Dumsor, Dumsor

“Dumsor” is literally “off-on” and refers to the “scheduled” load shedding that has been instituted to help Ghana “temporarily” manage a perfect storm of issues related to energy generation and distribution. The roots of the crisis go deep, and layer after layer of technical, social, political, geopolitical turmoil have created a situation that will take years to fully resolve.

The web of interrelated issues includes dropping oil prices, volatile foreign exchange, poor management and maintenance of the grid infrastructure, aging equipment, the rupturing of the West African gas pipeline near Takoradi, low water levels in the two main hydroelectric reservoirs, rapidly increasing year-on-year demand, and energy theft. The government owes money to the distribution company, Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG), which owes money to the generating authority, Volta River Authority (VRA), which owes money to the Ghana Natural Gas Company which runs the Atuabo Gas Processing Plant, and owes money to the West African Pipeline Co, which ships the natural gas from Nigeria. The ECG has kept electricity prices low for the past several decades for social and political reasons, but still has not been able to collect about $1.6billion from the government. Meanwhile, installed generating capacity has struggled to keep up with rapidly growing demand.

One would think this crisis would be a golden opportunity to usher in a new era of renewable energy sources, distributed micro-generation, and the de-bureaucratizing and depoliticizing of the electricity system, but this does not appear to be the case. Most Ghanaians who can afford to, have bought gas or diesel generators to supplement the variable grid power. This is mainly thought of as a last ditch, temporary measure to cope with the situation for a few more months until the crisis subsides. As with people everywhere, Ghanaian’s appetite for making the long-term, capital intensive decision to install a solar power system is fairly low. It is not that people do not understand the advantages of doing so, but when you are scrapping together just enough cash to eat and pay the rest of the bills, it is much easier just to buy a few litres of petrol at a time and try to get by.

Even on a large scale, the general direction Ghana has taken is to double-down on natural gas, light crude and other non-renewable sources. These are proven, low-risk technologies that are relatively cheap and dependable. There are bright spots and small initiatives to convert portions of the supply to renewable sources, but so far there is no evidence of a concerted effort to make a long-term change. The international community has not done much to promote or support a shift in energy policy as a whole and seems to be content with the status quo. Turkey is sending over two 225MW Karpowerships, (offshore power barges), to supplement generation which should be complete in the next month or so. Meanwhile, USAID is promoting its Gas Action Plan and Gas Master Plan to encourage more domestic production of natural gas, as well as pushing for the privatization of the ECG.



The Dumsor Report, released on August 6, is a great, data-backed analysis of the current electricity crisis, breaking down Dum and Sor for different neighbourhoods across Accra. It is clear from the data that this issue goes so much deeper than just scarcity or the logistical hurdles of electricity distribution. It touches on inequality, the allocation of a scarce basic resource, the abuses of public institutions for personal gain, and the way people relate to and think about energy. As they say in the report, “Do you have lights?” has replaced “Hello” in the Ghanaian vernacular and electricity is discussed with the same aura and wonder as the weather.



These issues permeate and bear upon the entire psyche of the country, undermining not only direct economic activity but also social and cultural norms and practices. The draining psychological effect of living under the Democlesian sword of unpredictable blackouts is hard for an outsider to comprehend. The exuberant shouts of joy in the streets when the lights turn on, the groans and expletives when it unexpectedly turns back off, the insipid, creeping fear and guilt of knowing that you’ve-had-lights-for-so-long-now-that-something-surely-must-be-wrong-and-that-your-good-fortune-can-only-mean-you-will-be-rewarded-with-an-extended-outage, take their toll in surprising ways.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says in her New York Times piece about the situation in Nigeria, “I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of “no light,” how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered. What greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn?” Ghanaian MC, Sarkodie, says in his song Dumsor, “I think we deserve a break down and we want to understand what’s happening. What are you guys doing?” Dumsor has also spawned Youtube videos, a new Wikipedia article, a special dumsor flash light app for Android, dances, vigils, and endless political bickering between the country’s two main political parties.

This issue represents an example of something that I’ve seen repeated over and over again: a complex development issue that defies a simple story. You cannot just say “ECG is corrupt and the New Democratic Party (NDC), currently in power, is the cause”. You cannot just say “the World Bank and the IMF, forced Ghana to privatize its electricity generation in the 90s, and this is the cause”. You cannot just say, “Ghana should invest in renewables”, or “Ghana needs a Gas Action Plan”. No one explanation will suffice and no one solution will make everything go away.

