gradually, I couldn’t move my knee as freely as I used to because of the debilitating pain. So finally, I dragged myself to the hospital. After some scans, a misdiagnosis, and two consultations, I found out that I had knee-cartilage damage.

In a properly-structured food industry, there exists lands to be used for farming, people with expertise to cultivate these lands at both small and large scale, resources to ensure that the raw produce is of good quality, and strategically placed markets that people can access. There are tools to transport produce from the farms to the markets, and there are people who market the individual product in and outside of the marketplace. And then there are the consumers who, by virtue of these systems being in place, can pick out the ingredients they need in order to cook a great meal for their individual consumption, for a family, for an event, or for communal use. There’s an existing network that ensures that everybody within it is fruitful. In places where a structure like this does not exist—where there is no easy access to lands, to farms, to fertilizer, to markets, to produce, and to ready-to-eat meals—the people have to find different ways of getting what they want and need.

Music-making in Accra is not a solitary act. A handful of people come together to make a three-minute song. There are different ways in which to arrive at a well-cooked song. One of the ways I have heard of and seen is what we’re going to call the mixed soup. There’s the lyricist who writes the words of the song; the melodist who composes a tonal pattern with the words written by the lyricist; and the song architect who uses both the lyricist and melodist’s work to structure the song into a full block. Sometimes one person takes on more than one role, and sometimes two or more people take on one role. What exists to ensure that the tools, resources, and people who need to come together to make this happen can do so?

Take my song, Mother, for instance. Mother is a phone call between a worrying mother and her far-away daughter as she tries to convince the mother that she’s taking care of herself, working hard to make her proud and be half the woman she is. I originally wrote it in English, but because it was an ode/love letter to my mother, I wanted it to be in a language that felt closer to her heart, which was Kyerepon, her mother tongue. And since I could barely speak Kyerepon, I had someone translate it. Once it was translated, I worked on a melody for the words. I didn’t know yet how I wanted the production to sound, but I knew I wanted it to be soft enough to take up space in the generational gap lying between mothers and daughters—not too pop, not too folk. And I felt like that was something I could work through with NiiQuaye. 

NiiQuaye is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and founder of the Musical Lunatic band. I met him at Ehalakasa (a bi-monthly poetry and music show) somewhere around 2012. I forget who introduced us, but I remember that, at some point in time, we were paired together for an event, and from then on, we performed at several small shows—him playing the guitar and me singing or performing poetry. When we met for my song, Nii had me sing the melody a couple of times. After every round, he would pull out his guitar or sit behind the piano. After an hour of pitch changes and melody tweaks, we had a rough draft. In the next couple of days, he emailed a polished production of our session. The melody had been perfected, the structure of the song had slightly changed, and the third line of the first verse was now the second line. The song began with a gentle, hollow beat, similar to the sound of the metallic thumb-ring used in Presbyterian singing bands followed by the soft shake of an akasai, or what you would call a rattle or maraca, and then the ever faithful guitar string twanged through. I knew then that it was going to be one of my best songs. I spent a little over an hour in the studio with Qube, who recorded my vocals until we had gotten a perfect take and then mixed and mastered the track. Mother was a complete three-minute-nine-second beauty that was going to cement itself into my debut album.

It was a song that was both achingly sad and joyous. It contained a story that needed a visual retelling to propel its message and expand its reach. I wanted a visual storytelling that wasn’t a replication of the cliché mother-and-child imagery. I wanted it to exhibit the touching and confusing and comforting feelings that were often present in mother-daughter relationships in a way that causes the roles to reverse without either party realizing it. So, I sent the lyrics and a draft of the song to Desouza, whom I had met via the now defunct Vision Inspired Music label. Desouza is a multi­media creative whose expertise spreads over film, photography, design, and music. That’s the thing about Accra: You have to be an expert in more than one thing to really thrive. And that’s the thing about making music in Accra: It requires an intersection of multiple disciplines to blossom, a bowl of fruits that didn’t necessarily converge from the same soil, but their gathering still results in an excellent meal. 

The knee is the largest joint of the body. A massive percentage of your body weight goes through the knee when you’re walking. Our knees are extraordinary structures to be able to cope with this enormous strain. Bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons work together to form your knee joint and allow you to bend your leg. Cartilage is a connective, rubbery tissue that acts as a cushion between the bones of joints and supports our weight when we bend, run, or stretch. Cartilage articulates the knee bone which enables movement like walking, running, bending, jumping, etc. In forcefully wrenching my knee during a ballet lesson, I had damaged my cartilage, which had affected my movement and limited the range of movement in my knee. Unlike other types of tissue, cartilage does not have a blood supply. Because of this, damaged cartilage takes much longer to heal compared with other tissues that are supplied by blood.

The film for Mother tells the warped story of daughter and mother, except the mother is played by the daughter and vice versa. Of chores and lessons. Of rebuke and love. Of the reality of being grown enough to leave home and the longing that comes with it. Under the comments section of Mother on YouTube, someone has left this: “This is a beautiful collection of art: voice, language, instrumentals, video concept." And it is a collection of art. A collection of disciplines from inception to completion: writer, translator, composer, singer, instrumentalist, producer, sound engineer, cinematographer, videographer, designer. Ten disciplines to create a three-minute-nine-second song.

