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Opinions of Monday, 25 June 2012

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Okwantuni mmobro – the traveller in Ghanaian popular music

If only you cared to look more closely at popular music in Ghana, you would be surprised at the number of songs that have to do with travelling. It may be the existential journey through life, a lover pining for the mate who has travelled to a distant place and is not coming back, or the journey made in quest of material things. Every Ghanaian musician worth his salt has touched the subject one way or the other.

The poet of Akyinkyin akyinkyin ama m’ahunu niama may be crooning about the wonderful things that travelling will expose you to (Asante Bonwire kente yi de menhunuubi da) but it is the economic motive that has dominated songs about travelling. Nobody moves from the known comforts of his home village to settle in a distant place just to see and admire wonderful and beautiful things.

The travel song is telling you to go out, lead a good and righteous life (bo obra pa), work hard, find money and come back home. All the variations on the theme are woven around this basic narrative.

The songs warn us not to lead a dissolute life abroad. The twin evils of alcohol and women have been especially stressed. The advice is almost always going to men. It is men who lead the frontier effort. It is they who are daring enough to venture into the unknown. When they go and see that things are good, they come back to take their women along. The women who risk the journey on their own are not regarded with the same amount of adventurism as the men. They may even be looked down upon, rather unfairly, as people of easy virtue. Today, however, women are also going out on the same terms as men. And they are succeeding too. But there are no songs sung to them. It is mostly men who make these songs, and they make them about themselves.

The most classic travel song is, arguably, Ramblers’ “Afutusem” made long before overseas travel became a daily occurrence. This track of less than three minutes encapsulates all the thematic elements of the travel songs of the earlier period and is worth reproducing in full:

Emmere a yerebetu kwan no /Afutusem a awofo de maa yen no, /Wonkaa nsa ho asem, /Okaa emaape ho asem. /Okaa nniema bone a egu ayonko dodo mu se, /Saa nniema yi, se wodebo bra a ensi wo yie /Enonti yemma yen aniwa so /Na yenfa mpe biribiri pa bi nko fie /Enko hye won animuonyam /Na daadaa nyinaa yi /Won anidaso ara ne yen /Na se ekoba se yen a yereko bre aguo yi /Na yeso mpafe de nenam a /Yeko a na yereka no sen ni?

Ramblers recorded more songs in this vein. In “Ankwanoma Hiane”, the purpose of the journey is stated in the very first line: Makra atu kwan se /Merebe pe sika ako fie... /Menni awerehyem biara se /Mede biribi beko fie /Akobu akonta paa. But the journey is fraught with dangers even as there are expectations from home: Akyeri akyeri a mennuru mpo /Awofo ani da meso se /Me na merebeye ofie yie...

Ramblers render all of these in some of the best highlife music ever played! (Oh my goodness, they don’t play it like that anymore. And they are never going to play it like that again).

Nana Ampadu’s contribution to the theme is extensive. Even Afutusem was his composition. He has a large repertoire (see my review of Stebo Records’ videos about the life and music of Nana Ampadu, ghanaweb News Archives, November 15th, 2011) that covers many things. “Yaw Berko” may be his first major song on the theme of travelling. The hero travels all over Ghana and yet is still a struggling man who, at forty, had still not been able to scrap together forty pounds.

In “Mennye osansani”, Ampadu gives the reasons why a person will leave his home. It may be because efiefuo de bayie aha no saa amma n’abrabo aye basaa; the orphan who is despised at home and wants to leave the place; the barren woman (w’annya yafunu annwo ba) who flees from an unhappy marriage; a person who is after experience beyond what his village can offer him (abrabo yennmo no faako); or because of love (odo tume teetee nipa ma netu kwan). But the most important reason is still the economic one. That is why you should understand the traveller who lives a miserly life abroad: Efiefo anidaso ni mi /Memme sei sika wo akwantuo mu /Na meba batadie sen?

Ampadu advises the traveller in “Aaa yenbapa, Kwadwo”: fa Nyame di kan ewo wo biribi ara mu; ennko ye woho Agyeman wo kro no mu; fa nokware nante na wobeduru; ennfa nsanom mmata w'adwuma ho; ayonko dodo sei obrapa; enfa emaape nkosi w’ani so; and the inevitable monetary injunction: wonya sempoa a di daama na sie kapre. Some of it sounds like the advice to the son in the Book of Proverbs.

In “Kwabena Amoa”, the eponymous hero is disowned by his rich parents for his wanton life of debauchery. He decides to leave town. The hardships on the road teach him a tough lesson. He discards his old ways, goes on the straight and narrow, works hard and becomes a rich and successful man who reconciles with his parents who had, meanwhile, fallen on bad times.

Many of Ampadu’s fairy tale songs show the hero going out on a long journey in quest of something. Sometimes he sings about the physical act of travelling where accidents happen on the road. Later, Nana Ampadu would sing about the deaths that have occurred abroad. The song to Happy Friend, Ampadu Boateng, who was brought home to Ghana to die (...Ena wose woko Nigeria man nomu /Wonso w’oako bo obra ye) belongs to this category. Then there are those later songs commemorating the dead in the US: Wofa K Manu (Nokware, se wodofo gyae wo akwantifi a, eye ya), Maame Fosua (whose funeral was attended by abusuafo and friends from Canada, Oklahoma, Washington, California, Germany, London, Chicago, New York, Virginia, ene New Jersey). Death has caught up with the traveller too.