Living in Ghana for the past two years, I’ve been relatively privileged with my access to electricity. Where I lived in Tamale, I was near the water pumping station, so there was near constant power. Where I am living in Accra, the compound has a generator for a few hours per night. I am also able to sit in coffee shops, plug-in my laptop at restaurants, and roam freely around the city in search of the elusive Sor. What has been most eye-opening is just how much electricity I need to survive. Basically about 5hrs of light at night,  a few hours throughout the day to charge my phone and laptop, and occasionally enough to run a small fan and I’m satisfied.

It is hard to know how dumsor will evolve and what the next few months will bring, but people are definitely working hard to solve these issues, citizens are active and engaged in debate about what to do and most are relatively good-humoured and optimistic that Ghana can overcome this set back and get back on track. It’s the weekend, so I should have power for at least 24hrs, life’s good!













Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.

This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.

Here are some observations:

Wildlife Viewing

This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.

First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).

Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.

Conspicuous Experiential Consumption

Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.

Unequal Distribution of Benefits

As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.


My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.

Indicators of Progress

A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.

I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.


Bogum Chugu – Fire/Safety

A parade within a fireworks show within an all night dance party within a diffuse riot within an 800 year old festival commemorating the landing of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat.

The Bogum Chugu is one of two major festivals in Northern Ghana every year (the other, Damba, is in two months). I missed it last year, but this year, without a small amount of trepidation, I decided to check it out with my friend (and barber) Dan. I won’t try to do it justice by describing it in detail, but you can read about the very interesting history here and here. Despite the many, manymany health and safety violations, crowds and confusion, this was an amazingly joyous and positive event from my perspective. I tried to stay on the periphery as much as possible, and went home before things got too intense, but it was still way outside my risk comfort zone.

This difference in perspective around risk and safety is one of the most pronounced I’ve experienced here in Ghana and I am still trying to come to grips with what it means. In the West, we generally take the view that things should be as safe as possible and have constructed an elaborate edifice of laws, rules, and regulation all driven by severe litigiousness and heightened risk aversion. Most of the time this works in our favour, but often safety and risk mitigation are applied for their own sake without asking what is actually needed. I found this a lot in engineering where compounding safety factors and code compliance led to ludicrous waste and inefficiency. The aggregate of all this “safety” did not even produce the most safe conditions in some cases!

In Ghana, while the legislation has been developed and a lot of the same systems and regulations exist, at least in theory, the application and enforcement is still catching up. Most people do not wear moto helmets, buckle seat belts, or wear safety equipment, but what is considered “normal” and acceptable is still fairly consistent and congruent across the society. While having people die every year at festival, should never be acceptable anywhere, I hope Ghana can find a better way of managing safety and risk than we have in the West. We all experience cognitive dissonance in regards to safety and partake in hugely risky behaviour (whether driving without a moto helmet or eating a steady diet of fast food), but it’s worth reflecting on where this behaviour comes from every so often.

It was not easy to get good photos in the darkness and confusion, but here are few that are hopefully illustrative:


Chopping Guinea Fowl: Step By Step from Cooing to Chewing

The old blog hasn’t been seeing much action as of late. As a way of getting back on track and hopefully sharing something indicative of what’s been happening, here’s a step by step guide to preparing my all-time favorite Ghanaian dish, guinea fowl with okra stew and banku.

Late Friday night, I went down to the Tamale bus station to pick up my friend Nis. She hails from the Upper East Region and has a line on guinea fowls from Navrongo, which is apparently the place to find these chubby, speckled relatives of pheasants. She had been threatening to bring some over, but it was still a bit of shock when she dropped a live bird in my hands and said, “Here, cook this.” A live animal staring you in the face is a powerful incentive for meal planning, so, as one does, we dangled the thing off the handlebars of my moto and headed home to cook up some ideas.

