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?


  1. a peace of sound well written

  2. lol. Love it, this makes me miss the fact I didnt grow up in Ghana. Its funny cuz I spent too much time in NY so when i went to Ghana and someone said ssssssssssssssss to me I had straight attitude on my face. Usually when I would hear that in the city...something pervy usually followed. lol

  3. I like it a lot! Some parts of it are funny. Takes me back home. Thanks for sharing this piece. Nicely written :)

  4. thanks for reading Trudy-elsie, I'm glad you found parts that amused you :)