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!


African Views Radio…today!

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to let you know about a radio show that I got myself involved in:

It’s airing TODAY at 12 p.m. EST – or 4 p.m. for the lovely folks here in GMT with me!You can join via Skype (add “Africanviews”) or by calling (+1) 760-283-0850; just call in during showtime. If you have to miss it, you can find it in the archives here.

I’m co-hosting the show, called Youth InitiativesIt  focuses on the programs, social structures, and organizations either put to work for the benefit of youth, started by youth, or engaging with youth. And we’ve got a special eye on Africa: the platform is called African Views and was created just a handful of years ago by Wale Ajibade, a Nigerian, born in Vienna and former a finance guy in New York.
The primary host and founder of the program – Tully McLoughlin – is MY connection. He spent a year here in Ghana working on youth environmental radio initiatives with Ghana’s only agricultural development-focused radio station, Rite FM, and Farm Radio International. We met at a rooftop album release part in Accra.
Tully asked me to bring a few guests in, and I thought of a few Iowa Fulbrighters, so those of you from my home state might recognize a few of the names below…
TOPIC: Perspectives on Fulbright

We’re incredibly excited to announce that Youth Initiatives will be broadcast live this week. Tully, your host, will be broadcasting live from Sitka, Alaska, where he is now. He will also be joined this week by guest co-host Sharon Benzoni, who has hosted public radio programs at KRUI in Iowa City and will be receiving her master’s degree in African Studies at the University of Ghana in the next few months. Sharon will be calling in live from Accra.
    WHEN: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12th, 2012
    TO PARTICIPATE BY PHONE: Call this number during the show:(760) 283-0850
TO JOIN BY SKYPE – ADD: africanviews (Call in during showtime)
    HOST: Tully McLoughlin
    GUEST CO-HOST: Sharon Benzoni
    Also broadcast live on WYBC Yale Radio (http://www.wybc.com/listen)
The Show
This week we offer an in-depth conversation with a several recent alums of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, who share their perspectives on living and teaching or researching abroad. Our panel of guests will be:
  • John C. Calhoun, who worked as an English teacher and education policy researcher in Kaoshiung, Taiwan. Also a former Marshall Scholar, John is currently studying for his J.D. At Yale Law School.
  • Lauren Reynolds, who taught university-level English courses in Rize, Turkey, and is currently earning her master’s in Literature in Spanish at the University of Virginia.
  • Cliff Missen, who worked with Fulbright in Nigeria, which led him to co-found The WiderNet Project, which aims to improve digital communications systems for individuals and communities around the world. He currently serves as its Executive Director.
  • Sarita Patnaik, who studied Classical and Moroccan Arabic, as well as contemporary Moroccan Art, in Morocco.
  • Eli Bildner, a 2010 graduate of Yale University.
  • Sangeeta Tandon, who was on a US Fulbright in Togo this past year. She holds a doctorate in pharmacy from Iowa and now works at Johns Hopkins Hospital. 
What is the value of doing research abroad or teaching abroad – for the student, for the communities? What are the expectations that people have of Americans or American researchers, and how are those expectation imposed upon everyday interactions? What are the greatest challenges of integrating into a new culture, learning a language, and trying to answer specific research questions at the same time? Is this the manifestation of an outdated concept of aid or a strong fellowship of scholars, teachers, students and professionals who have an opportunity to change the world for the better?



Lots and lots of overdue updates will have to wait…hope you can join us!

Microcredit in the Volta

Nicholas Kristof’s editorial on microcredit in the New York Times last week reminded me that I’ve been wanting to post about a microfinance organization here in Ghana, Lumana Credit.

With 700 clients mostly in the Volta Region of Ghana, Lumana is a relatively small organization, but it’s grown fast since it was founded just four years ago by Seattle native Sammie Rayner. In 2008, Sammie first visited the town of Anloga in the Volta Region. In just a few months, she put together a pilot project that served 30 entrepreneurs, a project that became the basis for Lumana’s success.

View of a lagoon near Anloga

The area around Anloga is in a low-lying plain near the ocean with beautiful lagoons.

