Captain Yaba (real name: Azongo Nyaaba) was one of the first Frafra kologo players to bring the instrument down from Bolgatanga into the mainstream of Ghanaian music. In the late 1980’s, he joined several Accra jazz groups, playing for years at some of the finest hotels in the city. He recorded his first album in 1989 with Ghanaian-Lebanese producer Feisal Helwani and followed it up with another one a year later. This would begin his departure from the Ghanaian music scene, as he toured the world, tapping into the World Music Boom of the decade. During this time, he continued to play with jazz groups in Accra, but tragically fell ill in 2000 and passed away in 2001 in Accra. (Personal Collection of John Collins’ Writings, Personal Communication, John Collins, 15 November 2008)
Born in 1967 in what is now the Upper East Region, Atongo Zimba learned how to play what he dubs the “koloko” from his grandfather, who taught him the traditions of the instrument and the songs one sings to accompany it. Captivated by the sounds of Fela Kuti and the lure of the big city, Zimba left his home region to create a unique and new kind of music, using the kologo in an afro-jazz ensemble, as can be heard in his debut album “Savanna Breeze.” Achieving a new level of success on the global world music scene, Atongo Zimba relocated to Holland, where he currently lives and contributes his musical tradition to the World Music scene (Hippo Records, 2008).
King Ayisoba (real name: Adopozora) might very well be the most well-known kologo player in Ghana, but most of his fame comes from outside the Frafra community. Originally from a village in Bongo District, Upper East Region of Ghana, much of Ayisoba’s life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Before understanding anything about him, one must first understand that he claims that everything about the kologo creates spiritual music. Therefore, one must be as authentic and original in all aspects of life when you are a kologo player. That is why he sports unique dreadlocks, one-of-a-kind sandals, and a large multi-pronged stick nearly everywhere he goes.
When Ayisoba was two or three years old he would see his deceased grandfather’s kologo and cry profusely. Unsure of why he was doing this, his father attempted to soothe his son’s crying by making him a small kologo, so that he would not be afraid of the larger one belonging to his deceased grandfather. He picked up the small kologo and was soon mimicking the playing of his older brother, Attinguy. According to him, as young as three years old, he began to play around his community, in pito bars, markets, and as he got older, funerals, weddings, and festivals.
At ten years old, he left the Upper East Region for the forests of the Ashanti and Brong-Ahafo regions. It was there that Ayisoba claims he entered a new spiritual relationship with the instrument. It was also there that he would develop his distinctive and unique “second voice”. Ayisoba explains, “The animals in the bush came to listen and dance. I would hear the animals, the spiritual animals, and I began to mimic them” (Personal Communication, King Ayisoba, 19 November 2008). Later, in congruity with his insistence on being completely unique, he would develop three distinct trademark calls: “fuba!” meaning ‘stand well’, “ba ta azuey!” meaning ‘any bad thing, go away’, and “kye-kye-kye” meaning ‘everything is finished’.
After spending a month in the bush, he returned to his home and continued performing. Once people began to know his name, he traveled to Kumasi to perform and work. Eventually though, he ended up working in Accra. It was in Accra that he came across hiplife artist Terry Bonchaka. With Bonchaka and another Frafra man, Shake Bongo, the three began to create a new and unique musical gel. Ayisoba would play traditional kologo rhythms and melodies while Bonchaka would rap over them. Then, Ayisoba would return to sing the chorus of a song. It was in this relationship that Ayisoba began to sing in Twi and Pidgin English, influenced by Bonchaka and his own location in Accra. The first song, “Cy-ye-tu-garέ” captures the moment, as Ayisoba begins in Frafra and casually moves into Twi, essentially starting a renaissance within kologo music, by introducing it to a newer, larger, and wealthier audience. Tragically though, Bonchaka would suffer fatal injuries in a car accident, leaving Ayisoba and Shake Bongo with no MC.