The next morning, we engaged the services of Nis’s friend, Queen, who went to school for cooking and worked in several hotels before trading the heat of the kitchen for the A/C of the insurance office. She still wants to get back into cooking and eventually open her own restaurant, so was she down for showing me the ropes. We went into town and entered the Tamale central market—a place I’ve been struggling to comprehend let alone to describe for some time. After a lot of greetings, himming and hawing, hard bargaining and various subtle jedi-mind-tricks I could not perceive to get the market ladies to lower their prices, we came away with the following:

  • 1kg of pre-sliced okra
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Garden Eggs (Eggplant)
  • Salted Fish
  • Shrimp bouillon
  • Cassava “Dough” (not fermented)
  • Corn “Dough” (fermented)
  • ½ litre of Palm oil

We got back to the house to check up on the critter, who, while cooing gently, could not help but betray an air of trepidation and doleful pessimism regarding its present situation. Earnest meal preparation kicked off around 2:00pm by boiling the okra and the garden eggs together to get that gooey, snot-like goop which makes okra stew so unique.

IMG_1002.JPG IMG_1010.JPG MVI_1005.MOV

The next step was to dress the fowl. Now, like most people, I don’t go out of my way to kill my own food, but I still think it is a valuable experience everyone should try at least once. Strangling the life out of some other animal for a few brief moments of enjoyment while you are eating it and enough sustenance to keep you alive for a few days is a visceral, unsettling, and humbling act. Growing up on a sheep farm, I’ve been exposed to this side of meat production from an early age and have had the benefit of some experience slaughtering chickens. I’ll spare the details, but after some time we eventually ended up with a half decent looking dressed fowl.

IMG_1011.JPG IMG_1012.JPG IMG_1013.JPG IMG_1020.JPG IMG_1024.JPG IMG_1004.JPG IMG_1007.JPG IMG_1025.JPG IMG_1027.JPG IMG_1029.JPG IMG_1030.JPG IMG_1032.JPG

 We then sliced and diced half the onions, tomatoes, peppers, and the garlic and stewed the pieces of fowl to infuse some flavour. After about 10-15 minutes of stewing, we proceeded to deep fry the pieces in a shit ton of palm oil. I was slightly dismayed by this step as it seemed to negate any health benefits of the lean guinea fowl meat, but Queen assured me it was healthy and would taste better this way. In the future, I might bypass this step simply due to the time involved.

IMG_1033.JPG IMG_1035.JPG IMG_1049.JPG MVI_1038.MOV

 After the fry up, we combined the remaining stew stock with the rest of the onions, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. We then added in some salted fish and shrimp bouillon cubes which are, for some reason, ubiquitous in Ghanaian cooking, as well as the okra and garden egg mixture from earlier. Lastly, we added the fried fowl pieces back in and let the whole pot simmer away on the back burner while we prepared the banku.

IMG_1051.JPG IMG_1053.JPG IMG_1055.JPG IMG_1040.JPG MVI_1006.MOV

Banku is my favourite of the Ghanaian starch ball trifecta which also includes fufu and tuo zaafi (“Tee-Zed”). This lumpy mix of fermented corn flour and cassava dough has a mildly sour flavour similar to sourdough bread. To prepare it, we mixed the corn and cassava doughs together roughly 2 to 1 with plenty of water and got it simmering on the stovetop. As the mixture began to heat up, it became thicker and thicker, and stickier and sticker eventually resembling some sort of industrial strength building material. Keeping it from burning on the bottom of the pan and stirring it vigorously to prevent clumping was no small feat. After what seemed like a half hour of stirring, Queen finally said it looked done. She then proceeded to form fist-sized balls of the mix by rolling it around in a small bowl with a little water. The more modern method is to spoon the finished banku into small plastic bags, which can be more easily refrigerated and reheated.

IMG_1056.JPG IMG_1057.JPG IMG_1059.JPG IMG_1069.JPG IMG_1070.JPG IMG_1074.JPG IMG_1075.JPG IMG_1076.JPG IMG_1077.JPG

At this stage, nearly 4hrs later, we were finally finished. Interest in photography and documentation had dropped off markedly by this point, so I don’t have any photos, but we did finally did get our “chop” on. The end result, while not mind blowing, was still deeply satisfying having the virtue of being hand-built from the raw materials with much toil and caloric expenditure. Would I make this again? Maybe, if I enough people to feed. Will I appreciate eating it a lot more the next time I order it a restaurant? Definitely!

IMG_1079.JPG IMG_1081.JPG

Special shout outs to Nis for providing the fowl and the incentive to get cooking and to Queen for being a great teacher. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to do this again with some other of my top fav dishes, stay tuned.

