Saturday January 27. Breakthrough Studios, Tesano – Accra.
It is not surprising that Sena Dagadu answers my hello in Pidgin – it is normal about her speech, if you’ve followed her — but it still catches me off-guard, pleasantly so, too. “Wosop! Ebi you be the Enews guy ɛh”? Her smile is sunny, and her handshake, warm. “Yeah”, I return her smile, and swallow what is left of my introduction.
She has just walked off one of three sets in this large first-floor space that houses Pascal AKA’s Breakthrough Studios. In a hall buzzing with constant movement and exchange, she stands out, glorious in colour and charisma. On her jumpsuit are black spots evocative of a jungle cat, and she wears a large yellow scarf over her shoulder. Cowries hang from her dreadlocks, and the gigantic ethnic neckpiece around her neck reaches down to her belly.
“Amake busy small, so adey come”, she says with regret in her eyes, points me to an orange plastic chair, and then rushes back onset. Her first name, screams across the wall behind her in bold green graffiti. There’s a crown on the “E” in “Sena”, and down at the base of the wall, are the words “scare crow”, “Sark”, “original”, “Yo Chale!”, and “Let’s get kickin”. They’re not as big as “Sena”, but they’re legible enough. She nods steadily to heavy drum kicks of the track that now fills the room, and mimes into the video camera swinging to and from her, her face exuding funk and attitude. Directly opposite this first set is a cage sprawling with electrical cables, and fluorescent light. It is where Sarkodie will perform when he arrives in a few minutes. The third set, to Sena’s left, fascinates me immensely –not only is it alive with orange and white patterns (and everything on it; sunglasses, a vase, the sofa, boxes), but assumes a different hue under artificial light. Female dancers are practicing over here, their male counterparts are summersaulting over there, makeup is being dabbed on eager faces, sweat is being wiped off soaked necks, in spite of a big standing fan swaying its head this way, and that way. A creative mess – that is what this is. It is all being steered by AKA, who instructs gently from his seat, or storms up suddenly, bouncing like a hip-hop act, to ginger Sena on. This will go on, I am told, till tomorrow morning.
The bubbly Ghanaian-Hungarian musician, is as hands–on as Pascal himself (who currently ranks among the most influential video directors from these parts), suggesting ideas and angles, joining the crew behind the camera to review shots. “I don’t like not knowing what’s going on”, she divulges to me, when we finally settle in her make-shift dressing room to the back for the chat. She opens a pack containing her lunch, and takes two bites of the chicken on the rice meal, and then packs it away again. She wipes her lips and fingers with tissue, and offers me her full attention.
Sena is seldom without a smile: in music videos, during interviews, at concerts, or in pictures, a lasting smile inhabits her lush cheeks and fearless eyes. It is virtually unimaginable to describe her person without listing her smile. Still, when I point out what I think is a pretty obvious relationship between her face and a smile, she is stunned. “Really?”, she asks, an extra tickle in the pitch of her voice, and then laughs. A realization hits her almost instantly nonetheless, about the the fact of my observation: “for one thing, it makes me feel good”, she admits. “I don’t like being angry, I don’t like being upset, I don’t like confrontation, and fights, and things like that…When I see people and they smile at me, it makes me feel good”.
“My normal face is a happy face. It has to be an extreme situation that makes me change my face…maybe concentrating or something like that, but in general, I’m a happy person. I like the things that I do, I enjoy the company of my family and my friends, and I think that it would be as if I’m ungrateful for my life if I don’t smile, so I just try to, you know, make myself and everybody else around me feel better about themselves by giving them a little smile”, she explains further.
I toss another word at her -another noun I think truly encapsulates her character: colour. When she moves, Sena oozes a vibrancy that invigorates everyone and everything around. This word too, ignites a sparkle in the sides of her eyes. “Colour”, she repeats the word, but with the peculiar island inflection that cuddles the “r” at the end. “Without colour, everything will be so dull!”, she emphasizes, stretching “dull” so playfully, even I can’t hold back a chuckle. She continues: “I love colour. I wear, actually, a lot of black, but then, even when I do that, I always have something that will pop a little bit of colour –whether it is lipstick or eye-shadow, or jewellery, or something like that.
