King Ayisoba, Modern Ghanaians, Netherlands, Makkum Records, CD MR8 (2013)
Apparently this album is a compilation made after 2006 of King Ayisoba’s most popular songs from other recordings released on the Pidgen Music label, which would explain why the music is relentlessly upbeat and doesn’t sound like anything out of the ordinary for me. This is very highly rhythmic music with a lot of call-and-response singing from a solo singer and a chorus, and it’s very light in its instrumentation. Several instruments may be playing at once but all are usually following the same melody and rhythms; they can hardly be said to be in harmony (European-style, anyway). The music lends itself easily to dancing; of course a lot of people would say, well, it’s Ghanaian pop music, it’s rhythmic, so it should be dance music, shouldn’t it? – but I have heard some (though not much) African pop music that is undanceable, so I never jump to conclusions about something simply because it comes from one particular region of the world.
The best tracks on the album are those that feature instruments unique to northern Ghana where King Ayisoba hails from: “Don’t joke to your father” features an acoustic stringed instrument (I think it’s called the kologo) which has a quality rather like a plucked violin that doesn’t resonate well but sounds a bit on the raw side – it lends itself to very intense emotive singing. On the next track, “Baaba poore”, the kologo again figures and there is another instrument providing some muted rhythm (it sounds as if someone is rubbing something to produce a sound like a muted barking dog). The singing on these songs verges on raucous but is usually restrained; it rarely breaks out into spontaneous chaotic celebration.
Other songs on the album are a mix of Western pop styles from different time periods which might be a bit disconcerting for those of us who think we’ve seen and heard everything there is to see and hear, and that old styles of popular music no longer hold much creative potential. Think again, folks: melodies and rhythms that might have sprung from the disco or reggae scenes a hundred years in the 1970s undergo sudden rejuvenation when juxtaposed with West African styles of singing and rhythms, and local instruments. The style of music featured is referred to as hip life which features hip hop and dancehall elements (and which should not be confused with hi-life which is an older style of pop music from West Africa). Lyrics are often in English (though delivered in Ghanaian accents) and refer to topics and social issues relevant to Ghanaians in their daily lives: for one, families pleading for the return of their fathers (“I want to see you my father”) who are enjoying themselves with mistresses at the expense of their children. Of these more Western-oriented songs, the best is “Don’t do the bad thing” which has a strong driving bass-heavy rhythm against which more delicate instruments such as flute and a stringed instrument flutter.
I must confess that after hearing Congolese bands like Konono No 1 with their blend of folk music traditions, electrified instruments made from scrap and junk materials and hypnotic beats and rhythms, this album does very little for me. I have the impression though that King Ayisoba’s music might be representative of an emerging style of music stripped right down to its basics to appeal to a wide urban Ghanaian audience whose origins are extremely mixed and who have particular needs and demands of popular music: a style of music drawing inspiration from traditional music forms and the latest overseas imports.