A radio DJ, DJ Plummer, saw the group and took them to TV3, then the home of fledgling music label Pidgen Music Studio, to meet with Executive Producer Panji Anoff. Panji saw the potential within Ayisoba’s music and began to record Ayisoba’s debut album, “Modern Ghanaians”. The single “I Want To See You My Father” went on to become a hit across Ghana, eventually winning Ayisoba three 2006 Ghanaian Grammies for Song of The Year, Traditional Artist of the Year, and Discovery of the Year. Since then, Aysioba has released a second album, “Africa” with Pidgen Music Studio, and started to perform outside Ghana, most notably in Ouagadougou, Germany, and America (Personal Communication, King Ayisoba, 19 November 2008).
Sambo (real name: Aburiya Adabire Sambo) is perhaps the most respected amongst the Frafra community, this kologo superstar began playing at 9 years old, several years younger than most of his contemporaries. He insists that it is “God’s gift” and no one taught him, himself included, as it was God that gave him the talent. He began performing while in school, because in school he “didn’t get anything” but once he started performing, people liked him and he started “to get something” (money). He received his first kologo as a gift from his father and taught himself (through God’s gift) by seeing Frafra kologo player “Anu Zidongo” play solo with no shakers, which he had not seen before, and liked it. He also watched “Franco”, another kologo player perform and molded his style after theirs.
His first performances came in local pito bars starting at 9 years old. The men would request he come play for them and soon enough was requested at weddings, funerals, and other festivals to entertain the masses. Eventually, just as the kologo recording industry was beginning at the turn of the 21st century, Sambo decided to begin recording his own songs. Gospel singer Morgan Avalum showed him where he could record a master tape and fellow kologo musician Suley showed him where to get a picture or album cover. He then recorded his first album in Brakum, near Sunyani. Since that first recording in 2000, he has recorded 9 albums and been propelled to the top of the Frafra community of recording artists, eventually opening his own shop in the city center of Bolgatanga exclusively dealing his own music and those of his protégées. Nearly everyone I spoke with said that he is the most popular Frafra kologo player within the Frafra community. Perhaps this is because he so eloquently taps into the tradition of singing about, as he put it, one’s “problems in life” (Personal Communication, Sambo, 25 November 2008).
In 2005, he began to record music with instruments or computer beats, despite always performing solo. Inspired by the music he used to buy in languages he could not understand but enjoyed because of the beat and instruments, he decided that his music too could reach a non-Frafra speaking audience if he enhanced with electronic beats. He says this allows “some people to feel the music”. In response to those who have started singing in languages other than Frafra (namely English and Twi), Sambo says that those people “have done well, so more people can hear and understand the music”. However, he does not plan on singing in other languages. Regardless, among his own people, he is considered a superstar (Personal Communication, Sambo, 25 November 2008).
The jovial Guy One (real name: Abane Akaagam) sips his Guinness as his cell phone rings. The ring tone is his own song, the latest track of pure traditional sounding kologo music. We sit back and each enjoy our beverage and discuss aspects of life, an upcoming album release party for a Gospel musician, and my own challenges with learning kologo. We finish our drinks and board his motorbike, driving across the flat savanna landscape to his house in Suway, approximately 15 minutes outside Bolgtanga, where his shop stands at the city center.
Guy One rivals Sambo as the most revered Frafra musician in the Bolgatanga music scene. He chose his unique name because he believes he is number one and everyone would always call “Guy, Guy”, so he mixed the two. Later, he found out that a Dagomba musician from Tamale had the same name, but this proved not to be a problem, for a reason I was unable to find out. Regardless, once he began recording in 2002, releasing his debut album “Tu’ulandeba”, the name Guy One became synonymous with the Frafra kologo superstar. Since that debut he has released six more albums, distributing to shops across the country, but also from his own in Bolgatanga. After he began recording, he was invited to perform at weddings, funerals, and other occasions all around the Frafra community throughout the country.