Scenes from The Volta

9:30pm Tuesday, April 22, 2014:

“You want to go to Volta over the Easter Weekend?”

“Ahhhermahhiiiii…”[glancing at map: that’s roughly two-thirds the length of country away. Visions of long hours on packed minibuses, crowds, confusion, “exposure”, risk, etc. all for a day and a half at a waterfall…], “…wha the hell, I’ll be there!”

4:30pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“You know, obroonii, that this is the party bus, ohhh!” [Way overexcited teenage driver’s mate on the knock-off-knock-off intercity coach bus between Tamale and Kumasi, as he’s dancing around the aisle to an extra loud, extra generic hip-life/auto-tuned-to-death dance number, supergluing the seat numbers back on while his colleague is crop dusting the seated passengers with two cans of air freshener.]

11:00pm Thursday, April 24, 2014:

“Hmm..energy levels seem to be dropping. I know just the thing to liven up this party-bus!” [Bus driver to himself, before queuing up the next three consecutive Nigerian movies] “Full volume? Oh yeah!”

10:30am Friday, April 25, 2014:

[At the Kejetia Tro Yard waiting for the bus (converted 80’s utility van) to fill up for the trip from Kumasi to Ho. Having just missed the last bus by mere minutes (one seat was left and there are two of us travelling together), we now pass from reality into the Kafka/Heller-esque, time-free parallel universe of the tro yard. When will the bus leave? It could be minutes, it could be hours, it doesn’t matter, it all comes down to a simple formula:

# of seats on the bus – (rate at which people decide to travel to Ho)*(amount of patience you have to wait)

It is a chess game of patience, social psychology, minute trends and arcane signals. There are rules, and patterns sometimes arise out of the chaos, but like antimatter they exist only to vanish as soon as they are discovered. It takes dedication and zen-like control in order to become good at picking the right bus to the right place at the right time to complete your journey.]

5:30pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Yeah, I’m not actually going all the way to Ho (even though you waited around for an hour or two to meet this specific criteria). The bridge is out and there are long queues at the one ferry crossing. Instead, I’ll “sell” you to another tro driver going that way and we’ll split the difference.” [Tro driver to us as we are unceremoniously dropped off in Kpong, still several hours from our destination.]

 8:00pm Friday, April 25, 2014:

“Oh shit, braa, our headlights are fading! Quick jiggle the cable to the battery that for some reason is under the seat.”

“Nah man, battery is dead. We’ve got no lights, chali. Maybe you should slow down a bit.”

“Slow down!!?”

“You guys are going to kill us all! Here is my flashlight.”

“Okay great! Front seat passenger: dangle out the window holding the flashlight. Yep that works! Crisis averted!”

[An interpretation of a conversation in Ewe between the tro driver, his mate and an old lady in the second row, during the last few kilometers into Ho.]

8:30pm, Friday, April 25, 2014

[Dropped off in the regional capital of Ho, no chance of covering the extra hour and a half to our final destination of Wli just outside of Hohoe to the North, my travel companion, Sean, and I weigh our options.]

“Let’s just flag a taxi and get him to take us to a guest house.”

[First taxi we see, picks us up, takes us more or less directly to the best, low priced motel in the city (suspiciously named “Work and Happiness”), doesn’t overcharge, and even offers to pick us up again in the morning! Where else in the world, (developed, developing, or otherwise) can you casually cruise into an unknown city with no contacts, no directions, no reservations and not much money, speak English to everyone, not get ripped off, not get taken for a taxi joy-ride, or be otherwise taken advantage of for being the silly tourists we are? The upturned cockroach in the motel hallway, legs curled upwards in agony/ecstasy, seems to indicate agreement.]

12:00pm, Sunday, April 27, 2o14

[Staring up into the crashing, tumbling upper Wli waterfalls after a 3hr hike in the jungle heat and humidity. Waves of mist discharge off the mid-point of the 50m high falls and drift off into the valley bellow. Roosting bats are hanging all along the cliff face above and are circling overhead. In the distance there is nothing but forest and mountains; at the waterfall pool, other than the group of 8 of us and our guide, there is just one other person around. Trotros, travel and all the minor irritations of living in this country seems incredibly trivial  and far, far away.]

