Tesano, Dzo-ho and Azonto: on being unqualified to write your master’s thesis

I’ve ended up doing a lot of field research in bars and nightclubs in Accra. This past Friday night, Yaa Pono pulled up chair at The Republic Bar, looked at me a bit sternly and said, “Sharon.”

I’d been out of touch with him. We were supposed to have an interview, a formal continuation of an informal conversation begun over a month ago at 3 a.m. after a live performance of his near Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra. Yaa Pono, I’d been told, is arguably the best Twi-language rapper in Ghana. This is not an uncontroversial opinion, but with my embarrassingly rudimentary Twi, I’m really in no position to judge. His performances are certainly spell-binding, though. He has a sort of edge about him, a sense of something seething just below the surface, and a kind of explosive energy onstage.

Yaa Pono peforming at Big in Ghana

Yaa Pono performing in Accra as part of the FOKN Bois’ Big in Ghana tour in September.

For the last few months, I’ve been running around Accra on my French-speaking motorbike interviewing artists like Yaa Pono, as well as producers, beatmakers, record label executives, managers, event organizers, DJs, music website moguls and other people associated with the popular music industry. Inspired by a doctoral thesis from a London School of Economics researcher on the Senegalese hip-hop economy, I’m attempting to write about cultural entrepreneurs in Ghana in relationship to creative economy theory.

I feel, to be honest, like a bit of an impostor. I mean, I like music. I’m a human being. But I’m not a serious aficionado, let alone a musicologist. And I’ve always liked economics, but unless you count my rabid devotion to NPR’s Planet Money podcast, the totality of my formal education in the field is one environmental econ course I took as an undergrad. (Lesson: The environment is a giant externality. This is a problem. Good luck solving it.) So now I’m trying to catch up enough on all this stuff to not only have an intelligent conversation with people who actually do this work but actually write a master’s thesis about it.

So I threw myself into it. And I’ve learned enough to be overwhelmed. Here’s one of my  attempts to break down some of what I’m doing:

My attempts to untangle the popular music economy

There’s a lot going on here in music, so much talent and activity. In Kyekyeku’s small practice room in the dark – the power was off that evening – he tried to count all the recording studios that had been springing up in his neighborhood, Tesano. “There must be a couple dozen,” he said. I ticked a couple off: Benjamin LeBrave’s Akwaaba Music and Kiki Banson’s E.K.B. Records. Lynx Entertainment, just up the street in Achimota. “Yeah,” he said, listing about ten more. Sewor, a Ghanaian-born repatriate who’s spent most of his life in London, has set up a brand new recording studio in Dzorwulu (roughly, “johr-WOO-loo”) just down the street from Pidgin Music. “I call this whole area Dzo-ho,” he tells me, talking fast and describing the creative energy in this part of the city.

In the 1970s, after the military coups when the government suddenly slapped strict curfews on residents, the popular music scene here – pulsing with highlife shows and early Afrobeats – suddenly and abruptly choked. But for the past ten or fifteen years, it’s been re-surging at breakneck speed, bringing growth and a lot of scrambling in a fragmented industry, and a lot of changes. Many artists are trying to ride the wave of Azonto fame dominating in Ghana’s nightclubs and shows and sweeping the world via the diaspora and Youtube. (A burning question: Will an azonto track get the same kind of insane viral fame of Korea’s Gangnam Style?)

Here’s THE classic azonto track:

 

Azonto’s ubiquity is both a matter of pride in the music community and a source of annoyance. Jeremie, a popular DJ at YFM, one of Ghana’s biggest radio stations, told me “I don’t believe 100% in azonto,” citing the pressure musicians feel to produce azonto tracks instead of developing more intimate acoustic performance-oriented styles. But a couple of sentences later she said, “Don’t get me wrong; I’m 100% proud of azonto. Because we finally got something that is our own, that we can call Ghanaian, recognized everywhere. So that’s pretty cool.” (The best article I’ve read on azonto is from Accra’s smart culture magazine, Dust.)

It’s an amazing cast of characters with fascinating stories. There are the cliques: from the Tema crew that includes Efya, Sarkodie and Killbeatz, to Jay Foley’s energetic 2131 Group in Osu, to Pidgin Music’s eclectic combination of underground artists. There are the legends: Koo Nimo, Reggie Rockstone, Ambuley. There are the intrigues: scandals involving disputed copyright payments, payola schemes, politics in the musician’s union. There’s the rivalry with Nigeria. The telcomm schemes. There are the aspirations. And there is so much talent.

I’m trying to untangle all this while piecing together the economic structure of the industry. I hope I can do it all justice. I have some great intellectual guides in the work of the legendary John Collins and Sionne Neely’s extremely sensitive and nuanced recent history of Ghana’s music scene. And of course, the practitioners and commentators who have already so generously shared their perspectives with me.

P.S. Thanks, Lynette, for reminding me that folks back home were still curious about what I’m up to over here! I’ll try to do better at keeping you in the loop!

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2 thoughts on “Tesano, Dzo-ho and Azonto: on being unqualified to write your master’s thesis

  1. Benz, this is SO interesting! Thanks for sharing it. Your perspective and research on this subject will be a really useful document for a lot of reasons and a lot of people, I’m sure. Keep it up!

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