22 January 2011

Sugar Soup

In a couple of months, when someone asks me, "Kelly, what should I pack to go and live in Ghana?" I will have an excellent answer.  But since I don't have future me's input, I just have to play at the intricate guessing game of 'if this voltage stabilizer weighs 10 lbs., and my rucksack has a net volume of 14 big bottles of vitamins, how many spare toothbrush heads will I need?'

Definitely one of the most important things to “pack” – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is the music collection.  Everything that wasn’t uploaded is now, perceived gaps filled, in preparation for those evenings when it’s just me and whoever I want (or let’s be honest…need) to be singing or playing.  In this process, I have enjoyed discovering Ghana’s incredibly rich musical history.  That’s actually what led me to the naming of my blog, after the first of Ghana’s Highlife songs I heard: “Sugar Soup.”

From what I have been taught and what I have observed, music springs from our culture and its values, and is a reflection of social realities.  With those realities setting the tone, music often takes risks that we aren't always ready for as individuals. While conflicts are high and
relations unstable, it will still slide forward and begin to fuse styles, synthesizing elements from multiple sources and integrating them cohesively.  Witness the birth of the Blues in the call-and-response shouts of the slaves, with voice and guitar echoing West African rhythmic and instrumental traditions as well as European harmonic structure.  

Ghana's Highlife music is another example of this fusion of styles against a backdrop of indisputable social and racial tensions, as Ghana struggled against British colonial rule and towards independence.  It surged forth in the 1920’s, a balance of indigenous dance rhythms and melodies with Western sounds. Highlife is a soup, if you will, of military-style brass bands, sea shanties, hymns, European foxtrots, Caribbean kaiso and Cuban son added to the rhythms of Fante (osibisaba), and later Liberia (dagomba) and Sierra Leone (ashiko and goombe).  The instrumentation included African drums, jazzy horns, harmonicas, accordions and multiple guitars, and it swept the country and the world until its decline in the 1970’s (enter disco).  Even so, Highlife has continued to influence subsequent forms of music development all over the African continent.* 

Of course, music is not just to be experienced through the lens of cultural anthropology – it is much more personal, and it longs to sink into our skin.  As we listen, participate and are engaged, music assumes the power to shape us as individuals.  We find ourselves revealed by a riff, moved by a backbeat or blue note.  Lyrics may make us laugh or ache or cry.  At every bridge, music helps us define ourselves, and explain who we are.  Perhaps it can even help us to understand each other a little better. 

So as I listen, I take the opportunity to experience Ghana’s history and culture - but that’s not why I keep listening.  There’s just nothing like getting swept up in a song. I’ll never be fully a part of Ghanaian culture, but I can keep striving to understand the values and beliefs of the people around me.  What results from those efforts, I hope, will be invaluable moments of human connection, infused with caring and respect, making the hard times worth enduring.  Those moments, like any we find precious in life, are like sugar soup: shocking, too sweet to last, and impossible to forget.

*referenced Alisdair Macrae Birch http://www.alisdair.com/educator/lectures.html


  1. OK, we're on board and following . . . C and T

  2. Michelle and I are also following! XOXO

  3. Sugar Soup. I love it. And I really love how you go right into Ghanaian culture and history. Just beautiful. I knew you were awesome!! Looking forward to "following" you on blogspot like the stalker I am :) MUAH!!! Miss you, kiddo! Your SKWID Roomie

  4. Can't wait to read your next blog - especially how it all feels to you now that you are really and truly there! Lisa B