Decoding seashore harmonies – Fellows’ seminar by Eric Otchere

25 October 2021

Understanding the complex songs of Ghanaian artisanal fishermen


“Throughout history, the power of music to enhance productivity at work has been exploited. In less technologically advanced societies, group singing (performed principally to serve as reference points for co-ordinated activity and to ease labour) has been variously studied (e.g. fishermen songs, hunting songs, pounding songs and farming songs),” said Eric Otchere of the Department of Music and Dance, Faculty of Arts, University of Cape Coast, Ghana. “On the other end of the line, the ubiquity of headphones/earphones has engendered a personalised/individualised use of music as people pace themselves within sonic spaces to achieve the most in various activities (e.g. studying, jogging, meditating). Within these two extremes are many other instances where music is employed at work (e.g. in therapy, religion, sports, marketing). Studies on music and work have been largely non-interdisciplinary in nature: approached from (ethno)-musicological/anthropological, socio-historical or (recently) neuro-cognitive perspectives. Studies that connect the dots from the different perspectives are still wanting.”

And connecting the dots or, in this case, ‘notes’ is what Iso Lomso fellow Otchere hopes to do in his project, to synergise the body of knowledge on the psychology of music and work to produce a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon.

Iso Lomso fellow Eric Otchere during his seminar on 19 October 2021

He hopes to understand how people constitute spaces through sound and how they pace themselves within these spaces to achieve more – which he summarises as space, pace and ace. “People consciously create sonic spaces. Through music, people create physical, mental, emotional, social, creative and expressive spaces among others, and navigate aspects of their daily lives in order to become as productive as they can be in a defined activity.”

What music says, does and is

In what he describes as an ambitious project, for his presentation he focused on one example – the music of indigenous Ghanaian artisanal fishermen to interrogate characteristics of their music that makes it fit for purpose, as well as what the music reveals about the people who perform it.

“The analysis encompasses three broad paradigms of meaning in music-making,” he explained, “what the music says (symbolic and referential meaning), what the music is (aesthetic and non-referential meaning), and what the music does (pragmatic or functional meaning).”

He focused on the first aspect – what the music says.

Detailing his interest in fishing songs – he explained that they have a long history, are under-researched, contain distinct stylistic features, make connections to social and political debates, and are under threat of extinction.

“Fishing is a co-operative effort, practiced for thousands of years, a synchronised activity of which music has always been a part.”

Artisanal fishing involves an estimated 3 million or 10% of the population of Ghana, accounting for 5% of the total agricultural production in Ghana. Otchere has conducted fieldwork along the shores of the Gulf of Guinea – a 528 km stretch, containing about 200 communities whose main occupation is fishing. There are four regions – Volta, Greater Accra, Central and Western: dominated by the Ewe, Ga, Fante (Akan) and Nzema respectively.  Each of these groups have distinct linguistic, musical and other cultural traditions.

The fishermen practice seine-net fishing which involves many hours spent hauling the catch to shore and their music provides the soundtrack to this repetitive, exhausting work.

Otchere’s work involves doing onsite recordings as the men work, making studio recordings to preserve the music, coding, as well as interviews and focus group discussions to understand the complex nuances.

“We have recorded about 800 songs thus far and started to unpack the meanings for about 400,” he said.

The work has revealed rich, sophisticated levels of meaning. The songs include proverbs, idioms, allusions and metaphors reflecting a rich linguistic culture.

“These features are often made in the process, on the spot, collectively, referring to day-to-day things in the community.”

Privacy in a public space

“Construction of meaning is complex,” said Otchere. “They have a sub-language – Fishers’ tongue. Some songs include more than one language but they understand each other in the context of a song. The distinctive feature is the manner in which the songs are articulated. They borrow words, misappropriate words, use jargon and can talk about you without you knowing.”

“There is deliberate use of ambiguity often to make sense of complex issues,” he continued. “The multiple layers of meaning enables them to talk about sensitive issues, vent emotions, even make political statements in a safe space. The unique language construction is an attempt to own the physical and expressive space, to create privacy in a public space.”

As an example he spoke of a new song which initially appeared to be about the coronavirus but which he later discovered included the phrase ‘colonial bylaws’ referring to current changes in gay rights in Ghana.

“The recurring themes are faith, love, friendship, politics and religion. Many lyrics also have a negative valence covering issues like poverty and death.”

“As another example, they are very aware of sustainable development, climate change, and technology because these impact on their work – affecting which fish they catch and how far out they have to go. The themes and words of their songs change accordingly. They add new words to an existing tune creating what they see as a completely new song.”

In addition to unravelling the words, Otchere is interested in understanding the non-lexical vocalisations.

“It’s natural to make involuntary sounds during physical activity – many sportspeople do it. These have no definite meanings but help to get the work done.”

“These sounds fill gaps, buy time, give comic relief, and steady the tempo and co-ordination. They also mean that anyone can join because you don’t need to rehearse or know the coded meanings.”

He explained the physical aspects where such sounds force a diaphragm contraction, pushing out air and forcing you take in more oxygen. In group work this could occur at different time points which would be chaos. It’s one of the theories of how music evolved in the first place – “music may have evolved to impose more order on the sound, to provide reference points for co-ordinated activity and to maximise productivity”.

He also explained the use of Instruments. “They don’t necessarily use actual musical instruments all the time – it may be a log or the edge of a canoe. They transfer rhythms from instruments to these everyday objects.”

The physical movements also create distinct rhythms.

“The rhythms are also complex. The accent may elude Western-trained musicians, the counts are never exact, there are internalised timing points and recurring beats but no strict metre.”

The music influences and is influenced by other music sources – such as military music, brass bands, jama groups, choral and other contemporary popular musics.

“The stylistic features make it possible to interact with other music forms and inform both ways,” he explained. “Popular culture definitely influences their music. For example, they employ many features of Highlife, a very popular music style in Ghana.”

In discussion, Otchere discussed the need to preserve indigenous music as well as the challenges of the decolonisation aspects of the work.

He is producing a documentary which he hopes will help to preserve the songs, in 2018 his group received a grant to form the Ghana Music Documentation Project to which artists can upload their work, and he is involved in the DAAD-funded SDG graduate school Performing Sustainability: Cultures and Development in West Africa which partners colleagues at the Center for World Music in Germany (University of Hildesheim). This centre already contains some of the earliest recordings of Highlife music from Ghana and is building digital platforms through this project to be able to contribute to the sustenance of many more musical traditions.

He explained that language is one of the most-inhibitory aspects for African music. “There is no word for music in the local language that acquaints to Western understanding of music,” he said. “Another example is the term ‘harmony’ which is criticised in African music circles in favour of ‘pitch combinations’.”

“But, I’m not burning the house down in despair,” he said. “Scholars must start the process by co-developing alternative labels that speak best to African musical idioms and sensibilities. We need a communal language and understanding that incorporates all music styles.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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