To tell a singular tale of m-o-v-e-m-e-n-t is an expansive network of links
In which moving parts only mean as much as the fuel that binds them together
For body to jump, 
          knee must curve
For knee to bend, 
          bone must shift forward
For bone to glide, 
          cartilage has to be a gateway
And who maintains the gateway if not the network?
After all sound is a continent, 
and music is the story of how all continents 
are built out of parts in conjunction
Today Africa sounds like a streaming channel 
but its legs are made of old radio parts
To be honest, this is a nation of enablers 
what the thigh feels the mouth professes, 
what the leg gives the hand receives 
but because the face beholds beauty 
it is often mistaken to be the sole worker
but we know
this city sees another day 
because it’s held together by moving parts

The first year of the Black Girls Glow sound residency brought together a gathering of six women with different talents and background. (Black Girls Glow is a non-profit organization I founded in 2017 with the aim of fostering collaboration among women artists and exploring ways in which art can build community.)

Adomaa, with her silky voice and charming personality, had gained a following by creatively mashing up popular Ghanaian songs from different genres: dancehall, gospel, and highlife. Coming from a musical family, together with a creative set of friends—some musicians, a mix of experts and amateurs in production, composition, video, directing and set design—she managed to create the Vision Inspired Music label that existed both as a collective of creatives as well as a management and support system for individual artists. 

Cina Soul was distinguishing herself and quickly cementing herself as one of the people’s favorites by performing covers of pop songs fused with her Ga heritage; she rewrote and sang the songs like they were originally written by a young woman who had been born and raised on the streets of Jamestown. Barefoot, playing in the streets and against the handwritten, poster-clad, paint-peeling-off walls, and eating fish that was caught a mere 400 meters away. 

Dzyadzorm was well known in the poetry community as the woman who carried emotion in her voice. She could turn a bored listener to a dedicated fanatic with her words and voice. 

Mz Fu’s primary craft was rap, and she had made a name for herself with her lyricism. But what really stood out about her was how she employed different voices—and dare I say personalities—in her rap to tell a story.

There were a lot of things to love about Ria Boss: There were very few female vocalists with deep voices, and the quality of her voice was a happy memory to dwell in. But it was her songwriting, song subjects, and the way her stage presence pulled you in and gave you space to belong, that made her stand out. 

And then there was me, whose EP, Motherfuckitude, had gone viral; who was bent on making a name for herself regardless of how little Ghanaians cared about spoken word; who insisted on not boxing herself in. Motherfuckitude represented the refusal to be bogged down by my inadequacies or lack: an audacity to thrive in spite of.

The six of us creating together was phenomenal, but I recognized there was a lack of representation for women in music production. So as part of the residency, I called on Gafacci’s help to run a production workshop for the women. Gafacci (pronounced Gafatchi) is a Ghanaian electronic producer who pioneered asokpor music. Asokpor is a reimagining of electronic music through the traditional Ga lens. What was particularly intriguing about Gafacci’s sound to me was how he used the body as an integral part of creating his beats. He made sounds with his mouth and fused it into his production—everyday sounds that you would typically hear in conversation with someone from Labadi or Accra: the echo produced when your tongue hits the roof of your mouth when expressing shock, for example, or the mush sound your mouth makes when the insides of your cheeks smooch each other. His methodology of being heavily inspired by his culture, traditions, and interactions seeped into his teaching. I remember sitting in the workshop and watching him break down the lesson into basic steps, proceed to walk us through each step, and finally insist that we carry our everyday interactions into our beat making. Our conversations, laughter, language, mannerisms, even our anger—how different will our sound be if we pick inspiration right from our backyard?

It wasn’t until my knee injury that I realized and appreciated how much work my knee was performing, and the quality of that performance. For a joint to be fully functional, everything within it has a part to play. We may not see it in motion—or at all—but underneath it, the tendons, cartilage, and ligaments are all crucial to its success. It is only when we know and acknowledge these that we are able to tell if they’re working as they should, or if they’re working at all. 

The practice of multiplicity and intersection in disciplines is integral to the music community in Ghana. It’s what makes things possible. It’s how things get done. The decision of a group of artists to come together and create Ehalakas—a space for singers, poets, and dancers to convene—ensured that there was room for me to practice my craft. It ensured that there were different musical and sound artists to collaborate with, both in the present and the future. It ensured that I met NiiQuaye. The decision of young amateurs to come together and create a collective of artists ensured that I was introduced to other women artists in an environment that rarely produces them. It ensured that I met artists from different fields like Desouza. The creation of outdoor events and street festivals that required sound engineering and acoustics for a local audience ensured that I met Qube. And many others.

When next they ask how this music was made 
tell them it was fleshed from the mouth of a hundred-
bodied head
A toothy grin and a slight limp raised to the market folks 
as testament of a war no one knew was being fought
Struggle nestled itself in a hungry throat
and made it sing of plenty

A Nation of Enablers