1:30am, Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[Arrive back in Kumasi after a cumulative travel and wait time from Hohoe of 17hours, including 6hrs in the Ho tro yard which I came to know far too well. This is what it is, for better or worse. With time, the good moments will become  bad  memories (corrupted and half remembered), the really bad moments will become good stories, and the mediocre times will biodegrade and eventually vanish. All you are left with is some hazy impressions, a feeling or two, and a couple of interesting tales to tell–but that’s all anybody really needs or wants out of life when it comes down to it.]

Here are a few photos of the mountains:


Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations


I have been trying to get a handle on the traditional or folk styles of music in Ghana. This is to better understand the foundations on which popular styles like highlife and modern music are built, but also because music is so inseparable from the rest of culture it provides an opportunity for greater understanding of Ghana in general. Any attempt, especially by a foreigner, to quickly sum up or essentialize what has been called a “limitless field of study”[1], is bound to be suspect and lacking, but hopefully this provides an invitation to dive into the topic more deeply. I am also not expert and have a ton more to learn, so I’ll speak in very broad terms.

A key point here is that any appreciation and enjoyment of music is highly dependent on context and culture. Sitting around listening to sterile, anachronistic digital recordings of traditional music on your mp3 player or computer is never going to be the same experience as being there live, embedded and invested in the culture. So in order for the music to “play you”, you first need to get yourself in “tune”.

Africa, being the birthplace of civilization, is, by default, the birthplace of music. However, even in retrospect its history and evolution defy easy classifications and simple linear relationships. There is some clear distinction between the more stripped-down and melodic, solo-oriented music of North Africa with its emphasis on melisma (singing each syllable over an extended number of beats), and the poly-rhythmic, layering and call and response approach of sub-Saharan Africa.  The music of Ghana shares a bit of this gradient with the southern regions featuring more textured and complex poly-rhythms and a mix of chants and harmonized singing. In the North, the Arabic/Islamic influence is felt with more stringed instruments and melisma, but still built on a similar poly-rhythmic foundation.

Structure and Elements

The more or less definitive feature of most sub-Saharan music is the poly-rhythm or cross rhythm. (While this is a distinctive feature of sub-Saharan music, it is not without precedence in Western music, for example Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.) The term was proposed by a missionary living in Zambia in the early 1900s named Arthur Morris Jones. Jones also studied the Ewe tribe of Ghana and Togo and noticed that the rhythmic patterns played on difference instruments with different meters would regularly mesh or “cross”.  The official definition is “A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged”[2], but you can get a better understanding of the effect by playing around with it yourself:  http://bouncemetronome.com/Polyrhythm_Metronomes/index.htm. The layering of the patterns repeating every 8, 16 or even 24 beats are syncopated and interlocked which keeps the whole thing from sounding like a cacophony. Still, as the ethnomusicologists put it,

“Perception is a key factor. The music’s density of notes challenges the ear’s ability to form stable grouping configurations…In this musical style creative hearing is at a premium. While never losing its stable rhythmic foundation, the music’s clever and artful surface design facilitates perception from several perspectives, a dynamic musical phenomenon here labeled as “simultaneous multidimensionality”.[3]

Why make it so complex? One theory has it that it may help train the brain to deal with the complexities of life (!):

“In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, the technique of cross rhythm is a highly developed systematic interplay of varying rhythmic motions simulating the dynamics of contrasting moments or emotional stress phenomena likely to occur in actual human existence.As a preventive prescription for extreme uneasiness of mind or self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with impending or anticipated problems, these simulated stress phenomena or cross-rhythmic figures are embodied in the art of dance-drumming as mind-nurturing exercises to modify the expression of the inherent potential of the human thought in meeting the challenges of life. The premise is that by rightly instituting the mind in coping with these simulated emotional stress phenomena, intrepidity is achieved.”[4]


As far as instrumentation, there are a few uniquely Ghanaian creations and many that are borrowed and modified. In both cases the modern forms are the manifestations of a long history of experimentation and trial and error and do not represent a static history. Instruments are usually separated in categories according to how they produce sound. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the more iconic Ghanaian instruments:

  • Membraphones (drums) – Can be used to signal and carry messages, replicate speech, and provide the foundation for music and dance.
      • Djembe: Not originally from Ghana, but frequently seen and heard


      • Lunga/Lunna/Dondo/Talking Drum:

      • Gung-Gong:


