of peculiar flowers/like sound of laughter/fluid in words you could spell/only after lettering down/libations on territories/virgin with mystic bites/of your footsteps/creating gardens/of hope beyond tales

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sound literacy

Ghana’s cultural soundscape is unquestionably a significant heritage. In speech as in listening, there are sounds that cannot be transcribed. These are sensations that could only be inadequately expressed in words. It is therefore important to be literate in sound as certain sounds are meant to send definite messages.

All our socio-cultural activities are interlaced with peculiar sound waves. Indigenous farmers have their sound codes. Names are not expected to be called out loud on a farm land; the traditional belief is, spirits, both good and evil, reside In nature and calling out one’s name in the forest may unnecessarily expose the bearer of the name to attacks if their name falls in the ears of evil spirits. Instead of calling out a name a “huuuuuuu” sound, among the akans, is made to get the attention of company that may be on the farm.

Beyond normal language we also speak sound. The sound you make blowing a gush of air from your nose when something stinks. Or the click sound you make in your throat to signify (depending on the rhythm of the sound) agreement or disagreement. We instantly comprehend sound made from sucking the teeth, or pressing our lips tightly together while forcing out air. Everybody speaks sound; people from northern Ghana hit their fingers repeatedly on their lips emitting a bubbly sound to call for attention or to complement the excitement in a dance performance. A mother rounds her lips, and lets her uppers set of teeth sit on the lower tightly as she blows out air to produce a sound similarly made of cut onions thrown in hot oil to induce her child to pee before going to bed.

The list is long on the different sound bites that make communication complete. Snap your fingers and someone is bound to turn. Like snakes hiss many Ghanaians (though largely considered rude) would make a prolonged “sssssssssssssss” sound to call the attention of someone on the street whose name they do not know. Men especially like to “sssssssssssssss” at women they find attractive on the street. Ice cream sellers in Ghana “sssssssssssss” or make a prolonged “kiss sound” to advertise their products. To call for silence, the “ssssssssssssssss” or “shooooouuuu” sound can also be made.

We must make a conscious effort to explore and comprehend the sounds that live around us. Apart from music, other art expressions like theater, film and dance is affected by sound. In understanding and experimenting with sounds we expand the prospects of Arts. Sound effects in our performing Arts affect our feelings. We for instance tend to get edgy about unfamiliar sound. “What is that?” we may ask, upon hearing a sound unfamiliar.

When you enter a village and you hear the voice of drums you can be sure that something is happening. When you pay attention to the particular sound/rhythm being made by the drum you will be able to, at the very least, gather clues on what exactly could be happening; is it a warning signal?, is it an indication of a celebration? is it a solemn moment? How does the sounds you hear make you feel? When a person clears their throat, can you tell if they communicating disapproval, teasing you, or perhaps just clearing their throat? In another scenario, a fresh student would have to learn and know the different sound codes of their school; from break time to assembly time, all the way through to ‘run now, the headmistress is coming!!!’ there are pinpointing sound signals.

The gong, the talking drum, the horn, the secret sound codes of farmers and hunters in the woods, the messages river music and bird songs carry, the rhythm of our heart beat; these are sounds one must learn to interpret. Days of fluent sound communicators may have passed us by; the variants sounds that converge to form the music of our daily activities have little of our attention now. New influences have sucked out the traditional sound consciousness; natural sounds of market squares; bus stations, the class room, a busy street etc. Could you for instance tell where you are if your eyes were closed? Makola sounds different from Kejetia, Teshie sounds different from East Legon, our emotions; joy, pain, disappointment, relieve are more often communicated in sound than in words. It is time to explore familiar and unusual bites of Ghana’s soundscape, how much sound do you know?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Kwesi and the other kids were allowed to burn the toilet papers but I wasn’t. My mother said I couldn’t go to back of the house to play around fire. She burnt the toilet papers herself whenever it was our turn to burn till I got to JSS 3. I was now a senior, I was 12years old! and I was grown. Burning toilet papers became my favorite chore. Every night I stole toilet papers and burnt them after I took my shower.

I preferred the smell of smoke on my body to the foal odor from the catchiest with the smelly mouth. Sometimes the smoke failed me, the catechist smell was stronger. His order got stuck on my skin, in my nose, in my mouth; but I kept burning, his smell was better mixed with something less revolting like smoke than nothing else.

Kwesi caught me one night as I walked behind the house with stolen toilet paper.
“What are you doing Brema?” he asked.

“I’m just going to burn the papers”, I said, “what are you doing following me?”
“But it’s not your turn!, I’ll tell…”

Before he could end his sentence, I begged, “please Kwesi don’t tell my mother… you can burn the papers if you want”

“No, I don’t want to, it’s late, what if a snake bites you?”

“ah Kwesi, a snake will not bite me, my mother says there are no snakes in this area”.

I lied; my mother and I never discussed snakes or any other reptiles. Maa was sacred of snakes; she would abandon any movie that had snake scenes even if her favorite actor, ‘Araba Stamp’ was lead character.

Kwesi waited for me as I watched the fire burn all the toilet papers into dark ashes.

“I burn every day; do you want to come with me tomorrow?”

“ok”, he said.

Kwesi become my burning partner but he never got close enough to the fire. He didn’t feel what I felt; the fire burning the little hairs on my skin, the smell of my burnt hair blending with the smoke that rose. Kwesi just waited by the side till I was done, always. We walked back home every night with him trying to convince me a snake might sneak up on us one day to bite us hard in the behind. I would laugh at his fears while pretending to kill an imaginary snake. Even though each trip made Kwesi more frightened, each trip was also more fun. He was always at the gate before I got there. He never told my mother about our nightly flames and I learned to trust him.

One evening I took my shower later than usual, it was past, the time we usually met by the gate to go burning. Kwesi came to the bathhouse.


The catechist with the smelly mouth sealed my lips with his palm.

“Brema, I can smell your soap, stop playing” Kwesi said, “are we going to burn today?”

The catechist with the smelly mouth started muttering “shit shit shit!”

Kwesi, snapped the bathroom door open. The catechist with the smelly mouth spoke;

“I have caught you two!, I am reporting you to your parents, you bad children!”

He held Kwesi by his shirt and grabbed my arm, shoving me naked to my mother. Kwesi’s chalewotey slipped of his feet.

“my chalewotey my chalewotey”, he cried.

The catechist with the smelly mouth just dragged us both to our door. He knocked and my mother came out.

“I caught these two in the bath house”, the catechist with the smelly mouth accused.

Kwesi’s cry was intermitted with “my chalewotey, my chalewotey”

“Maa, it’s a lie”, I said.

“shut up! , what do I do with you heh?, she said, “I wish your father were here”.

I was glad my father had gone back to Togo. My mother scolded but she never hit me.

“get inside” she ordered.

I looked at Kwesi. He was still in the grip of the catechist with the smelly mouth. It was all my fault, I thought. I wanted to tell Kwesi, I was sorry but I knew I would cry if I opened my mouth again.

“thank you very much catechist, may God bless!”

My mother thanked the catechist with the smelly mouth and walked him to Kwesi’s parents.