Prince Bright’s response to my question on melody sounds academic, as though it were taken from a paper he’s just handed in as part of coursework.
“It’s a platform that defines music, bringing every element to life. It’s when an artist decides to hit sweet tones to be able to entice his audience,” he says, before squeezing in a teeny bit of bragging.
“I believe I’m able to learn new ways and new tricks to entice my audience through finding the sweet spots in music and presenting that through vocal illustrations or abilities.”
This is barely moments after he finally manifests for our December sit-down. Dressed like a hip-hop artist—his thoroughly kempt braids under a branded velvet cap, a round-neck, denim pants, spotless sneakers, and subtle jewelry—he crooned his entrance into the reception area of the local radio station which served as venue for our interview, in the trademark honeyed voice that has afforded him one of the most abiding careers in modern Ghanaian music, both as member of pioneering hiplife group, Buk Bak, and as a solo act:
“small thing you do, wey you dey do dey make I feel some tin, inna ma tin tin, some tin tin, inna ma tin tin some some…”
I pick up the tune instantly. It is the hook of ‘Small Thing’, a toothsome Afropop groove he recently published under his new record label, Best of All World.
That Bright has distinguished himself as vocal king for decades isn’t a fact anyone would contest and win; it’s why I find the melody question a good place to start. And while it may be the case that he and his group are recipients of far fewer laurels than they deserve for their contribution to Ghanaian melody, Prince Bright Addy (who also trades by the alias Bling Sparkles) is simply thankful to be heard at all and given a place in these music circles.
“Ghanaians have given me so much love,” he gushes in gentle elocution that sounds as American as they come. “I’m grateful that I’m still relevant in the industry, loved and appreciated. It’s something that motivates every artist to be able to put out their best. I’ve had a great career, a great experience.”
As his extensive discography—and the rest of the conversation—would prove, Bright also diffuses a staggering proficiency in his native Ga dialect, Twi, and West African Pidgin.
First, though, a brief history about Buk Bak: founded in the 90s, and coined from the term “book back” (a reference to how often they were back-burnered at gigs as up-and-coming musicians), their work arrived in the trio of aforementioned languages. The group is renowned for earworm choruses and witty songwriting, authoring some of the biggest urban hits in the decades that followed, encapsulated in albums like ‘Komi Kἐ Kena’ (Abib, 1998), ‘Awἐnsἐm’ (Abib, 2000), ‘Nkomhyἐ’ (Abib, 2001), ‘Sika Korkor’ (Agicoat, 2002), ‘Gold Coast’ (Agicoat, 2004), and ‘Fisherman Anthem’ (Global One, 2012).
Initially comprising Bright, Isaac Shoetan and Ronny Coaches, the three became two (Bright and Ronny) when Shoetan went off to Canada to pursue other interests. The surviving duo kept at the music, as a group, individually, and back as a group —after which came the ‘Ronny situation’ which we’d expand later in this article.
Typically, a Buk Bak record arrives in the following format: an intro, chorus and rap stanzas from Bright (undoubtedly the dominant character), and a vivacious Ronny ragga section.
Back to Bright’s remarkable relationship with melody.
“It’s a God-given talent, and I just listen carefully to what God is telling me,” he submits without even thinking, adding that he tries to record, somehow, everything that comes to mind—everything that God is instructing.
In my mind, privately and momentarily, I imagine God whispering to Bright: “Ang goin to kang,” or “You for now say ebi we wey do de song wey people dey take boogie o,” or “Kἐ ofee matua bo kakatsofa.”
At the mention of these, I smile with some nostalgia. Those are words I know — all memorable phrases from the loaded catalogue of early Buk Bak hits.
Bright stings me back to the present with a reminder that an artist is always at some point in the creative process. The singer/rapper doesn’t “sit to actually create,” but keeps music running through his mind, “and as it stays continuously in my mind, I just run with it,” he says.
Of course, with his constant reference to the role God plays in the process, Bright does pray about it.
“Very necessary,” he affirms.
And the place of melody in hiplife?
At its core, hiplife is a fusion of melodies: highlife pulses and modern hip-hop influences. That’s what, Bright suspects, Reggie Rockstone (who is widely deemed godfather of the genre) intended when he coined a name for the music form which has also mutated into Afrobeats these days. To my mind, there are two traditions via which to approach the hiplife question: one propagated by veteran producer like JQ and the other by another legendary beat maker Da’ Hammer.
The former, whom Bright regards as a ‘guru’, incorporated ‘jama’, a fast-paced Ga style—heavily reliant on singing and archetypal highlife string placements heard on tunes by Wulomei, E.T Mensah among others—in his style. On the other hand, Da’ Hammer—who pillared careers of Obrafour, Tinny, Edem, Kwaw Kese et al—offered a more militant feel with aggressive drum and bass patterns, and an emphasis on hardcore rap.
