Tue, 26 Jun 2012 Feature Article

Ɔkwantuni mmɔbrɔ – the traveller in Ghanaian popular music

kwantuni mmbr  the traveller in Ghanaian popular music

If only you cared to look 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 deε 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 (bɔ ɔbra 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:

Emmerε a yεrebεtu kwan no
Afutusεm a awofoɔ de maa yεn no,
Wɔnkaa nsa ho asεm,
Ɔkaa emaape ho asem.
Ɔkaa nniema bɔne a egu ayonko dodo mu se,
Saa nnieεma yi, sε wodebɔ bra a ensi wo yie

Enonti yεmma yεn aniwa so
Na yεnfa mpε biribiri pa bi nkɔ fie
Enkɔ hyε wɔn animuonyam
Na daadaa nyinaa yi
Wɔn anidasoɔ ara ne yεn

Na sε εkɔba sε yεn a yεrekɔ brε aguo yi
Na yεso mpafe de nenam a
Yεkɔ a na yεreka no sεn 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 sε /Merebε pε sika akɔ fie... /Menni awerehyεm biara sε /Mede biribi bεkɔ fie /Akɔbu akonta paa. But the journey is fraught with dangers even as there are expectations from home: Akyεre akyεre a mennuru mpo /Awofoɔ ani da meso sε /Me na merebεyε 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 Afutusεm was his composition. He has a large repertoire that covers many subjects. 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 efiefuoɔ de bayie aha no saa amma n'abrabɔ ayε 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 (abrabɔ yεnnmo no faako); or because of love (ɔdɔ 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: Efiefoɔ anidasoɔ ni mi /Memmε sεi sika wo akwantuo mu /Na meba batadie sen?

Ampadu advises the traveller in Aaa yεnbapa, Kwadwo: fa Nyame di kan εwɔ wo biribi ara mu; εnnkɔ yε woho Agyeman wɔ kro no mu; fa nokware nante na wobeduru; εnnfa nsanom mmata w'adwuma ho; ayɔnko dodoɔ sεi ɔbrapa; εnfa emaapε nkɔsi w'ani so; and the inevitable monetary injunction: wonya sempoa a di daama na sie kaprε. 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 wokɔ Nigeria man nomu /Wonso w'oako bɔ ɔbra yi) belongs to this category. Then there are those later songs commemorating the dead in the US: Wofa K Manu (Nokware, sε wodɔfo gyae wo akwantifi a, εyε ya), Maame Fosua (whose funeral was attended by abusuafoɔ and friends from Canada, Oklahoma, Washington, California, Germany, London, Chicago, New York, Virginia, εne 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: Mafεre 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 merepε sika aye dwuma /Mannya panin biaa ammoame /N'asε ɔkyena m'ayε yie a /Abusua reto me nkrabuoɔ /Sε menane m'ani mmbra fie /Yaw ee m'ekɔɔ akwantuomu akyε. He ends another sikyi medley with the words: Akwantuo wɔhɔyi, εtesε Lodge /Yεn ka mu nsεm basabasa /Woka eho nsεm pii a /Obiara nni hɔ a nekɔn bεdɔ 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 awerehɔ, ɔkwantuni mmɔbro, 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. It is poverty, and the suffering involved, that drives people to travel, which, itself, is full of suffering. Sometimes the love theme gets a cross-over with the travel theme as in Amakye Dede: Ɔdɔ akɔdi obi manso /Ɔdɔ kɔɔe akye /Obi nkɔ hwe se ɔdɔ 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 makɔ 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 (Kɔ wo krom na awɔ bekuwo), Landlord (Dabiara yentu, wo ba firi aburokyire reba); Joe Mensah (Africa is my home); Smart Nkansah (Hume mmɔbɔ me Nyame); Ben Brako (Mokɔ 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 (Ɔbra Akwantu mu yεya), Daddy Lumba (Yεreyε aka akwantuomu - 'Burgher ayε mmerε, Burgher nniεema 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 wɔ ɖɔɖɔ, Fo Kofie wɔ blewuu /Xexeame fe tetekpɔwo ɖewo sɔgbɔ!

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: Lɔ̃lɔ̃tɔwo dzo le gbɔnye, /Maayi wogbɔ, aɖa kpɔ wo ɖa. Israel Maweta Nanevi: Medi be mayi ɖe dzinyela wo gbɔ /Mayi aɖa kpɔ wo ɖa /Nye menya leke tutu wole agbea nam o /Migblɔ na wo be megbɔna. 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: Ʋua netɔ maɖo me... Even after all these many years, I still 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 ɖe aʄee, aʄee, dzinyelawo gbɔ...

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 ([email protected])