My First Taste of Music in Ghana

My first taste of traditional African music in Ghana.

I’ve been here for three days now. Trying to get my bearings, fighting off jet lag and trying to relax. Plenty of time. I’m here for a few months. No rush. No need to get anxious, too eager to learn. “Let it all sink in”, I tell myself. I’m here to dive deeper into the rhythms. I’m not a novice, not a beginner. But I need to learn more. Add to my repertoire. Challenge myself.

I’ve studied and played in New York. I’ve been to Cuba. Cuba turned my head around. New York did too. But I’m now chasing the origins. How did these rhythms start? Polyrhythms darting around each other. Elusive. Just as you think you understand. It’s gone. Turned around. What’s happened? Where has the beat gone? Frustrating and fascinating. I’m hooked. I have to find out. I’m here to find out.

As I sit by the pool at the Novotel Hotel in Accra, perspiration drips down from my forehead and runs down the side of my face. I wipe it off my chin with a handkerchief. Take a sip of my beer. Not cold anymore. Lukewarm.

The smell of hot earth and the scent of tropical flowers hang in the humid night air as I wait for my first taste of traditional music. Drummers and dancers. That’s all.  No need for anything else. No need for other instruments. Except singing. I’m excited. Anxious with anticipation. This is what I’m here for. Look, listen, learn and maybe get to play if I’m lucky.

I sit back and close my eyes. Breathe deeply. I think about my childhood. The same smell of fresh earth, the same scent of tropical flowers in bloom. Many years ago. Many miles away. I shake my head in wonder. Who would have predicted this? Who would have thought I’d end up as a musician? I smiled and settled back in my cane chair. No small talk tonight.

There are twenty or so people sitting around the hotel pool. Mainly European tourists and a few locals I presume. All black people don’t look the same to me.

Waiters stand around. Waiting. Looking bored. I’m not. I call one over. He comes over eventually, taking his time.

“When does the band start?” I ask, looking at the area on the lawn marked out by flickering oil lamps. “Soon Sir”, he says. “By all means they will start soon”. This was a turn of phrase I would hear often. I order another beer and sit back once more.

Soft words and murmurs in foreign tongues waft across from the tables around me as I look around trying to find the musicians.

I hear them before I see them.

The bell. The ubiquitous Ghana bell. I turn around at the sound. I sit upright and crane my neck in the direction of the sound. Ka, Cha, Cha. Three hits on the bell followed by a rest. Then another three followed by a rest. The cycle continues as the singers join in. I still can’t see them, but I can hear them. The beautiful harmonies hold my attention. Call and response to the accompaniment of the bell. I try to work out the rhythm. I think I’ve got it. The bell. But the phrasing of the singing makes me have doubts. Is the beat where I think it is? “Relax.” I tell myself. “Let it wash over you.” I force myself to not listen too deeply and turn to my beer instead. I take a sip. No that’s not true. I’ve drunk it all. Drained the glass. Bottle too. The second bottle of Star I ordered hasn’t arrived yet. I keep listening. Trying to enjoy the moment but my curiosity and eagerness get in the way. I am listening like a musician. Why can’t I just be tourist at a cultural performance? Now another rhythm has joined in with the bell and the singing. Claps. Two claps then a gap then two more. I’m confused now. The claps have made the bell sound different. The beats are not where I thought they were. What the hell is going on? I’m confused and the drumming hasn’t even started yet. This was an important lesson I was learning. I needed to have a frame of reference. I’m lost. Am I hearing the downbeat as the upbeat? Why does it keep shifting? I’ve been confused before. In Cuba. But I thought I’d worked it out. But this was different. Three simple, single hits. I need to hear the pulse. But not only that. There’s a lot more going on I realised as the Brekété drum came in laying the bass rhythm. This made it a bit easier, and I realised the bell was on the offbeat, evenly spaced out. But that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough. The band was now walking towards the stage, they were only a few meters from where I sat. Call and response. Perfect harmonies. Natural singers.  I’m listening to the bell and the clapping. Something doesn’t sound quite right to me. I’m hearing the beat now, but the rhythm still doesn’t sound right to me. The relationship between the Brekété and the bell doesn’t sound right. I always know when I’m hearing something the wrong way although I don’t always know what the right way is. Not right away anyway.

This is one of those occasions. I hope I get it before the drumming starts. The tempo is cool, feel beautiful. Just the right swing. My beer arrives. I pour the lukewarm liquid into my glass. I don’t care. I’ve made the right decision to come here. I know I’m going to enjoy it.