Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sheriff Ghale on Reggae, Tamale, and Showcasing Ghana to the World

I submitted this article to a reggae magazine. It got rejected. Hopefully it'll find a receptive audience here.

Northern Ghana’s biggest reggae star is not a hard man to find, so long as you know which neighbourhood to look in. All you have to do, picking your way through the crowded and bustling backstreets where vendors sell bread and biscuits from rickety wooden tables and hens meander about, is ask to see Sheriff Ghale.

A passing shoe-shine boy becomes my guide, leading me through the labyrinthine dirt roads of this neighbourhood in Tamale, capital of the Northern Region of Ghana.

Sheriff is certainly well known, a home-grown hero in this dusty urban centre. In 2005 he gained acclaim for winning “Best Ghanaian Reggae Song” at the Ghana Music Awards for the song Sochira. He’s worked diligently since 1995 to put Tamale, and Northern Ghana in general, on the country’s musical map.

We arrive at his house, a modest pink bungalow, and Sheriff stumbles to the front door, bleary eyed. I’ve woken him from a nap – it’s midday, incredibly hot. The power has gone off again in the city, so there’s not an operational fan anywhere. He welcomes me, and then excuses himself for his afternoon prayers: Sheriff is a devout Muslim, as are the majority of people in Tamale.

Ghana, like all African nations, is made up of a diversity of ethnic groups. There exists a divide between the north and the south of the country – cultural, language, and religious. Northerners are often proud of their differences. There’s no doubt that Sheriff is a Tamale man – born and bred, he wears his pride for the city on his sleeve. “It’s a lovely place,” he says, “a social ground.”

When asked to explain the popularity of reggae in this city, Ghale pauses to gather his thoughts. It’s clearly something he’s thought about before.

“Music is a very strong instrument in this community,” he says. “In funerals, during celebrations, during everything – music is a part of it. And music is not just about dance for this community, but (it’s) also a serious intellectual instrument.” He’s referring to the luunsi, a group of musical historians in the Dagomba culture (the dominant tribe in this area). The luunsi keep and transmit the people’s history through song and drumming.

“These luunsi are seriously intellectual people in terms of the traditional set up… so music has been respected so much here, has a high place in terms of what you say in your music.” There’s an overlap, he says, between reggae music and traditional Dagomba music. “Reggae music [also] comes with that: strong musical content, lyrical substance.”

The overlap of traditional Dagomba culture and reggae music is a constant theme for Ghale. Many of his songs are sung in Dagbani, the local language, and address issues that are particularly relevant to the Dagomba people, such as recent chieftaincy disputes and political marginalization of the people of the North.

But this theme is equally a personal struggle. Ghale constantly seeks ways to broaden the appeal of his reggae music while staying true to his roots.

“I love to do reggae music, but at least reggae music has come to light. And yet I have a traditional music I have to develop, I have to keep alive, I have to show to other people.” Ghale leans back and sighs. “It’s been my conflict. I can’t move on and leave this behind because this is part of me.”

He opines on the difficulty of the musician in a developing nation. Access to musical markets is difficult, with no major distributor operating from Ghana. It’s tough enough for him to get his music heard in the capital city of Accra, let alone abroad.

“From our history we come up with something very rich – the rich traditional music. We have some good things that should be shown to the world and should be added to the development of world culture… The world might be losing so much that could have come from here.”

Still, he remains optimistic. “Sometimes I just tell myself that the only way might be that one just keeps doing – stay here… keep developing in our own way until the time that an attention might be turned to us to see what we have here, so we can put it on offer.”

Ghale has been trying to develop the music scene in Northern Ghana by encouraging live band performances. These performances died off in the early nineties, as an influx of computers resulted in what Sheriff calls “sound system shows.” These shows have young men playing cassettes of computer generated tunes and singing – or lip-syncing – on stage. “Sound system shows” are now the norm in Tamale.

Ghale goes against this trend by playing with a full band. “One may call it innovation, but [I] call it a revival because it used to be here before, now it’s gone,” he says.

“I want to perform for the people – I have to perform,” he says. “The joy is not just in having people fill up the venue and sit down so you get some money, and that’s it. No, the joy is in your performance.”

Sheriff Ghale’s next album, entitled Ninidoo, is tentatively scheduled for release in November 2007. His music can be purchased online through


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ashleyr said...

Reggae magazine jerks!

Great article Luke - really enjoyed it :)

Ashley in Windsor

Shoshana said...

Hey Luke, wonderful to read about Sheriff on your page. I'm involved in a project along with Sheriff to set up a music and video studio in Tamale, an idea that's been brewing for the past two years. I was wondering if I could put your article on our website? It's a provisional one at the moment at Keep up the good writing!

Anonymous said...

Sheriff you are realy a great reggae musician, Keep it up and i know by God grace you will be coming out with more great things in life and you shall definetly achieve your goals in life