“The world is filled with colour: the rainbow, green grass, laterite soil, the sky, you know…everything. It’s the same as the smile. It makes life not just more bearable [but] more interesting, more exciting…I like fashion as well, so, colour coordinating; what goes with what…it’s just fun, you know? Colour is like smiles – it’s just fun.”
Because Sena navigates, and excels across multiple genres, she has come to represent variety. Since the start of her career in 2001, whether by herself, or as member of the Hungarian collective, Irie Mafia, she has combined influences from hip-hop, reggae, funk, rock, EDM, soul, jazz, Afrobeats, etc. This rich versatility, she attributes to her lack of “patience”:
“I’m not exactly your most patient kind of character. I do have patience when I have a goal I want to achieve –I can wait for years for it to happen. But in general, I like excitement. I don’t like being dull…if I do something today, I don’t want to do the same thing tomorrow. In my music as well, that, kind of, has a certain play. I like to change my musical styles, even the people that I’m working with, you know, test myself and try different grounds that I haven’t tried before…try to push my boundaries a little bit further. So variety, for me, is normal. It’s like…one you’ve tried something…I might come back to it, but I like to, you know, go across the palette and see what else I can do before I go back to the ones that I’ve tried”.
Ultimately, “World Music” is the umbrella I conclude best encapsulates her craft, because she dabbles in everything. “To be very honest with you, it is very difficult to say that I’m belonging to one genre or not”, she stresses bluntly, “–so I like how you said World Music”.
And when I tease that, as is the case of human families, she might have a favourite son namely, reggae, because of the air of freedom that her music arrives in, she quickly refutes it: “I don’t have a favourite child, and it depends on my mood. Some days, maybe I’ll be driving in town, and the only thing I’ll be listening to on the radio is reggae. Sometimes too, I’ll be very calm by listening to some Classical music, and I can’t listen to, you know, electronic music… It depends. That’s the beauty about music. Every music has its day, every music has its mood and the reason why it was created
“[As] artists, you try to capture a moment in your life and a kind of vibrant frequency, and then that music represents that…and you can’t have the same vibration when you are in a different mind frame. That is why I listen to a lot of kinds of music, because everyday is a different style, everyday is a different feeing in your soul. So maybe, today, I like my hip-hop son, the day after, I go like ma Classical daughter, I go feel ma Jazz niece, and so on and so forth. I don’t have any favourite, I like all kinds of music”.
Still, what is the sonic direction on her new project? I am inclined to ask. It’s going to be different, of course, but it’s not a difference she hasn’t already explored previously, and sees her explore new depths to her creativity: “Since my last album, I started to push myself. Like I said, I like to push my boundaries in production. So I wrote the songs on my last album –and the new stuff that we’re working on –for example, the song that we’re shooting a video to here –are also beats that I produced for myself, so it’s like a new thing that I’m doing, but it’s an old style of music that I’ve always liked – hip-hop…kind of popular music, with a little bit of some Sena eccentricity inside. Because I write the music and the lyrics myself, I’m starting to get a certain character which is my own”. This new sound is hip-hop, but a liberal kind: “I’ll not label it strictly hip-hop, you know, but it’s got elements of that – it’s electronic music, so you’ve got all those hard kicks and, you know, regular 4/8 patterns and 12- bar verses and things like that. So I’m kind of going into this now, but then again, testing my own strength in production and beat making and things like that. So it’s a new exciting thing for me to do, actually”, she tells me.
Another word: Difference. Whereas she constantly dabbles in a variety of melodies, it is nothing like you’ve heard before; how she articulately rides (and marries various rhythms), via Pidgin, English, Patois, and Hungarian –an alternative.
“I guess so”, Sena concurs. “I try not to follow trends for the sake of following trends…I do try to present an alternative to what everybody else is doing by being myself, because there’s nobody in the world like me –there’s only one pɛ.
“Nothing is one-way. If you search, you’ll find; so I try to be part of that crew that presents an alternative.”
