Abu Sadiq is one of the elder statesmen of the Dagomba music scene. He is frequently mentioned in the same breath as Sheriff Ghale, and like his contemporary, is primarily a reggae artist. Reggae had its heyday in Ghana in the 1990s through the mid-2000s. Even when I first visited Ghana in 2008, you were much more likely to hear reggae pumping from roadside spots (small outdoor bars) than any other music. Today, the Ghanaian soundscape is dominated by hiplife—Ghanaian hip-hop. But that’s a story for another post.
Abu has a talent for writing lyrics that really connect with his audience. The song “Azindoo,” which he speaks about in the video interview, was released in 2007, but still comes up frequently in casual conversations with my Dagomba friends as an example of a powerful piece of Northern music. The story of how the song was made reveals many of the challenges that go into producing music here.
First of all, the production company. Studio engineers in Ghana—essentially beat-makers, but there is usually the added caveat that they own the studio—are more businessmen than musically-inclined persons, pumping out variations of whatever the flavor of the week currently is. The mere fact that they had enough capital to purchase and learn to operate studio equipment has made them the arbiters of the nation’s musical output. Additionally, since studio engineers are not trained musicians, it means that most popular songs don’t have any audible, instrumental elements that identify them as Ghanaian, much less to any particular region of Ghana.
These issues apparent in “Azindoo.” Those musically inclined persons might notice that vocal melody on the refrain “kaya, kaya, kaya,” does not always match the chord changes in the music. When we went to rehearse the song, it became clear that this was because the instrumental loop is seven measures long instead of the typical eight—pretty weird in almost any musical style, practically unheard of in West African pop. The eight measure loop has a more symmetrical feel, and it fits better with the vocals. It is also would have been very easy to change this loop to make it fit better with the vocals. What this says is that the studio engineer either didn’t know or didn’t care enough to craft the instrumental to fit with the vocals.
The song also does not have anything besides the language that identifies it as Northern: no rhythms or instruments that are part of life growing up here. One might argue that this is because it was made by an engineer from the Central Region considered to be more prestigious than any of the Tamale-area engineers, but the unfortunate truth is that the engineers in this area are mostly from the South anyway and don’t know anything about Northern rhythms or instruments. Even those engineers who are from the North are inclined to follow the popular trends in the attempt to get a hit song, which essentially means copying the Southern style that dominates radio and television play.
That said, “Azindoo” was and still is a very popular song here, and for good reason. The strange loop is really only noticeable to cynical music geeks like myself. It’s got a great bass line and a good hook. Lyrically and melodically, the tune draws in the listener and keeps them engaged. It is a testament to Abu’s skill that he can have such a successful song with such a problematic instrumental track.
There artists who are dissatisfied with this standard, and who are trying to change it. Abu Sadiq is one. Even though he’s already a well-established artist in the area and could coast the rest of his career milking renown he had 5 years ago, he seeks to expand his career by trying to go in new directions. Rehearsing with a live band is the first step towards new sounds and new performance and recording practices in the North.
I am putting up a compilation album of Abu Sadiq’s work that will be for sale on Bandcamp within the next few weeks. Local artist Jaleel Issah is currently working on some paintings to decorate the page. I hope you check it out!