Dr K Gyasi’s contributions to the travel theme are no less profound. In “Efie ne fie”, he sings: Maferi meho nti na menenam mantwea /M’atu kwanta na m’anfa sika amba fie nti /Na me nenam mantwea. In “Dankwama”, the hero laments: Eda a merepe sika aye dwuma /Mannya panin biaa ammoame /N’ase okyena m’aye yie a /Abusua reto me nkrabuo /Se menane m’ani mmbra fie /Yaw ee m’eko akwantumu akye. He ends another sikyi medley with the words: Akwantuo wohoyi, etese Lodge /Yen ka mu nsem basabasa /Woka eho nsem pii a /Obiara nni ho a nekon bedo akwantuo.

Even in the old music, it was not all about sympathy for the traveller. There is an old Ga tune recently made popular by the Kpanlogo Group Allan Family. Tackie Tawiah tee ablodzi eke noko baa eei!!! /Beni ebaba eyafa sika ke yawo mele nyomo. Tackie Tawiah had to borrow money for a return ticket by boat back home. But teasing the traveller really belongs to the newer music.

The following phrases occur in several of the Twi travel songs of the old music: Akwantuom ye awereho, Okwantuni mmobro, Akwantuo yeya, Ohohuo m’asem yeya, Ohohuo te se abofra. Much of Ghanaian popular music is, anyway, about the bitter-sweet nature of love, death and, especially, poverty and suffering. Often, the travel theme is linked with this poverty and suffering. And the love theme gets a cross-over with the travel theme as in Amakye Dede: Odo akodi obi manso /Odo kooe akye /Obi nko hwe se odo ho akyere no anaa...

A change in the manner in which the travel theme is treated can be identified when the musicians themselves started travelling abroad, not on tours, but as migrants. They experienced the life abroad and started singing about that. The first big hit with a “foreign” connection is, perhaps, George Darko’s “Akoo te brofo” which came out in the eighties. It continued the trend, started earlier, that added a funky and disco beat to the basic highlife rhythm. “Akoo te brofo” was very danceable and did well in the night clubs in Accra. It was the first “burgher” highlife hit. It also talked about the travel experience: Matu bata na se annye yie /Mesan mako menkyi.

This song marked the change from the plaintive cries of the internal traveller to a concentration on the Euro-American experiences of the Ghanaian traveller. The journey is no longer within Ghana. It now starts from Kumasi Krofrom and ends in the streets of Hamburg. And the songs reflect that.

This is now the music of AB Crentsil – Papa Samo (Ko wo krom na awo bekuwo), Landlord (Dabiara yentu, wo ba firi aburokyire reba); (Joe Mensah) Africa is my home; Smart Nkansah (Hume mmobo me Nyame); Ben Brako (Moko Mekrom); Dr Paa Bobo (Ofie Mpo Ni), Pat Thomas and many others. These songs are complaining, among other things, about the bitter cold, homesickness, the Ghanaians who report each other to the immigration, and, very tellingly, the inability to return home – an important part of the travel edict that is now, increasingly, difficult to fulfil. Lately, Nana Acheamong (Obra Akwantu mu yeya), Daddy Lumba (Yeeye aka akwantuomu – “Burgher aye mmere, Burgher nniema mbaae”; Makra mo), have contributed to this trend. But this is taking me into the modern music which is beyond the remit of this exercise.

This brief non-scientific survey has drawn heavily on Akan music for the obvious reason that the language constitutes the dominant mode of cultural expression in our country. Similar sentiments are expressed by musicians in other languages too.

Even though they appreciate wealth like everyone else, and have travelled all over Ghana and beyond in quest of it, it is difficult to find songs by Ewes extolling the virtues of travelling out and bringing riches home. It seems there is something in the Ewe mentality that regards talking about money as grubby – like scratching your crotch in public. It is definitely bad manners to boast about it. When Ewes sing about money, it is likely to be a warning against the dangers of excessive avarice – a mentality hardly conducive to successful entrepreneurship. Listen to Melo Togo (the Ramblers copycat that dominated the highlife scene in Togo in the 70s/80s): Fo Kofie wor dordor, Fo Kofie wor blewuu/ Xexeame fe tetekporwo dewo sorgbor!

Instead, many of the Ewe travel songs are about homesickness. Most of the Ewe songs about travelling I have come across express a searing longing to go home and see the loved ones left behind. Efo Senyo: Lolotowo dzo le gbornye, /Maayi wogbor, ada kpor wo da. Israel Maweta Nanevi: Medi be mayi de dzinyela wo gbor /Mayi ada kpor wo da /Nye menya leke tutu wole agbea nam o /Migblor na wo be megborna. In none of these songs does the singer talk about bringing wealth home. They know they cannot go home to see the loved ones with empty hands. But they won’t sing about that!

The song that gets to me most is that beautiful short piece from Dumedefor, the big selling album of Ho EP Church Choir from the 80s: Vua netor mado me... Even after all these many years, I cannot listen to this song without the mist forming in my eyes and the lump rising up my throat. Blame it on that streak in my Ewe psyche that follows me wherever I go. Mayi de afee, afee, dzinyelawo gbor...

Ghanaians are still singing about travelling in today’s hiplife. Discussing this new experience will require another full-length article. Given the boisterous nature of the music of today’s chaotic age, this is not a prospect I particularly relish.

Kofi Amenyo (