Bright was raised in the camp of JQ and would represent that tradition “any day, any time.” With his allegiance so obvious, there’s really no point asking him which way he comes down on; listen to ‘Small Thing’, though not a JQ product, and you’d still feel that influence. That’s not to say, though, that he would exalt the sound he’s made his own over Da’ Hammer’s or vice versa. Both camps have their strengths and firmly secured places in the hiplife pantheon, but in the end, those individual attributes jointly constitute the genre. Beauty lies in variety, doesn’t it?
For the fans, though, such contrast breeds debate, and Bright isn’t surprised, as it is in the nature of the masses to be divisive. Still, Bright makes a candid admission.
“It makes me very emotional because we are Ghanaians and every element being constructed in the studio represents the struggle that every music lover or patron would love to see.
“Our music needs to go mainstream; the BETs, MTVs et al.”
That’s more than just an admission, really. It’s a well-founded lamentation. When deejays go on radio, they don’t only play a JQ or Da’ Hammer song. They spin productions by other giants of the industry like Zapp Mallet, Okraku Mantey, Daddy Roro, Appietus, etc. Really, why the divisions, then?
“Let’s create music that resonates with the world,” he advises.
“We’re in this together, and I will not stand for any division whatsoever.”
The focus returns to Buk Bak and Bright’ solo career now, specifically songwriting technique. Even more peculiarly, notice the titles of the songs: never typical, always unique and remarkable in the way they glorify local chow, body specs, amusing street speak: ‘Komi Ke Kena’ ‘Kelewele’, ‘Chingilingi’, ‘Trotro’, ‘I’m Going to Come’, ‘Gonja Baracks’, ‘Pioto Photo’, ‘Ashawo Hot Sauce’.
Who does that?
“Only Buk Bak,” Bright boasts.
There’s a science to it, though. The minute a Buk Bak record hits you, as soon as the title surfaces on the screens or anywhere the visual comes to play, it pricks you as unmistakably Buk Bak —something worth listening to. Once the title seizes you, you’re ready for the rest of the song.
Typically, it opens up a deeper subject matter: a caution against rape, admonishment on cleanliness, anecdotes that preach rectitude and modesty, among other virtues.
“We don’t take those things lightly, because we know how effective it’s worked for us,” Bright stresses. “I’m sticking to that, if you ask me.”
He has good reason to. An effectual approach, this technique does spill into the body of the music proper, in verses so droll and so sarcastic that one does not realize that they’re being tricked into behavioral change until much later, when walking back is impracticable.
So what’s the thought process for a Buk Bak verse?
“We are poetic people,” he winks in response.
Since the very beginning, the band has always intended for their music to be teachable moments. Also, they target a diverse demography, making humour a handy asset. He who possesses the talent of humour possesses his listener’s ear, stimulating critical thinking without missing the groove.
“The minute you start thinking about it,” Bright says, “I know it’s worked.”
He also divulges that they picked up this tradition of witty songwriting from the streets of Kokomlemle, the Accra suburb that bred them.
Personally, Bright loves comedy, to the point where he actively contemplates it. Ultimately, though, he concedes it’s not his field. But you get the point: he simply loves to make people laugh, primarily through his music.
As noted earlier, Bright’s personality is unique: two sides of a coin. He’s very much in touch with Ga and Ashanti roots, but simultaneously allows for Western hip-hop influence.
“Even before I went abroad, I had been fascinated by Western culture,” explains the singer. This led to him “bending his tongue” (in other words, adopting an American accent) years prior to his exodus. After living there for years, it’s only gotten better and more refined.
Bright sees himself as a double-edged sword, versed enough in the tongues of his heritage to ‘run’ the streets back home, but also sufficiently equipped to engage in conversation with Barack Obama.
At this point, I ask him about the dynamics of writing poetry in Ga—about the specific rules that apply to the task. He retorts that it comes easily because he’s practiced it since infancy—he was raised on the language, after all. Also, due to his ancestry, it behooves on him to articulate his rhymes in the most distilled way possible.
For instance, how well does it represent ‘Aunty B’, the neighborhood kenkey seller?
Questions as these perpetually guide him in the construction of his rhymes. As a matter of necessity, given his dedication to representing his heritage, Bright vows that “nothing should hold [him] back from writing in Ga.”
Now, to ‘the Ronny situation’ mentioned earlier. Often, when Bright has had to revisit that subject, it’s invoked tears — and not without reason. His band-mate, with whom he was colleagues at the Accra Technical Training Centre as a teenager, was not merely a colleague; he was a treasured brother, too. And so when, on the morning of November 3, 2013, he placed a call to Ronny’s and heard loud wailing, he immediately hung up in fear. Fervent player followed, but those feelings barely faded.
