Emerging Ghanaian band FRA! have been widely referred to as the future of the live sound from around here. They have even been compared to the legendary Osibisa. Their acclaim has accrued as a result of their striking style and versatility – their ability to create music across a wide field of genres: highlife, afrobeat, jazz, afrojazz, soul, gospel, RnB, rock, afro-pop, and pop…just like their name suggests (“fra” is twi for “mix” or “fusion”.
While they’ve only been around for something like a year, they have already been associated with other fast-rising acts including Adomaa and Cina Soul.
Being compared to Osibisa is no mean feat. So, how have they managed to shake the terrain this effectively? How have they earned the respect of some of our most revered music commentators?
Well, for starters, they created the mighty hit Happy Yourself. Featuring singer/ guitarist Kyekyeku, and Papa Rey, the uplifting single (released on July 26, 2016), shot the group to much-needed notice. And why not? It is beautifully crafted; rendered in Ghanaian pidgin, alive with trumpets, an infectious groove, and daily nuggets.
The song’s inroads are a major blessing, but they did not set out for “a commercial tune”. “We wont compromise on originality”, they stress.
Accompanying visuals, shot at the Osu Oxford Street and the Kona Bar and Grill, are just as brilliant as the audio itself. Directed by Reel Makers for VI Music, it aptly interprets the atmosphere in the song, featuring daily scenes of contentment – on the face of a native sun, and on a native son with his head up a mask, and on the cheeks of participants of street hustle, on the faces of a happy band playing for an audience of happier dancers.
The song inspires euphoria and dance, and is up there with the most wholesome tunes this year has witnessed. It is one of two singles they have released so far, and might as well be their theme music.
Now made up of Martin Adjartey, Maxwell Klu, Selor Dornyoh, Joshua ‘Virgen’ Boating, and George Ashirifie ‘Gogoe’, the eclectic band is signed to Vision Inspired Music (VIM), which is also home to singers Adomaa, Reynolds, spoken-word act Akotowaa, among others.
Happy Yourself was conceived in church, Virgen reveals to me when they grace our offices weeks back for a conversation. He’s drummer for the group and is responsible for nearly all their compositions for now. It came from a sermon he was listening to, on why people should not be weighed down by their challenges. Ultimately, to “happy yourself”. It is exactly this message they migrate unto the song.
How do they come up with their masterpieces? Simple: daily vibes in George’s home studio. Virgen usually comes up with ideas, and everyone else creates something around it. And that’s it. Masterpiece.
For Happy Yourself specifically, the beats were sent to Kyekyeku (who was outside the country at the time), and according to VI Music CEO Evans Offori, Kyekyeku loved it immediately. After that, drafts were sent back and forth till they settled on the final product.
Happy Yourself is the second of two singles the band has released thus far. The other, Dumsor, is an excellent love narrative founded on nostalgic highlife, but we will, for a very long time, associate Happy Yourself to FRA! before any of their other songs.
“Sizzling when you’re smiling/ cheerful oh darling/ make you happy yourself cuz you owe nobody your life”, read the first words of the song. The chorus comes down to two words; “happy yourself”.
I’m convinced that they band lives by that logic, for they identify humor in everything, teasing one another, finding home in the company of one another even several miles away, eight floors high.
I also notice how firmly they’re bound by creativity and spirit. Like close siblings, they complete one another’s statements, and are thoroughly aware of the temperaments that make them, and this has helped them to construct roles around their strengths. “We let everyone function in his own area”, explains George, who plays the bass guitar for FRA! He’s the band’s alpha, and does most of the answering. Martin plays the keyboard. He sports significant facial hair, and hardly says three sentences for the whole duration of the conversation. Like him, everyone else is dressed casually in a simple shirt over jeans/khaki pants.
Both lead guitarists Maxwell and Selorm apply a unique approach to their work. Virgen stops in the middle of sipping warm beverage Juliet had just served, to insist on calling them weird, asking that I don’t sugarcoat the adjectives I use in articulating my observation of them, especially about Selorm. He’s the most direct in the group, Virgen. Very playful too. But he may have a point. Selorm’s vocabulary is significantly scientific. When, contributing to the reason for their strong telepathy despite their starkly divergent creative influences, he brings up the politics of a beehive. Everybody bursts into hearty laughter, and I conclude that artists can be nerds too. They consider Selorm’s method of deciphering things a strength. Maxwell submits that indeed, Selorm’s wiring makes him technically adept, and his attention to detail always comes in handy.
So, when last did they fight, I inquire. “Everyday!”, chuckles George flagrantly, and assures me with relaxed eyes that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “As human beings, we understand information in different ways”, he explains. “[but] we don’t really struggle when it comes to a final decision in whatever we do’, Maxwell adds. Selorm adjusts himself to add his contribution. I brace myself for what is brewing behind his glasses. The others get ready for something. Their facial contortions suggest that they’re fighting something. But Selorm will have his say, and of course, he lets out something that requires brooding over. It’s actually profound; “unity in diversity”. Everybody finally lets out what they had been holding back: long laughter. It was funny under the circumstance. Indeed, anything Selorm would have said on that balcony overlooking the airport city would have been funny. I can’t explain. But as I replay the conversation, I appreciate the philosophical quality of his words. They’re stronger, more creative, exposed to more ideas, and enriched because they come from different backgrounds. It might take long to complete a composition because of that, but it is also specifically what makes them a great band.
It is important our artists are knowledgeable about the music they do. They don’t need to have been in the classroom to achieve that, but they have to know what they are about, musically speaking. Relying on solely talent and inspiration are just not enough. FRA! sound seasoned and significantly aware, even this early in their journey. They are truly invested in the knowledge of rhythm and melody. They know the variations in rhythm – 4/4, 7/8, 6/8, 3/4…They’re influences are very much a “FRA” just as much: classical keyboardists and jazz guitarists with strange names, Dream Theatre, Richard Bona, Kwame Yeboah’s Ohia Beye Ya Band, highlife doyen Koo Nimo, Francis Osei etc.
Yes, they are aware of the pressure of being mentioned in the same sentence as Osibisa these days, but are not intimidated by it. This is something they’ve wanted since the core of the band was built a decade ago, and tension would only distract them. Yes, they are confident in their prospects as a band, and hope neither jealousy nor money ever becomes a factor. Yes, feedback from a bus heading to Akosombo thrills them intensely. Calls from a bar in Tafo are just as encouraging. Yes, we can expect an album in coming months. Yes, they intend to be institutionalised…to become true examples.
Watch Happy Yourself below: