We’re halfway through track six on Odwo, the latest record from Ghana’s reigning hitmaker, Ofori Amponsah: a rambling number called “Nothing But Love”. It’s a dramatic piece, something like an R&B opera, in which various conspiring polygamists sing their way through a lover’s spat. Think “Trapped in the Closet”. Amponsah plays a jilted, would-be Romeo, trapped in a lopsided relationship. In the quivering Pidgin English made famous by Nigerian moviemakers, he unsuccessfully begs his promiscuous girlfriend to stay at home with him tonight. If she leaves, he warns her, his heart will be scattered… one imagines tiny thumping fragments of aorta spilt across the lonely living room floor like Sun Chips. Syllable-by-overacted-syllable his histrionic argument builds to a final, defensive question: “Is it a sin to give your heart up to someone to love?” Amponsah muses, rhetorically.
If taking liberty with one’s amorous organs was indeed a sin, then the conflict would be irresolvable for this maudlin moralizer, the self-proclaimed “Michael Jackson of West Africa.” He is as much a subdued and nostalgic voice for old time values, as he is an exuberant and incorrigible valentine: the type of desperate romantic who practices speaking to women in the mirror, and practices singing to them in the fitful ecstasy of the Pentecostal choir. Before him, Ghanaian secular pop rode a wave of Hiplife rappers—politically conscious MCs who forsook their tonal, Ghanaian accents to attempt the monotonous cadences of American gansgta rappers. Hiplife’s macho pose was always an awkward fit coming from a musical tradition defined by effusive poetry and religious moralizing, and before long Amponsah and his beat-making better half JQ began saturating the airwaves with recognizably local rhythms and guitar riffs reminiscent of 1960s Highlife—Highlife being a celebratory Jazz and Calypso-influenced dance music from the idealistic, seemingly innocent days that followed the nation’s independence.
Odwo, Amponsah’s tenth record since 1999, is the duo’s most consistent, economical and exciting project to date. To Western ears, it’s motion music, the soundtrack to an open-air road trip, full of promise and novelty. JQ’s polyrhythms cruise past each other, like vehicles in separate lanes, or parallel trains in an Einsteinian diagram. (British-born Africanist John Collins believes Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity expresses a concept of time shared by West African drummers). Amponsah’s utterly complex arrangements go ‘round, and ‘round, landing with improbable certainty on catchy refrains and soothing instrumental loops like the traditional gil xylophone pattern in the title track. The past-future continuum is palpable: Amponsah’s old time values pour like tears over yesterday’s clawhammer highlife riffs, while synthesizer horns blare, autotune warbles, and the utterly melodic Dancehall rapper Batman breezes through a guest spot.
Sometimes, Amponsah’s train derails needlessly into a misguided malapropism like “Babicue”. The mirage of trans-Atlantic success bedevils many a West African hitmaker, and occasionally even a fervent nationalist like Amponsah feels the need to explain Ghanaian culture in clumsy platitudes to an imagined English-speaking audience: that would be “Highlife Dancing” his smooth jazz-decorated swing at a “Smile, Jamaica”-type tourist siren song. Yet for every time he stumbles, ready to let another series of women juggle his heart like three sweet mangoes. By the time he donates his falsetto to his remember-the-needy soliloquy “Homeless”, the sense of gravitas has already made itself a definite fixture beneath Amponsah’s swooning vocal acrobatics and theatrical asides. There’s drama to this pastiche, and melodrama too, poetry, and phrasing, open spaces, yet baroque, liberally spent artifice. Amponsah may take a few stylistic cues from R. Kelly, including his music video wardrobe, yet there is so little “trapped,” or repressed, or sublimated about his palette.