Cocooned in harmony: singing the fisher’s songs – Fellows’ seminar by Eric Otchere

30 May 2024

“Beyond straddling the glibly defined lines of functionalism, on one hand, and escapism, on the other, are the songs that are purposely chosen or performed to accompany the arduous routines of daily work. In the context of work, music has often been studied in relation to how it contributes to the attainment of the goals of the work such as serving as a positive distraction from tedium, providing reference points for coordinated activity (in the case of group work) and so on, to maximise productivity. Relying on the musical practice of Ghanaian artisanal fishers, I demonstrate that the place of music in the context of defined work has received too little intellectual attention,” said Eric Otchere of the Department of Music and Dance, University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

STIAS Iso Lomso Fellow Eric Otchere

Otchere has produced a comprehensive documentary on the subject – Cocooned in Harmony which is available on YouTube (Cocooned in Harmony (, was launched in 2022, and has been presented to substantial audiences at international conferences and music events. It details how the songs of indigenous Ghanaian artisanal fisherfolk serve purposes beyond ‘mere’ accompaniments to their work. The documentary and a book-in-progress formed the basis for his presentation which he divided into three movements – exposition, development and finalé.

“The music of Ghanaian artisanal fishers serves as a valuable resource for interrogating such topics as identity, power/inequality, agency, gender, sustainable cultural practices, climate change, and emotional connections to the ocean among others, and how through the music, the fishers create and inhabit spaces where they find their (often sidelined) voice.”

Otchere explained that his interest in fishing songs is due to their long history linked to communal living and work; the fact that it’s an under-researched area – “Ghana has lots of good musicologists and most of the universities are on the coast but they tend to go inland to study”; the unique stylistic features and influences to and from other genres; the connections to current debates “like climate change, global warming, sustainability, evolution and group formations – all the things I hear about at STIAS”; and, the fact that it is endangered due to the threat of extinction of this type of fishing because of increasing mechanisation, the use of bigger vessels and the warming oceans changing fishing stock.

His conceptual framing is anchored around three aspects of the music – what it says (symbolic and referential meaning), what it is (aesthetic and non-referential meaning) and what it does (pragmatic or functional meaning). “I’ll highlight the use to which the music is put, the distinctive characteristics and the content of the lyrics.”

The work context is 200 communities situated along a 528 km stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Guinea in southern Ghana. Small-scale artisanal fishing employs about 10% of the population (3 million), while the fisheries sub-sector accounts for about 5% of Ghana’s agricultural production. It’s an area where fishing predominates and especially seine fishing which uses nets, the most mechanical, labour-intensive option incorporating co-ordinated actions for pulling the fish ashore which is where the music and singing occur. Synchronised rowing or paddling is another task that can feature singing but nowadays with louder outboard motors and fewer crews it’s not as practical – “the singing occurs more when pulling in rather than setting the nets”.

The area incorporates the West, Central, Greater Accra and Volta regions and four dominant ethnic and language groups – the Ewe, Ga, Fante (Akan) and Nzema. “The ethnic and cultural influences are discernible in the music,” said Otchere. “But we can also track other musical influences, as well as the age and evolution of the music.”

The songs are the domain of males. “It’s not a gender-neutral space,” said Otchere. “Women’s role in fishing is carefully defined (usually post-fishing activities like processing and selling). There are also rituals and superstitions regarding the ocean and women, and some of the songs are offensive to women.”

The work involves lots of fieldwork and he and his team spent over a year in the communities. The methodology used is a polyvocal ethnographic approach including on-site and studio recording of songs; coding (open, axial and selective), interviews and focus group discussions, analysis, and feeding outcomes into further discussions. Thus far they have recorded up to 500 songs.

The work aims to understand the lexical words and the non-lexical vocalisation (vocables) used, as well as how words are combined. “We found all the types of expressions you can think of,” said Otchere. “The literary features include proverbs, idiomatic expressions, allusions, metaphors, repetitions, personifications, zoomorphism, anthropomorphisms, ellipses, and more.”

Other features include muffled sounds, consonants attenuated or elided; words deliberately used in an incongruous context; borrowed words that are misappropriated or don’t mean the same thing in the fisher’s tongue; and, words laden with ambiguities.

He highlighted the role of the vocables as a core human-evolutionary adaptation using the human gas-exchange process as an illustration to show how through the production of these sounds, blood oxygen increases and the muscles become more efficient.  Beyond this biological truism, the vocables serve as gap fillers, comic relief, helping to keep the tempo steady, encouraging group participation and co-ordination, increasing the work output (energisers) but also as covering up coded messages.

“Think of sportspeople and the primal sounds they sometimes make. It usually incorporates a sharp compression of the diagram to force air out quicker and an open mouth to take in more oxygen. In groups these are needed to exert the most energy at the same reference points. Clapping is also practical – it’s about getting rid of the sand and preventing blisters while encouraging the tempo.”

Coded messages

“But the most distinctive feature of the fisher’s tongue lies more in the manner in which the words are articulated than the lexicon,” explained Otchere. “The manner in which they mention the words and structure phrases makes it difficult to understand even for native speakers of the dominant language who are not fisherfolk.”

“The meaning is delicate, complex and not direct. It’s hard to understand and takes time if you are not a member of the community,” he explained. “They can talk about you from your head to your toe without you knowing. The song can also mean different things to the people singing it.”

“The development of a unique language is a conscious attempt to own their physical and expressive space, to create privacy in a public domain,” he continued. “It’s liberating to build this kind of world where they freely express themselves and vent their emotions without interference.”

“Ghana has not always been a place for free expression – so it’s a way to speak openly to each other and to hear community and other news.”

Recurring themes include poverty and hardship; love, marriage and family; belief in God, power of forgiveness and peaceful co-existence; indigenous knowledge; hypocrisy of religion and the state; life and death; recognition of heroes; perspectives on gender and sex; and, the beauty of nature.

“Interestingly, they don’t sing about fishing – it’s escapism, music to take their minds from the hardship of the work.”

Taking it forward

Otchere is passionate about making the music and its messages more known – “We are trying to include political leaders and the broader community in documentary screenings. This is the first comprehensive work in this area and it’s beginning to get some traction.” (Cocooned 2.0 is also on the cards.)

The work has also encompassed creating new music based on the findings of ocean best-practice-related articles such as climate change, ocean pollution, sustainable fishing, ocean governance, etc. Otchere and his team brought some of the fisherfolk to their campus where 44 new songs were created. “This is by way of a social experiment,” he explained. “We want to see how they are disseminated.”

He is also passionate about expanding teaching on African music more generally and is involved with the University of Cape Town in a project looking at music curricula in African universities.

Asked about copyright of the fisher’s music, he said: “Of course there’s money to be made. Such community music is sometimes recorded by professional musicians, and no one claims copyright. Ideally, we want to get all these songs into the archives and to charge people to access the full versions with proceeds going back to the communities.”

In addition to Cocooned in Harmony you can find Otchere’s compositions and music on YouTube. Eric Debrah Otchere – YouTube


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Ignus Dreyer


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