Sena’s collaborations in Ghana, over the years, have stayed within a small circle: Reggie Rockstone and VVIP, FOKN Bois M3nsa and Wanlov Da Kuborlor, Worlasi… Most recently, these partnerships have birthed acclaimed joints as “One Life”, and “Skolom”. She reveals though, that she is expanding that list, starting with this new album. Aside Sarkodie, the likes of EL, and Pappy Kojo are both to be expected on the project.
Worlasi, easily Sena’s favourite Ghanaian act currently, makes an appearance in this video though he’s not on the record. In one scene, he sprays a can of graffiti at the RED camera through a glass wall. In another, he joins her in ecstatic bounce. She has often declared her admiration for the “Nukata” man right from when he first launched a body of work. The result of their first partnership (Worlasi’s instructive April 2016 joint, “One Life”), without question, sparked a beautiful artistic relationship, which will guarantee more songs from them in the near future.
A mutual admiration continues to blossom between them, and Worlasi’s recent recent EP, “Outerlane”, has made things even better:
“The EP I last soak, and really really enjoy, was Worlasi’s Outerlane. It freaked me out. It just completely freaked me out. I was humbled by his artistry, and I gained a whole level of respect for such a young talented artisan in today’s world”.
Consisting 9 songs, the project, like anything he has published over his young glowing career, is both highly unconventional, and widely-praised.
“I was weaked [sic] by his last EP”, Sena reiterates playfully.
Anyway, more words: truth, modesty, knowledge. “I like the fact that you think I represent those things because they’re things that I do strive for”.
On truth, she’s true: “I always try to be true to myself, especially. I do not try to compromise myself. I’ll not do something that I’ll not feel comfortable with – and I try to write my lyrics honestly –experiences that I’ve had, or thoughts that are my own. I don’t like to borrow; I don’t like to sample…I don’t even like to do covers of other people’s stuff. I like to be true to myself”.
On modesty, she’s modest: “I try. I mean, I have my flashy moments and I’m all over the place, but in general terms, I have a lot of respect for people that have guided me in my life. The true people I have respect for are very humble people; they’re very modest people… they continue to work and learn throughout their lives –and I’m talking about people who are in their 80s and even older than that. I respect people who have gone through life; hardships, happy times…everything, and still manage to remain calm and cool, and friendly, and open, and communicative. They’re my idols”.
About knowledge, she holds that it is something that should be sought daily, from whatever situation: “I wasn’t born knowing anything, and I’m still quite young in my life. I think that everyday, there’s something to learn, either from people, or situations, or anything that happens in your life”. From how a video director goes about his work, to the grace in how an ice water seller holds her spine, there’s always something to pick up: “if you want to learn diɛ aa, everyday, you’ll find a situation, at least, which will teach you something”, she’s convinced.
In many ways, Sena reminds you of the ocean –magnificent in its wonder, and bursting with infinite possibility. But it scares her a bit, because it once almost drowned her. She breaks into a nervous laugh when she mentions snakes too, and eyes the ground near her feet, as though there’s one crawling up her leg this very second. “They just freak me out!”
What else? “Not trying…that really dey bore me”, as does the realization, at 60, or 70, that she didn’t explore her full potential. “I try to not be afraid of life, because that one diɛ, no point…then you might as well die”, she sums up.
Ultimately, Sena also typifies an overall “wave mentality”, or a peculiar “Irie vibe”, if you will. “Irie” denotes “good feeling” in Jamaican patios, and she’s a staunch advocate of that. It’s evident in how she exclaims “Oh Yeaah!”, when I utter the term. “I’m all about Irie vibes, I mean, if it’s not fun, then don’t do it. We are here to enjoy life. So if you’re doing something and you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it!”
An intricate puzzle, life is only truly figured out in bits, with each passing day. Our time here, and how we go about navigating it, is a task we must enjoy, whatever the circumstance. A silver lining is what our gaze should perpetually be fixed on, if we must find true meaning over here. “Irie-ness, constantly”, as Sena puts it.
*Sena is author of numerous projects, and has played at destinations all over the world. Her latest album, FEATHERS, was released in April 2017. Get it here.