      • Drum sets:

    akan kete Ewe

  • Idiophones (“sound like itself) – This includes things like rattles and bells, and tuned instruments like xylophones and thumb pianos
      • Balaphon:

      • Gangokoi Bells:


  • Chordonphones (stinged) – Usually used for soloing or in heterogeneous ensembles
      • Kora:

      • Bolon:

    • Gonjey: bons
  • Aerophones (wind) – Usually made from bamboo, wood, horn, tusk or clay and can be end-blown or played in traverse.
      • Antebene:

Create your own jam here: http://aviarts.com/demos/flash/abadjarhythm/index.html

Ritual and Celebration

Music is usually described as permeating the culture in Ghana and West Africa, but it’s more accurate to say that it overlaps categories of cultural expression that we would normally keep separated in the West [1]. For example, music, theatre, dance and other art forms as well as language and history are tightly integrated and not often regarded as wholly independent. Many festivals tell the stories of important historical events through music, dance, costumes and theatre, like the Bamaya dance of the Dagomba tribe in Tamale. This dance marks the end of a drought in the 19th century that was finally broken when the men dressed as women to ask the gods for help (apparently women get a quicker response!)[5]


There is music that is also born out of specific contexts and environments such as work songs, horn honk (!), warfare, hunting and even politics (see the atumpan in Ashanti culture[6]). Another, more northern tradition borrowed from Senegal and Mali is griot praise singing (also ‘jali’ or ‘gewel’). A griot is a professional royal musician who was born into a griot family or class and often attached to a specific chief or royal court. His primary role is to sing the praises of the chief and his family, but he would also serve as the keeper of the oral history and important folk stories of the past, not unlike the Homeric poets of the ancient Greeks.

Influence Locally and Abroad

Ghanaian traditional or folk music lays the rhythmic and stylistic foundations that are still used to create new songs and styles today. There are definitely some possible links between Africa music and American blues and jazz, i.e. pentatonic scale used in the donso ngoni harp could be seen as a precursor to the “blue notes” (slightly off key) used in modern blues tonality.  At the same time, it could be argued that West African guitar playing has been duly influenced by American blues to an equal or greater extent. It’s important not to put too much focus on the linearity and causality of the influence and instead see it as a continuing evolution and swapping of sounds and ideas. The history of most music is a mixing and melding where free appropriation from the past is not only permitted, but celebrated. In cultures everywhere, folk music can also be a force for social cohesion and cultural identity. Tradition and identity are passed down through the generations and music is both a conduit and a medium. From what I’ve seen in the North of Ghana, this passing of the torch to the next generation is alive and well, despite all the modern music that is available. Hopefully it continues for many more years.

References and recommendations:


Song of Legaa, Master Musician from Ghana – Kakraba Lobi, Valerie Naranjo, Barry Olsen

Music of the Dagomba from Ghana – Various Artists

Savannah Breeze – Antongo Zimba

Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways

Roots of Black Music in America – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p005xhqw



[1] http://spotlightonmusic.macmillanmh.com/n/teachers/articles/folk-and-traditional-styles/west-african-folk-music

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyrhythm#cite_note-5

[3] http://home.comcast.net/~dzinyaladzekpo/Myth.html

[4] http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.10.16.4/mto.10.16.4.locke.html#Beginning

[5] http://easytrackghana.com/cultural-overview-ghana_music-dance-ceremony.php

[6] http://www.cfiks.org/research/research/performingarts/musicalinstruments.htm

[7] http://www.jamplay.com/articles/1-general/161-the-powerful-influence-of-african-culture-on-modern-music

What’s Hot in Tamale?

I wrote about the cold in Mongolia as it was an important part of life and culture. Although they don’t use frozen cow’s tails as a metric here, the heat in Ghana is still a powerful force that pervades and affects all aspects of life. Since heat is so diffuse and insipid there is less of a battle mentality (as in the case of cold) and more of a brooding, uneasy standoff between life and the climate. This stalemate reaches a crescendo during the two hottest months of February and March and relents with the beginning of the rainy season in April. I was warned that March would be the most trying month as far as heat, but I am happy to report I seem to be managing with only a few more weeks of very hot weather left. For reference, we’re in and around 40C most days and 30C at night. This isn’t too shocking, but the fact that it lasts for several months and there is little A/C to be had, makes it more of a grinding psychological challenge. I’ve been looking into the cultural, physiological and psychological aspects of heat lately and have found, like everything else weather related, you can either ineffectively rage against it or try to adapt.