Guy One has developed an interesting relationship with several other younger kologo players. He has become a sort of mentor to others, including Bola Anafo, Abayaa, Ayanbire, and currently Simon. When I asked him about his role as their mentor, he said that “with Bola, he came from a village in Duwafo, Bongo District, where there were many kologo players without albums. Bola saw me and asked for help, so I took him everywhere I went with me” (Personal Communication, Guy One, 25 November 2008). He says he does it because “no one did that for me, in life, you have to help your neighbor, you must help him if he is suffering,” echoing sentiments expressed in the wise proverbs within kologo music.
Interestingly, Guy One seems to be the pure traditionalist. He does not mind those who sing in English or add beats, but he personally does not like them. He even experimented with adding beats, but prefers the traditional way. Interestingly, his album “Ti Kiiri La Nogɔ” is the only recording I have come across that features xylophone playing with kologo, indicating that though he does not enjoy the modernization of the instrument, he is willing to expand the corpus to include other traditional instruments.
One interesting note, additionally, is that after my interview, Guy One was speaking with my teacher and translator Steve-O about tensions he has with King Ayisoba. Though it is not my place to gossip about the reasons for this tension, it is certainly interesting that the artist one might consider the pure traditionalist and the artist one might consider the opposite of that have tension between them (Personal Communication, Guy One, 25 November 2008).
Suley (real name: Zuaranga Kuntia Ayuune Suley) is the kologo player I first came into contact with via his cassette and one I enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet with him, but learned a bit about him from speaking with others and listening to his music. He currently bases himself out of Kumasi, which is the recording center of the Frafra recording industry. Additionally, it is also a major distribution center as the shop owners I spoke with go to Kumasi to get their cassettes (Personal Communciation, Moses Adosibe, 16 November). Anyhow, Suley seems to be beloved by all, but he is not revered the way that Sambo and Guy One are. His playing was often criticized as not as refined as the other stars. Nonetheless, he is very well-known and well connected. Nearly every person I spoke with mentioned him in some way, whether it is through aiding in recording in Kumasi, getting an album cover made, or organizing other kologo players to perform at his album launch party. Suley, in my opinion, also represents the current Frafra singer most closely related to American Blues.
Bola Anafo, affectionately known as Agbola, represents a mid-level rising star of the Frafra kologo recording industry. He is well-known and liked, but is still a relatively fresh-face, not someone identified as a canonized or legendary figure. He broke in to the recording industry with the help of kologo superstar Guy One. The 26 year old has played kologo for 9 years, releasing 6 albums in the past 4 years. Since King Ayisoba and Atongo Zimba achieved success recording with electronic beats, Agbola has followed suit, including beats on his most recent releases, while also releasing cassette versions of the same material with just the traditional kologo-singer combination.
He learned how to play kologo by teaching himself from watching those around his culture that played and soon constructed songs of his own in the same traditional genre. He built his first kologo using a plastic gallon tub, before switching to the preferred round calabash. As he started performing, the crowds grew bigger and started giving him money in appreciation. At these performances, he wears something that “will fit the instrument and culture” (Personal Communication, Bola Anafo, 16 November 2008) of the occasion. Since he started recording, he began including singers and dancers in his live show, as well as performing with Guy One, which the two still do on occasion today. He lives in Bolgatanga but I met him in Accra, as he happened to be delivering tapes to a shop in Cantomanto June 4th area. I requested he play a song, but insisted that every kologo player can only “play his own instrument.” In reaction to those now singing in languages other than Frafra, he says, “what you learn is what you do” so he will continue to sing exclusively in Frafra. He plans on continuing recording and enjoying commercial success, “by God’s grace” (Personal Communication, Bola Anafo, 16 November 2008).
