Days ago, conversing with musician Kyekyeku, on Facebook, I ask: “why is the dirge absent from modern Ghanaian pop?” He had sent me a recent EP by Kpodo, an excellent five-song collection comprising entirely of funeral songs, and that set the tone for a long chat on music and death.
As a highlife musician, he is no stranger to the subject of death and grieving. A notable aspect about palm-wine music — the epochal iteration the Nigeria-born, Ghana-raised guitar wizard is a contemporary custodian of — is the dirge. Steadily, over decades, the subject seems to have vaporised from today’s mainstream, making projects like Kpodo’s the exception rather than the norm.
Kyekyeku’s thinking is this: for today’s musician, funeral-themed records are neither lucrative nor good for their image. “It will not sell their albums or up their downloads, it will not sell their swag or paint them as the best lyricist.” And so, even if “some of the most compelling poetry and music ever made in Ghana had themes of the dirge,” it’s not first choice material anymore.
(Much in the manner that Gospel musicians turn to Bible passages for their compositions, Kyekyeku offers that Death poetry — since pre-colonial times — was already highly-developed in how it offered ready lyrics. For instance, the lyrics for Alhaji K. Frimpong’s “Bebi a Obi Awuo,” basically borrows verses from Akan death poetry.)
It may not be lucrative today, but in decades past, aside from serving as the perfect situations within which to express respect and affection for the deceased, death and funerals, to Kyekyeku’s mind, also provided a unique avenue to make some money while also building an audience. Hence, “most albums would have a song or two on death or bidding a friend goodbye. This meant that at a funeral, the musicians or band could be invited to play fitting songs for the occasion.”
Here’s another theory by the man on the waning popularity of dirges in today’s music: “maybe life has gotten more fun with happiness to look forward to. Talking about things that do not connect with happiness is therefore intentionally avoided. However, what the [older generation of musicians] managed to do was to use death to describe love. ‘Odo ye owu’ is translated as ‘love is death,’ and it’s the most common phrase one can find in Ghanaian highlife. It appears, therefore, that each time they sang about love referencing ‘odo ye owu,’ they indirectly were singing about death.” For reference, Kyekyeku cites the great Ebo Taylor, whose international hit, “Love and Death” draws from this classic Ghanaian credo.
“The way our mainstream played out meant that musicians had to make hits on themes connected with sensuality, the brag, and to a great extent, protection from God,” he observes. “A great part of the music has always reflected what American musicians and YouTube sensations are talking about.” These mostly exclude dirges. If I was thinking of Wyclef Jean’s “Diallo Diallo,” it would not suffice, he joked. Closely connected to the dirge, Kyekyeku notes, are feelings of longing — for another, or something one has lost — “which is not ‘love.’”
There are still music styles that are heavily built on the sentiment of pining, he says, an example being the Morna of Cape Verde, “ where ‘sodade’ — that longing for something — is very present. In Kyekyeku’s estimation, today’s highlife has shed about 90% of this emotional peculiarity. Searching his mind, he names Kofi Ani Johnson’s “Madamfo Pa Beko” as the last great example.
To him, that the subject of death so dominated the highlife of decades ago, enjoying a remarkably fruitful relationship with the sound, stems from deep, inherent respect which the Ghanaian society has displayed for the dead. “Since long, the events that were marked as calendar occasions included — in a big way — funerals; the news of the death of a loved one is usually greeted with weeping amidst the singing of dirges.
What goes into composing “funeral music,” I ask?
From consuming a lot of music of that sort, Kyekyeku gathers that the essence of funeral songs is to “remind society of how short life can be.” To the question, specifically, this is his opinion: “In general, the sincerity of the pain or fear of death must be ably carried by the song through instrumentation, vocal delivery, etc.” Also fundamental, he notes, is the ability of the musician to inhabit the thought space of themselves as one on the inevitable journey to the other side, or those bearing the heartache of the loss. “If these sentiments cannot be captured in a song,” he holds, “then the composition is most likely not complete.” On the musical scale, “most funeral songs may assume a minor or modal form as they tend to have a sadder effect on the listener.” While they typically arrive in slow to mid-tempo pulses, it is not uncommon to find some in quick tempos, particularly those led by the youth on the day of the deceased’s return home from the morgue. “These songs may include cries and wails to the main vocals lines,” he adds.
Among Kyekyeku’s favourite composers of music catering to death and grieving are Nana Ampadu, Aseibu Amanfi, Dr. Paa Bobo. Amakye Dede, Kojo Antwi, Nana Acheampong and Lumba — all of whom he considers “masters of this field,” for which reason “they are always relevant as musicians.” One must not forget the Methodist hymn book too, he stresses.
As a musician practising highlife, the trusted dirge medium, how does Kyekyeku process the concept of mortality? Does the idea bother him at all? Of course, he says. “As humans, I think there are times when we think of our mortality and when we finally say bye [and then] there are days that we may live as if there is nothing to care about; that there is nothing at stake.
“And that is also the human factor; the concern is how we process these two situations to affect our decisions. So yes, it bothers me what we leave behind; what we do to make things easier for those who are not here yet in relation with society, environment etc. What I don’t like, though, is when people use mortality to subject others into religious beliefs, and then, by extension, making moneys off the laity.”