Fullscreen capture 3172014 74620 AM.bmp Fullscreen capture 3172014 74454 AM.bmp

The weather in Tamale is characterized by pronounced wet and dry seasons lasting April – September for the former and October – March for the latter. The Harmattan winds blow in off the Sahara from the Northeast during December and January bringing in tons of dust and dropping the temperature below 20C at night. When the Harmattan ends, the heat continues to build to a peak in March before breaking with the first real rains in April. After that, the winds pick up from the Southwest and bring rainstorm after rainstorm, like clockwork, up from the Atlantic.

This ongoing battle between wet and dry has been fairly predictable for the past several thousand years, but climate change is beginning to amplify this bi-polar behaviour leading to more extreme heat and precipitation. This has huge implications for crop production, especially for staples like maize which operates within a fairly narrow temperature band and can take decades to breed up to higher temperature tolerances [1]. The need for climate adapted crops is crucial for the ongoing food security of countries like Ghana and an important element of the raging battle over GMO foods that is taking place here [2].

African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
African Maize Production (Source: http://www.climatechange-foodsecurity.org/)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source: http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food)


Culturally, other than the regular rhythms of planting and harvesting crops and the associated festivals like Homowo, I haven’t heard too many urban legends with regards to the heat. I think there is a tacit acknowledgement that “you can’t change the weather” so most people don’t discuss it too often. Still, there are a few key phrases in Dagbani such as “Ti maasim” (“the morning is cool” used as a greeting) and “Ni ti wuntanga/wari” (roughly “sorry for you and the sun/heat”). Another important element is the acceptance of sweat as normal and natural part of life and not something you try to hide or are embarrassed about, which seems to be the case in the West.

Physiologically, it’s very important to have at least a basic grasp of the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation in order to maximize the effectiveness of whatever method of cooling you are trying to employ. Below is illustration of how the body responds to and counteracts various ambient temperatures to maintain a steady core temperature. It’s important to note that evaporative cooling from sweating greatly depends on both the humidity and air flow. Luckily, in the North, the relative humidity is around 20-30% most of the dry season, which keeps the humidex quite reasonable. It’s like living in a giant dehumidifier so sweating can be quite effective, though water intake needs to greatly increase in order to keep up. It’s possible to lose as much as 10L of water per day [3], and dehydration, even if you spend most of your days like me sitting under a whirling ceiling fan, is still a risk.  As part of the body’s acclimation process [4], the water to salt composition of sweat readjusts, your overall output increases, and the hypothalamus becomes better adapted to the new temperature range. So, there is some truth to the idea that you can “get used to” to heat after some time.

(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)
(source: http://dwb.unl.edu/teacher/nsf/c01/c01links/www.science.mcmaster.ca/biology/4s03/thermoregulation.html)


Psychologically, I find dealing with heat is very similar to dealing with cold or any other external factor: you often can’t do anything about it other than to alter your psychological response. With cold I find the best strategy is to get positive and energized before going outside and generally being a lot more active and animated. With heat, obviously, it’s more a case of economy of motion, acceptance and calmness. The biggest issues are trying to sleep on foam mattress (pro tip: wet socks!) or sitting for long periods in a packed tro-tro. There is a powerful urge to “escape” and it takes a lot of willpower to avoid the agitation and anxiety that goes along with this discomfort. Like studying in a noisy environment, running a marathon or sitting through a Nigerian movie on the bus, it’s a mind over matter thing that takes time to develop. On the positive side, the appreciation for the slightest breeze, the few degrees drop of evening coolness, or amazing satisfaction derived from simply drinking water are all greatly amplified. The occasional Fan-Ice (ice cream in a bag) doesn’t hurt either!



[1] http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food

[2] http://foodsecurityghana.com/category/climate-change/

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspiration

[4] http://www.usariem.army.mil/download/heatacclimatizationguide.pdf

Ghana Sounds I: Introduction to Ghanaian Music


Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me)
Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me)


I was originally hoping to feature a lot more cultural and musical aspects of Ghanaian life on this blog, as they were among the main reasons why I was excited to live in West Africa. I haven’t done much to this end so far, but hope to share a little bit of the amazing history of Ghanaian music and beyond piece by piece from now on.

