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Ghana Along the Mississippi Delta

Rushing out the door to catch a flight out of Hartford this past Sunday it hit me — music was needed for the trip through Mississippi. 400 miles of driving lay ahead.

A few days earlier a good friend and photographer I work with through the VII mentor program, Peter DiCampo, had recently emailed the following when chatting about trying to find traditional Ghanaian music, even within Ghana:

“Frankly in Ghana, most of the music on the radio/for sale is so heavily influenced by reggae or western music that it doesn’t interest me much…harder to find real ‘traditional’ music other than my own village recordings.”

Tragically too true.

Across the planet, it’s become increasingly difficult to find music of a country’s cultural fingerprint. Throughout most of Africa, traditional music is being smothered by influences of rap, reggae and electronic instruments. In Asia, Western pop continues to steamroller over more richer, layered forms of cultural music.

Peter’s question reminded me that there is indeed some excellent traditional music out there on CD. Only problem is finding it amongst the clutter of gobbledygook.

While driving from Jackson north to Clarksdale, the Mississippi River was overflowing so much it was literally lapping up to the highway. Nearly three years ago I’d seen some of the same devastation from the mighty river while working on a story in Iowa. Tragic what can happen when weather patterns change, ruining the lives of so many people, along with countless acres of food.

Choosing country roads to avoid all the closed highway signs, I listened to three CD’s that hadn’t been spin in recent years. First was a magnificent set of recordings on the Smithsonian Folkways label titled Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom – Akan Music from Ghana, recorded by Roger Vetter between 1992-93 while on a Fulbright at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana.

These recordings, made outdoors during live performances, contain intense percussions from the central region of Ghana. Like all Smithsonian Folkways CD’s, the liner notes are like research textbooks, chockablock full of excellent details on Ghana, the Akan people, along with extensive insight into the backgrounds of each song. This is a must have CD for traditional West African music.

After that intense session, something more mellow was called for: Xylophone Music from Ghana, by Joseph Kobom. This CD is interesting because it’s difficult to find an entire album devoted to gyil, or traditional Ghanaian balaphon.

Mr Kombom, well known throughout Ghana, plays twelve songs twice, for a total of 24 tracks — one on a high-pitched xylophone, then repeats the song on a lower-pitched xylophone. The results are nearly two completely different songs yet their rthyms remain the same.

The only drawback of this CD is that it seems Mr. Kobom just had his xylophone mic’ed. He sings on some of the songs and speaks a brief intro to each initial track, however you can hardly hear what he’s saying. Even so, his performance is splendid, calming, educational and truly enjoyable.

This is a hard to find CD on an obscure label called White Cliffs Media — think I found my copy in a used CD store in Washington, DC, a few years back — but I have been able to track down two used copies through Amazon. They are a bit expensive but worth it. Also available through Amazon is a compendium book which looks very interesting.

Before arriving late to the hotel in Clarksdale — and trying not to get a speeding ticket — I jammed to Obo Addy’s 1989 release, Okopong. It’s a studio produced album but feels raw, with heavy precessions, great signing and overall extremely enjoyable.

Obo Addy has a slew of CD’s available through the iTunes store. Most are excellent, however Okopong is fantastic, especially when driving long hours through the Mississippi Delta.

Thanks, Peter, for the inspiration.









1 daigoumee { 05.21.11 at 13:39 }

Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

2 Nana Kofi Acquah { 08.14.11 at 20:42 }

Hi John,
Peter is so right about how hard it is to find authentic Ghanaian music nowadays, even here in Ghana. I’ve been greatly inspired by how much you know about Ghanaian music. Have you ever been?

I love you work and do consider you a great inspiration.

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