This month, the Appeal Court in Nairobi is to rule on whether President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reform plan is constitutional – a decision that ... could sway the outcome of national elections in a year’s time. Kenya's elite politicians, including former prime minister Raila Odinga and President Kenyatta on one side, and current Vice President William Ruto on the other, are hoping the court will give them the advantage.
The story is something out of a fairy tale for music fans. In 2007, Stevo Atambire, a kid from the streets of Accra, was hanging out in his sister’s banana shop. An odd-looking character, barefoot and dressed in a skirt, popped in and recounted how he once recorded a song with King Ayisoba, the master of kologo, a Ghanian two-stringed lute.
Stevo didn’t exactly buy his story at first. He himself played the instrument at weddings, funerals, markets and in the streets. On top of that, he had already released a couple of albums on CD and cassette tape, and was known for his electronic music infused style.
King Ayisoba was one of his biggest influences. And it turned out that what the skirted man said was true: he was none other than the multi-instrumentalist artist Wanlov the Kubolor and had really performed with the Ghanaian master.
When the musician stopped by the store on another occasion to buy bananas, Stevo whipped out his kologo and began to improvise a version of one of King Ayisoba’s songs, “Look Ma Shoe”.
Inspired, Wanlov pulled out his kashaka (a percussion instrument consisting of two small wooden gourds) and joined in the impromptu concert. Thus began a strong musical friendship, one that has since produced the excellent album Kogolo, released on 29 January by the London-based label Strut Records.
A dizzying hybrid sound
The record is excellent on several fronts. First, because the kologo has never sounded quite like this before. “I have an unusual playing style,” says Stevo, who poses with his instrument, made out of an oil can, on the album cover.
“The kologo is the predecessor of the banjo and the guitar, and has always been around in Ghana. But I’ve developed a different, more electronic sound, which has earned me recognition in my country.”
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The track “Minus Me” distils an astounding number of influences: Ghanaian rapper Medikal chants to the beat of a gonje (a Sahelian two-stringed fiddle) and the song’s loops are overlaid with the sound of flutes and a muffled drum beat. A chorus of vocalists dialogue with the singer, and the blasts of brass instruments call to mind Fela’s Afrobeat style, sending listeners into a trance that knows no bounds.
Wanlov the Kubolor, a versatile virtuoso who sings, produces and writes songs, has already gained notoriety for his whimsical music project FOKN Bois. He makes his mark on the album’s dizzying hybrid of sounds.
The Ghanaian and Romanian artist has years of experience making futuristic music. His bag of tricks includes incorporating vintage synths, artificially altering the sound of certain instruments so that they become something else entirely (like turning a gonje into a bass guitar) and using autotune over Stevo’s voice.
Stevo himself, whom Wanlov the Kubolor compares to Jimi Hendrix, has a penchant for using effects pedals with his kologo and overdubbing (adding extra recorded sounds to an existing recording).
People of the streets
The complexity of the production process is only matched by the musicians’ talent for live performances. Stevo, a prominent member of the Frafra ethnic group (a semi-nomadic people primarily made up of farmers but who have a musical culture that makes use of instruments like the kologo, gonje and flute), lives his music.
“In my songs, I become a journalist,” he says. “I tell stories about what I see and what people are going through on the streets. In fact, our group is named ‘Alostmen’ because we are part of these people of the streets, the forgotten people. I can’t imagine writing songs about sex or violence because we want to uplift our audience with a positive message.”
After touring in Ghana and Uganda (which included a show at the Nyege Nyege Festival, an event featuring Africa’s most talented young artists), Stevo hopes that his album will open up opportunities for him to perform on stages the world over, pandemic be damned.
“But I’ll never get too big for the streets of Accra,” the musician says, knowing full well that if he wants to go far, he needs to have deeply anchored roots.
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