On why death continually feels so mysterious, even if it is as constant as life itself, Kyekyeku sets out wisecracking, before summoning a proverb: “well, no one in living memory or dead has ever spent some holidays in death and come back to tell, so I guess that’s the mystery we don’t know. As we say in Akan, ‘kontonkrowi a oda amasan kon mu’: death is like the halo that surrounds the moon. It’s a mystery and everyone wears one.”
“Where do we go when we die?” I prod. Because he has not died, he hasn’t a definite answer, nor does he think anybody alive does. “I only know that the physical form ceases to exist but our remnants by way of our works, progenies etc. tell of our existence.
“It is the fear of the uncertainty after death that births a lot of our belief systems and religions which have become the biggest factor of the ways societies interact with themselves,” he says, returning to his earlier point. “But I am a big believer in the nature of energy. I think we return to our source energy-wise.” Also subscribing to the idea that energy cannot be destroyed, only transforms, Kyekyeku operates with the conviction that “we never die.”
“ Our energy gets transformed into another form to continue.”
Back to dirges, and why they matter in pop: “Dirges serve as a way to touch a part of the soul that often cannot be touched.” Why? “These days — at least in the Ghanaian case — society gets everyone playing tough and emotionally barricaded.” Thus, it sounds almost “crazy,” to explore that theme in popular music, he observes.
Kyekyeku finds it understandable that songs about death hardly have a place these days in the mainstream, but these songs, he suggests, “don’t have to be dirges in that sense. Just talking about the realities that one day we all won’t be here, and so then what we leave behind is equally as important as what we do now, should be enough for a great tune,” he points out.
“Some have found a great way to make hits with that,” he admits, naming Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” as one such example. “I feel it is a way to break the self-centred ephemeral topics of current music and remind ourselves of the inevitable sometimes. As Koo Nimo says in one of his tunes, ‘Owuo ti se nnoboa’: death is like a communal aid; we all go to help in another’s farm.”
In these parts, the observation of funeral rites is largely unique to each community. These rites are also steered by the religious persuasions of the deceased person, or their family. Traditionally, however, in most of southern Ghana, funerals occur over multiple days. Three, generally, though a person’s wealth could also influence how long their rites will run. Funerals usually happen over three or four stages: the first involves bringing the dead home to be with close family, the second stage sees friends and the community gather to share in the sorrow of the family, as well as offer their last respects. The day of burial, the saddest, is characterised by intense wailing that gradually dies down and transitions into a more cheerful phase; one that dwells on the celebration of the life of the deceased. Activities during this stage, right down to the music, aims at reliving happier moments with the deceased. This aspect is usually led by the youth present at the funeral who, buoyed by the peppy music on display, steer the “Gbonyo party” (more on that shortly). The final stage is the “thanksgiving stage,” which largely involves songs to encourage the living, and to thank God for life, while looking forward to the rest of life.
The feature of dancing over the dead, or the “Gbonyo party” is as popular as it is controversial. In Kyekyeku’s view, it is “ still a developing phenomenon, even though aspects of it have gone on to grab international headlines. (Here, he’s referring specifically to Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers, who have, in recent months, courted global notice for the spectacular pageantry that often attends their processions).
The “Gbonyo party” tradition is not unique to Ghana. Centuries ago, it found its way into New Orleans via African slaves, and runs under a different name: “The Second Line.” Following in West African customs, mourners go to the cemetery with sad songs, and return in a joyful parade complete with a full brass section. Clearly, slave masters wouldn’t permit funerals to go on for three whole days as is the situation in West Africa, requiring that activities are crammed into a single day. This idea was deployed in a James Bond scene from 1973, albeit abridged.
“Some agree that dancing with the dead in a coffin is quite disrespectful and insensitive, while others believe that it elevates the status of the dead and is thought of as a befitting way to say goodbye. However, all put together, I think it is to follow the classic aspect of funerals having a bit of both sorrowful and fun moments. In the north of Ghana, the dead can be dressed and made to sit in state while people dance around, in a way of entertaining the dead one last time before they finally depart this world.”
As Kpodo’s Dirge EP is how this whole conversation began, I return to it for Kyekyeku’s parting comments, specifically, what his impressions about that project are, and where it sits, in his opinion, in today’s music terrain? Someone he has known for some time (though they’ve not collaborated yet), Kpodo’s ability to re-craft palm-wine and vintage-style highlife, is not unfamiliar to him. However, the palpable innovation displayed on the body of work, which still finds its author maintaining the Ghanaian artistry with dirges “awakened” Kyekyeku. “I have some many friends who release projects every week that it’s so difficult to single out any for listening.” But Kpodo’s project was singular. “I simply couldn’t resist sharing that. It may not be a big hit, it may not be among playlists of the top DJs, but it will surely count among the best to be performed at grounds where dirges are required, as well as with young and old listeners who want some content of great philosophy and thoughts about the journey of life.”
A modern palm-wine revolutionary, Kyekyeku: singer, songwriter, and guitarist, is leader of the Super Oppong Stars, formerly Ghanalogue Highlife.