Shallom Youth Choir - "Countdown" (I Have My Liberty! Gospel Sounds From Accra, Ghana)
Like so many other of Africa’s cities, Accra, Ghana is a sprawling and ever-growing mess. People stream in from the grindingly poor countryside to try to better their lot (the housing may go up fast, but at least 84% of it has walls of cement, which is nearly twice the national average) or at least make a living. Consider the stress that comes from drastic social change, migration, and economic turbulence, and it’s not a big surprise that many people rely on ecstatic religious experience to get them through. According to Ghana’s Wikipedia page, its citizens speak 79 different languages, but over two thirds of them are Christian; Accra has hundreds, maybe thousands of churches to minister to them.
In 2008 Calpin Hoffman-Williamson, a sound engineer from Philadelphia, spent a season in recording the music he heard in charismatic services around town. Contemporary Ghanaian popular music is slick, studio-based stuff, with synthesizers, programmed beats, and hip-hop-inspired vocals. By comparison, this stuff is pretty raw, but also inclusive and accessible. The music ranges from full bands playing loping highlife or choppy reggae to a loaned keyboard playing blocky chords not too different from those you could hear at a dozen churches on Chicago’s south or west side next Sunday. Sometimes the congregation supplies all the sound; stately percussion, frantic handclaps, or just their voices. English is the lingua franca in Ghana, but that doesn’t mean that everyone understands it; some pieces have one preacher imparting the gospel pretty much the way you’d hear it here while another voice paces him or her (many of the services seem to be led by women), delivering the message in another language. Other songs come in tongues that the accompanying notes don’t even try to identify.
The booklet inside tries to give a sense of place by showing the churches, stills from services in progress, and text that makes a case for Ghanaian gospel music as a place where the old and new commingle without the burden of professionalism. People don’t need to be virtuoso performers; they just have to have the spirit. As a listening experience, that access cuts both ways. It’s hard not to get carried along with the joy and drive of most of this CD’s 25 tracks, but there are moments where one wishes that the unisons were a bit less polyphonic. But if you want your contemporary Ghanaian sounds done right, there’s always Jon Germain.