He mustered courage and called again after a while, only for a sister of Ronny’s to pick and confirm what Bright had feared: that his ‘paddy’ had succumbed to a heart condition.
It hit him hard. Really hard. It caused Bright to impose exile upon himself, causing him to walk away from music. During his time away, the mere mention of Ghana terrified him greatly, triggering memories both fond and haunting.
Throughout the conversation, I have done well to stay off Ronny, and when I finally bring him up, I do so with nervous caution. Bright assures me that I need not be afraid. He no longer is himself.
“I’m building the confidence to embrace whatever that has happened,” he says.
Thus reassured, I ask: what does Ronny say to Bright today from his hot and humid spot six feet underground?
Before he comes around to answer the question, Bright recalls brawny Ronny’s’ demeanor in recording studios while alive.
“I miss his presence in the studio,” Bright starts, his smile shadowed by thick sadness as he paints a vivid picture: in every studio, there’s a sofa, and Ronny takes up centre space in it, picking up every little sound that is being selected and every note being hit, to ensure that the music comes out exactly the way it is envisioned.
The answer finally lands in Ronny’s booming voice:
“Pick the sweet spots. They like to hear you sing, so don’t let it go. Take your time, feel the music. You’re not in competition with anybody. Do the music and leave the rest up to God.”
Truth is, Ronny’s passing took along with it any desire in Bright to do music, at least for sometime. As far as Bright was concerned, his life as a performer was done and dusted.
How was he going to do it?
On whose shoulder was he going to stand now?
Granted, they’d both published solo albums, but they were undoubtedly at their best as a duo. Now that his ‘better half’ was gone, just what was he supposed to do?
The uncertainty and self-doubt lingered until, in a dream, Ronny charged Bright to pick up from where they left off and ensure that younger colleagues, especially those who looked to them for inspiration, were plugged in.
“Make sure you help people,” Ronny further instructed.
For Bright, that was his cue to come out of retirement. The Buk Bak story has not run its full course yet, even if the task now rests on him squarely. He must carry the torch and complete the legacy.
“That’s why I’m trying to make sure that this comeback is successful,” he affirms.
Taking the mission even further, Bright harbours an ambition to nurture young cats. In all of his music career, Bright, an enchanting crooner, has been a reference point for the consummate singer. In an era when rap inhabited the wave, Bright made singing cool, hence it is not far-fetched to say that the sonic atmosphere on radio today is homage of sorts to him.
The numbers which constitute music charts these days are characterized by a copious melodic groove and recycling of hooks from decades ago. Bright is very much a forerunner of the singing component of hiplife. He brims with pride to have been part of something which would blossom thus.
“Not only are younger artists doing better than we did back in the day, but they’ve brought Ghanaian music to the front line,” he concedes. “We did the best we could to push the music industry forward.”
He also sees the current phase of hiplife (Afropop/ Afrobeats) as an extension of what his generation built, bringing it to places the predecessors were incapable of reaching and courting international praise for what they’ve done with the sound.
Since returning to active music, Bright observes that it’s easier to market Ghanaian music from here to the rest of the world, than from outside-in.
I bring up JQ again toward the end of our talk, zooming in on his role in Bright’s current works.
He welcomes the inquiry by exclaiming: “Perfect question!”
JQ actually introduced Bright to Boss Beats, producer of ‘Small Thing’ . He’s also heavily present on ‘Ashawo Hot Sauce’, due for release this year and bearing forth singles until then.
JQ is not a selfish person, Bright will have you know. Famed for his signature smash-bottle sound effects, the talented sound engineer is known to give everyone a chance at a collaboration or more.
Before we part, I confess to Bright — who now balances delicately his solo enterprise as an artist and perpetuating the Buk Bak legacy—that, as a pupil in elementary school, Buk Bak music was the soundtrack to ‘Our Day’ and ‘Jam’ sessions. To sit across from him on this day—years later—and to behold his unscathed person, youth, voice, and spirit from such close quarters is truly sobering.
The average lifespan of an artist’s career is five years—ten, if we’re pushing it. Bright—and Buk Bak—rubbish that general rule, however, and he reveals the secret to such longevity as “staying true to yourself.”
This interview ends on a high note—or rather a question on high notes. At 36, Bright still possesses the same high-pitch he first burst onto the industry with. Often, people have deemed his voice range as the product of auto-tune until they hear him perform live —and then their jaws drop in awe, or in merely singing along.
Bright tells me that he’s unafraid of not being able to hit the high note should that happen in the future. To him, the only regret would be “not doing the best with my voice while I’m still alive.”
“My voice is a God-given talent,” he reiterates, “and I have to see it to the fullest — until God says ‘you’re out, just sit back and help produce the younger ones.”
Should that day finally come, Prince Bright will smile —wide and proud.