WON SHI JAMA! Feeling Ghana’s sonic pulse

By Sammie Frimpong. It’s a familiar sight: crowds spread out across the terraces of a stadium, soaking up the action taking place on the turf or tracks below. In...
"Truly, where the masses commune for a common cause -- political rallies, street protests, carnivals, and the like -- ‘jama’ flows." Image: Phylx Akakpo

By Sammie Frimpong.

It’s a familiar sight: crowds spread out across the terraces of a stadium, soaking up the action taking place on the turf or tracks below. In return, the spectators serve a special, distinctively Ghanaian sound: ‘jama’.

It’s a word — and a concept — that’s earned permanence in Ghanaian life over the decades, but its origins are somewhat obscure. Between the term’s similarity to the English word ‘jam’ and the Arabic ‘jama’ah’, it’s not easy to tell toward which extreme ‘jama’ leans but, given the communal sense those distant ‘relatives’ generate, it fits right in.

Truly, where the masses commune for a common cause — political rallies, street protests, carnivals, and the like — ‘jama’ flows. It is, without doubt, the soul of Ghanaian sound, with many genres — notably oldies’ highlife, the brand of hiplife that sprung from legendary sound engineer JQ’s stables, and components of the latter-day Afrobeats craze — reflecting such influence.

In the wide-mouthed cauldron of sports, though, is where you have the most intoxicating brand of ‘jama’ brewed. For teams — especially those representing the country — it’s a fixture, a consuming fire, a tonic without which spirits are never stirred well enough before kick-off; search YouTube and you’d find several hits of players, especially those of the Black Stars, marching from their buses to the dressing rooms amid frenzied ‘jama’ sessions. Still, the best ‘jama’ is neither the preserve of the nation’s biggest sporting occasions nor of its stars.

Nowhere is ‘jama’ displayed in all of its glory and/or obscenity than at the regional athletics meets held for Ghanaian second-cycle institutions. In the Ashanti, Central and Greater Accra Regions — where Ghana’s traditionally eilte schools are found, and where rivalries between those are age-old and at their most intense — ‘jama’ is an even more potent force. To its call fans sway, athletes charge forth, and the ‘enemy’ bristles. Heard together, it’s all a bit too cacophonous, but when pulled apart — ‘jama’ by ‘jama’, as it were — each is revealed as a fibre contributing to a rather mellifluous tapestry.

In most schools, all of that is meticulously planned for. Days, even weeks, ahead of these games — popularly referred to as the ‘Interco’ (Inter-Schools & Colleges) and ‘SuperZo’ (Super Zonals) — rehearsals are held. There, prefects and tutors take a backseat for a few hours, allowing the self-styled ‘jama leaders’ steer the student body. While their short-lived authority lasts, these leaders guide the remainder to boom out anthems in the catalogue, imbibing new compositions and refining the old.

On the day(s) of the games, all are ready — battle-ready — and the scene described at the outset plays out in full force. For many, the ‘jama’ spirit isn’t confined to the walls of the arena or those of their school, and is carried on to the tertiary institutions these teens advance to. When the national teams compete overseas, ‘jama’ groups — masquerading as ‘supporters unions’ — are sponsored and exported, in the form of colorful big band ensembles, to dish out the tunes Ghanaian fans have been globally reputed for ever since the country made its Fifa World Cup debut at Germany 2006.

When the games are at home, depending on the venue, you’d be sure to see students of the nation’s public universities summoned in their numbers to complement the aforementioned sets for an even bigger and louder party, as especially evident in the last decade or so during which Ghana has hosted major international sporting events.

The next time you see — and hear — all that, recognize the explosive cocktail for what it is — ‘jama’ at work — and maybe, if you ever had a taste of it in your SHS days, nostalgia would pull you in!

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