Producer Leo Hornak describes visiting a festival-like school reunion in Accra with music journalist Rita Ray for BBC World Service, to trace the history of an influential rhythm back to its West African origins.
What do you call this rhythm and where does it come from?
At a school reunion in Britain, that might not be much of a conversation starter, but as we found out, in Ghana it usually sparks passionate and heated debate.
I am told that the story about Inuit languages having 300 words for snow is a myth.
No one can deny, however, that Ghanaians have an unusually well-evolved vocabulary when it comes to describing music.
They also take their school reunions very, very seriously.
Everyone – except the BBC team – had come dressed to impress
BBC World Service Producer Leo Hornak
We had come to Accra for the BBC World Service to tell the story of one rhythm in particular.
It is a beat which is lodged deep in the DNA of modern music – part of the shared foundation between soul and salsa, rock and reggaeton.
But its origins lie in West Africa and in Africa, Europe and America’s history of slavery.
In Ghana, traditional musicians and academics had already explained to us some of the centuries of history behind this five-note beat.
It was only when we were invited to a school reunion by local radio station Joy FM that we began to realise how important these rhythms still are to young Ghanaians.
As a British person, my idea of a school reunion is pretty unexciting.
A few former classmates hanging around for a quiet drink and perhaps some nostalgic memories of unpleasant teachers.
The Accra alternative was altogether more impressive.
As we reached the venue, on a baking hot afternoon in central Accra, the size of Joy FM’s reunion became clear.
So many schools were attending, and so many tens of thousands of former students had arrived to celebrate, that a whole stadium had been hired to hold them all.
Inside, the atmosphere was somewhere between rock festival and football match.
Everyone – except the BBC team – had come dressed to impress.
Some former students wore carefully retailored versions of their old school uniforms.
Others were clothed head to toe in fabrics printed with a portrait of their school founder.
A few had come in fancy dress. One popular option was for groups of young men to come as schoolgirls, complete with miniskirts and straw hats.
But most noticeable was the music. Unlike a European or American music festival, this was a place where people were happy making their own music, as well as watching bands.
Each school had its own stall, surrounded by a mass of former students dancing in long conga lines.
At the centre were drums and drummers, drenched in sweat, leading the singing.
The first stall we passed was dancing to a particular, familiar rhythm. It was the same five notes we’d be tracing to Cuba, the US and Europe.
Here it was – not a piece of musical archaeology, but alive and well, 200 years later at the centre of the biggest party in town.
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