Music. King Ayisoba.

Kolongo is a musical genre that takes its name from a two-stringed lute of the Frafra ethnic group, between Burkina Faso and Ghana. Among its main performers is King Ayisoba, a Ghanaian musician.
The artist has just released Work Hard, one of the best African
albums of recent years.

In Africa there is one great family of musical instruments ranging from one to five strings, with a handle and a wooden sound box or consisting of a half gourd, on the open side of which a skin is stretched: with various names, they range  – just to give a few examples  –  from the guembri of the Gnaoua of Morocco to the tidinit of Mauritania, from the Ngoni of Mali to the xalam of Senegal, and much further afield in the continent. Instruments that have travelled extensively in time and space: traces of them can be found in the paintings of ancient Egypt and the slave trade brought them to the other side of the Atlantic. It is probably to instruments of this kind that the origin of the American banjo must be traced. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson, later the third president of the United States, speaks of “the banjar, which they (the slaves) brought from Africa.”

The kologo also belongs to this family. It is made with a half gourd as a soundbox and has two strings that were traditionally cow veins and today are made of nylon; one string is high and one low, and the tuning of the instrument is not fixed, but is related to the scale in which the player sings. The kologo is typical of the Frafra ethnic group that settled between southern Burkina Faso and northern Ghana.
In the northeastern region of Ghana, the kologo is at the centre of a music phenomenon that is not confined to a purely traditional dimension and is anything but residual.
The protagonists are musicians who have often learned to play the instrument by themselves, generally in early adolescence if not in childhood; many pieces are performed only with voice and kologo, others also with percussion and with instruments such as the flute.
The singing is generally rather ‘shouted’, with peremptory and often harsh voices, and the lyrics are sometimes in Frafra and sometimes in pidgin English.Pulsating and engaging, even when it remains totally acoustic, the music is extremely dynamic and modern and has achieved great popularity, so much so that it acts as a counterweight on the national scene to the most popular modern genres such as hip-hop,
R&B and Afrobeat.

There are dozens of competent interpreters and there is no shortage of stars. One of these is King Ayisoba, who has also given impetus – not only for his own benefit – to the international circulation of this music. He is behind the initiative of a beautiful anthology called ‘This Is Kologo Power!’ with recordings by various artists mostly made in Accra, a compilation edited by Zea of the historic Dutch punk group The Ex and released in 2016 by the Amsterdam label Makkum Records. Compared to the very free-range examples of kologo offered by this collection, we have the slightly more elaborate, but nonetheless uncompromising, musical integrity of King Ayisoba’s album 1000 Can Die, produced by Zea and released in 2017 by a very prominent label in the field of world music, the very active Glitterbeat. Alongside completely acoustic songs, there are also others with a calibrated use of electronics and some by guest artists, including the Ghanaian rapper and producer M3nsa, and two historical figures (both of whom have since passed away) such as the Jamaican producer and singer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and the Nigerian saxophonist Orlando Julius.

Glitterbeat has now released a new album by King Ayisoba, Work Hard, which offers an interesting evolution of his music: again, Zea has a hand in it but the substance is decidedly Ghanaian. The context is evidently that of the kologo as a genre, even if in Work Hard it is not so much the kologo as an instrument that is in the foreground, but – on the pressing and sometimes hypnotic bases of percussion, including electronic ones – a formidable variety of voices, in an assortment of expressive scales. The voices are often hoarse and with something grotesque or mocking, voices that articulate in a rhythmic, shouting and scathing manner, female and falsetto voices, children’s voices and voices in chorus, all in a very vital and dynamic game, full of humour and corrosive spirit, the result of an orchestration in which great musical talent is intertwined with a wise sense of ‘theatrical’ staging. The language is almost always Frafra, and the themes are not taken for granted: in Bossi Labome, for example, King Ayisoba points out the difference in treatment depending on whether adultery is committed by a woman, a reason for reprobation, or by a man, even a reason to boast.
It is very difficult today to have a clear perception of the mosaic of music which in Africa has an effective vivaciousness and strong roots in specific areas: to compose it would take many albums such as the highly enjoyable This Is Kologo Power! which had the merit of providing us with a sample of his music. King Ayisoba’s Work Hard is one of the best and most original African albums of recent years: This Is Kologo Power! It allows you to listen to Work Hard placing it in a context, and to understand the musical texture that nourished its creativity. (Photos: CCA -Share Alike 3.0/ Schorle)

Marcello Lorrai



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