I met one of Lumana’s co-founders, Cole Hoover, and their Director of Operations, Justine Levesque, on a mutual friend’s balcony one evening in April, and promptly invited myself out to see what they were up to. A few weeks later, I was taking my first long motorbike trip out to see them, complete with a friend on the back and payment of the requisite bribe at a police barrier. (It was an unusual bribe, however: half a watermelon and three cedis. Why watermelon? The Volta seems like the place where all watermelon come from; there are piles of them for sale along the road for miles. We couldn’t resist. And neither could the police.)

Lumana is based in Anloga, a village in the beautiful south of the Volta region, about two and a half hours by motorbike from Accra. It was a beautiful area, and though I didn’t get a chance to meet many of their clients, I could see from the many lengthy greetings on our trips around town that they are well-known and well-loved by the community. You can meet some of Lumana’s clients on their website.

"Melody Praise Financial Services"

Lumana’s competition?

They did, however, show me a great time:

Meet Me There Hostel

We visited a hostel nearby called Meet Me There, which is run by a group of Brits. Not surprisingly, it’s chock full of characters. They have a private lagoon and on the other side of the sand is the ocean.

Dzibodi bar

The local “spot” (bar): Dzibodi. It’s pronounced like the country Djibouti (Jah-booty).


We cooked an epic brunch the next morning….

Justine told me they were especially excited about their plans to fund a larger-scale project for a man named Cena, who bottles tomatoes. With his new canning facilities, he will be able to produce many times more tomatoes to supply local schools during the dry season, when fresh tomatoes, a staple of Ghanaian cuisine, are in short supply.


Farming…Lumana funds some small-scale farmers in the region, though most of their work focuses on women who have trades such as sewing or food preparation. I saw a lot of folks up early, hauling buckets of water from wells for irrigation. This irrigation system was the most advanced I saw.

I’ve been rather infatuated by microfinance since 2005, when Dr. Rangaswamy Rajagopal, and University of Iowa professor, enthusiastically introduced my environmental policy class to the concept. Always excited and always inspirational, I distinctly remember Raj waving his hands and telling us about Muhammed Yunus’ brilliant idea to give a small loan to one of the women selling petty goods near where he worked. I was fascinated by the idea, and intrigued by Yunus’ bold assertion that credit is a human right.

Raj took me and a small band of Iowa students on a trip to India later that year to study a microfinance institution based in Tamil Nadu. Like Yunus, they used a group solidarity method to secure the loans; all members of the group agree to pay the debts of any other member who defaults, creating peer pressure to repay the loans. And because of data showing that women are far more likely to repay their loans and use the extra income for the benefit of the family, they loaned exclusively to women’s groups.

Lumana is fairly similar in approach, but though their clients are mostly women, they do also loan to men. They also help their clients save money and give them business education and mentoring. Their interest rates – about 24% – may seem steep, but they’re in fact quite low for the industry: without microcredit institutions, these borrowers would have to resort to loan sharks who charge 60-80% or more on their loans.

Microfinance is nothing new to Ghana: Yunus’ Grameen Bank is active here, among many others, but there is still a huge amount of unmet demand. Despite the negative effects that the recent decline in the value of the Ghana cedi has had on the economy, Lumana is still doing well and even expanding. They’ve set up an office in Accra to handle the microfinance clients they’ve absorbed from other institutions who haven’t fared as well. (Which means I get to see them a lot more often!) And as recent development literature has pointed to the importance of small and medium enterprises to economic growth, they are starting to focus on more clients like Cena, who can scale up and employ people as they grow.

My visits to Lumana have made me fall in love with the southern Volta; I can see why they like it there:

Keta Beach…the beach is actually really steep here, which creates a wicked (but exciting) undertow. Swimming is an adventure.

Wedding at Keta beach

Women dressed up for a wedding party at the beach.


Football in a churchyard

Doctor Garlic

Doctor Garlic. Herbal and traditional medicine are still widely used in Ghana; sometimes as a supplement and sometimes as a substitute for modern medicine.

Military House

Military House.

Lest we forget the history of the slave trade on the Gold Coast…