Atooboya Simon represents the up and coming fresh face in the Frafra recording industry. The 25 year old has recorded two albums in the last two years, with a third one slated to come out in 2009. Unlike Sambo or Guy One, who are both older than Simon, Simon is at the point in his career where he is still very much paying his dues to the veterans, learning from them. In his case, he specifically has a unique relationship with Guy One, who, as he did with Bola Anafo, has taken Simon under his wing and helped to promote Simon’s music from his shop and label in Bolgatanga. His first album was strictly traditional, featuring no beats and no English songs. But on his second album, he displayed his awareness of the expanding market, choosing to sing the chorus to one song in English which says, “We in Ghana, Poor, No Friend”. He indicated that his third album would have more English tracks as well as digital beats behind the music.
Simon began playing in 1998 on a kologo he received from his grandfather, who also played kologo and was also named Atooboya. Every morning, Simon would wake up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. to practice, training himself. As he got older, he was invited to perform at funerals and other functions. To this day, this remains his main source of performing, rather than live shows like the bigger names. He says that kologo music is popular because “We have some songs that you can sing and give somebody advice” (Personal Communication, Simon, 25 November 2008).
Steve-O (real name: Atambire Steven Ayuungo) is a budding 21 year old kologo player based in Accra. One of King Ayisoba’s “boys”, Steve-O has been playing for nearly ten years, starting in 2001, two years before relocating to Accra. He writes songs in English, Twi, and Frafra, and represents perhaps the next generation of kologo players, who come after Ayisoba’s initial success and may create a more stable kologo presence in Ghanaian popular music. He hopes to record his first album in 2009 and is currently looking for the right producer.
He began playing with a group of boys who decided to take up the instrument in Nayorga. Yet, all the others dropped the instrument after a few years. Steve-O kept it and eventually left school in Nayorga to work in Accra, where he later met Ayisoba. Currently, he is working with Pidgen Music Studio hiplife rapper Wanlov the Kubolor, using the kologo to provide real beats for a live hiplife performance, rather than the typically mimed performance.
He was also my teacher in kologo and we would frequent the Arts Centre of Accra, where people would want to see him play while they work. It was in this same nature that Steve-O got his start, playing for farmers in the fields of Bongo District while the weeded the land. In the Arts Centre, he would play while artisans created drums, xylophones, and other tourist goods. Occasionally, some would join in with drumming, dancing, and singing, but all were pleased simply to hear Steve-O sing. In no other kologo musician did I see the notion of a traveling minstrel ring more truly than with Steve-O, who was always ready to perform for a crowd anywhere (Personal Communication, Steve-O, 12-30 November 2008).
Samson Anibire, 29 years old, represents the kologo player who did not enter the recording industry. He has played since he was ten years old, when he picked up the instrument himself and starting writing his own songs. He works as a cleaner in Accra and now only plays for himself, after work, rarely in public (though I was able to coerce him to play on the streets of Cantomanto June 4th market). When I asked him to play me a song on my kologo, he refused saying the “kologo suits the singer, players like their own,” which I also heard from Bola Anafo and others. He then returned to his house to get his kologo and then played a few songs for me, which I found to be wonderful, but when he played on the street, he did not draw many listeners. (Personal Communication, Samson Anibire, 16 November 2008)
Unknown Nayorga Boy
During my stay in Nayorga, Bongo District, Upper East Region, I was able to attend a women’s celebration within their community. There was singing, dancing, wild speeches, and much to eat. But at one point in the night, off to the side of the main performing area, there was a boy, approximately thirteen years old, strumming a homemade kologo and singing his heart out. A crowd of mostly youth gathered around him to listen as he performed, singing his own songs as others cheered him on.
Unfortunately, due to the darkness of the night, I lost the boy and was unable to find out his name or ask him any questions. However, he represents the village boy, teaching himself to play. Perhaps he dreams of becoming a recording artist, or perhaps he just wants to tap into the rich musical tradition of his culture. Regardless, his presence suggests a continuity of a booming musical tradition and captures a moment described in all the kologo players I had met, where they were young and unknown and playing only for the local crowds. In some sense, this is how I imagine the kologo was originally used and will continue to be for all of time, regardless on the successes or failures of a recording industry.