Over the past few years (before I had any plans to visit Africa), I had been amassing a sizeable collection of African music (also borrowing inspiration and material from my dad, whose collection achieves sizeable and proceeds undeterred from there). Most of this material originates from the golden age of post-colonial, West African music in the 1960s and 70s. Nigerians like Fela Kuti, Tunji Oyelana, and Sir Victor Uwaifo, (to name only a few) were pioneering the Afrobeat style and Beninese groups like (Le Tout Puissant) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou were releasing unfathomably quantities of amazing stuff based on their traditional Vodoun rhythms. Ghanaians, meanwhile, were blending their homegrown “high life” sound with influences from America, the Caribbean, the Congo, and other West African countries. Beyond West Africa, similar booms were happening across the continent from Angola, South Africa and the Congo in the south to Ethiopia and Kenya in the North.

It was not that the music suddenly appeared, (it has always been a central part of life and indivisible from history), but the favourable confluence of cheap recording technology, FM radio, relative post-colonial/post-war social freedoms to stay out late and party, and the extremely high competition between night club owners to attract the biggest and best bands created the ideal environment for sustained, high volume production of music and musicians.

Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee) (via: http://www.thisisafrica.me/)
Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)
(via: http://www.thisisafrica.me/)


“To keep up with the demand, every club had to invite bands from other parts of Ghana and also from abroad to stand a chance of surviving the fierce competition.”  – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo

“The 60s & 70s generation of Ghanaian musicians had birthed unique sounds based upon principles of excellent musicianship and recording techniques, with deep respect for traditional music. They had excelled to such an extent that the new hybrids of music they created still command respect all over the globe 40 years later.”  – Samy Ben Redjeb, Analog Africa

As the hey-day of the sixties and seventies began to die down and the optimism and glow of the post-colonial era began to fade, government coups and instability led to clamp downs on the arts and frequent curfews. This had a devastating effect on the music scene in places like Benin City, Cotonou, Accra and Abidjan, and effectively killed the music scene.

“…in 1979 we were hit by a second curfew. It was serious. The first one, which took place in 1966, didn’t last too long. It didn’t hit us too hard, but it was the third that knocked us out. It killed social life and the music industry in this country. Everybody had to be home by 10pm: no parties, no concerts, no boogaloo, no Miss Tip Toe. When after two years that crazy curfew was over most of our musicians had already left the country and DJs had replaced the bands. Live music was dead.”  – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo

Throughout the 80s and 90s there have been many revivals and tributes, but much like “classic rock” in North America and Britain, the blurry-eyed nostalgia for the good old days has fossilized an entire cultural movement into its most salient essence of a few key bands, faded photographs and hazy memories.

“If I hear highlife now, it will remind me of the past…But highlife can’t come to change Ghana again. We can’t play it like before because life is different now. The things that they used to sing about would change people’s lives! – Felicia Kudiah, June 19, 2009 (From the book: Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana, by Nate Plageman)

Amazingly, only a fraction of what was produced was ever recorded, (live music was where it was at), and an even smaller amount of that is still available for purchase today. Thanks to the efforts of a few key labels such as Analog Africa, Soundway, Strut-Records, Nonesuch, and Honest Jon’s, old records and master tapes are being dusted off from years in forgotten storage rooms and other places and are once again being discovered by people around the world.

“It doesn’t surprise me that our music is finally travelling because, you know, if you do something good, it will be remembered forever. That’s right, brother.”  – Gyedu Blay Ambolley 

By far the best online source for most of this music is through the subscription service emusic, which has an ear-boggling collection of every sort of weird, rare and random music you could hope for at about half the price of Amazon and iTunes. The Smithsonian also has a great collection of traditional and early forms of music for the more seriously ethnomusically inclined and, per usual YouTube is a great source of clips and video.

Over the next few months, I’ll attempt to dive into more detail about the traditional forms and instruments used in Ghanaian music; the palm wine music of the colonial era; the birth of Ghana’s most famous musical export, “high-life”; The post-colonial highlife music scene that was not only the soundtrack to the independence movement, but a major driver and, in fact, cause; the fascinating three-way ping-pong match of styles, rhythms, influences and culture between the American south, the Caribbean, and West Africa; and finally the current state of music in Ghana and where it might be headed.

Stay tuned…