Sunday, November 19, 2006

Dusty cassettes and inspired music

“I’m looking for a cassette by Alhaji K. Frimpong” I say to the shop-keeper. I’ve been biking throughout the city, trying to track down music by an elusive Ghanaian recording artist.

I don’t know much about Frimpong: only that I heard one of his songs on the radio in a taxi cab, and I liked it. It was a strange mix of jazz,
Caribbean and Afro-beats, no vocals, and made me feel like I was sitting in the room with the artists as they laid down the track. I find out later that he was one of the leaders in development of Ghanaian highlife music.

The shop-keeper nods. The store is a small and cluttered – three walls of shelving crammed top to bottom with cassettes, and the fourth wall a plate-glass window, before which sits an elaborate sound system. The power is off in town, the system silent.

“He’s old, right? Just died.” the shop-keeper says. This man looks like an archetypal used record store owner. He has a razor thin beard running below his lower lip, and the wizened look that only dozens of years of careful musical fanaticism can bring.

Crouching down, he begins scouring the lower shelves of tapes, fingers moving quickly from label to label. He moves through Ghanaian gospel, Jamaican reggae, American country, Cote d’Ivoirian hip-hip, Céline Dion (so popular in Ghana she deserves a category to herself). Pulling cassettes from the shelves in stacks, he shuffles and shifts, moving top to bottom, side to side. The place is a maze of music, a heap of tapes so convoluted it’s nearly overwhelming.

After ten minutes of intense searching, he pauses. “I’m going to get my spectacles,” he says to me. As he walks away, I read his t-shirt: “Ask about laser eye surgery!”

Finally, many minutes more, and another cloud of dust detonated from shelves long untouched, he triumphantly hands me a cassette. It’s labelled “Alhaji K. Frimpong: Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu.”

After parting with 12,000 cedis (approximately $1.50) I’m on my way, wondering where I’ll find a tape deck.

Having regular access to new music is definitely something I miss from back home. No longer can I head into CHRW and start pulling CDs at random off the library shelves.

However, here in
Ghana I’ve been exposed to a whole other world of music, one that I’d never known before.

While you may not be able to easily track down any Frimpong, you can almost certainly find some excellent West African music in Canadian stores. Keep an eye peeled for the blind Malian recording duo Amadou and Mariam. Their album “Dimanche à Bamako” is a very accessible – and lovely – mix of traditional Malian instruments and styles with Western-style guitar.

Also out of Mali is Ali Farka Touré, who is rumoured to have developed his own style of blues guitar playing independently of any American influences. The album “Talking Timbuktu” is a fantastic collaboration with Ry Cooder. Touré apparently became the mayor of his hometown in 2004. He died earlier this year at the age of 67.

When I get back to Canada, I’ll try to upload a few songs by local reggae star Sheriff Ghale. Based out of Tamale, he sings in the local language, Dagbani, about topical issues like political corruption and the Chieftaincy Crisis (a problem stemming from a debate over the rightful leader of the Dagomba people). He’s also a local school teacher (who taught my Ghanaian sister, Fadilla).

Some other artists worth searching for, both out of Mali, are Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté.

Let me know if anyone can track down any of the music I’ve listed. It’s certainly worth a little searching. A cool blog to check out is here, listing many great African acts.


Anonymous said...

nice blog! so fun to find music in west africa. i got started on my musical journey in mali, and have a nice collection of tapes from my journeys there.
now i'm with calabash music, and we actually have a direct deal with sheriff! so he gets 50% of all sales of his stuff on our site.

we've got tons of other great and hard to find stuff from around the world, so maybe your friends here in the states can musically follow your journey along with you.

Anonymous said...

hey when you coming back to canada

Anonymous said...


Vero speakin, in Mali :)

let's add to the list of verrrrry good Malian music :
-Tiken Jah Fakoly (especially the album Coup de gueule)
-Tata Pound
- Rokia Traoré


Luke Brown said...

Merci bien Véro!

Anonymous: I'll be back in Canada December 16.

Soungalo: thanks for the site. I'm glad to hear that Sheriff is available to the world.

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