The seprewa is usually described in English as a ‘harp-lute,’ which, I don’t know about you, says nothing to me at all. I struggle to imagine a ‘harp-lute.’ I picture something like an orchestral Joanna Newsom harp stuck awkwardly on top of an oud, or a little bardic harp strung across a lute’s pear-shaped body like a comb across a turtleshell.
Most English translations of foreign musical terms are vague like that. Take ‘throat-singing.’ “But doesn’t everybody use their throat when they sing?” asks the newcomer, staring at you as if you’re stupid. “How special do these Tuvans think they are?” The seprewa becomes easier for me to understand when someone explains that it’s related to the kora—that it’s similar to a small kora. That’s better. I can see a small kora. Yes, the person says: a small kora with a box-shaped body instead of gourd-shaped, and it comes from the Akan people of present-day Ghana, not from Mali, as the kora does. You hold it in your lap. It lies on its back, strings upward. It would be lying on its spine, if it had a spine. You play it like that.
When, as on this album, the seprewa shares a song with a guitar, its relationship to the kora becomes more clearly defined. Those blunt guitar strums set off the harp-lute’s rippling flow. The kora ripples too, but it’s not quite the same ripple. The small harp has a soothing sound, simpler than the kora, less layered, a straightforward stream in place of a full-bodied river.
In fact, soothing could describe the whole album. Seprewa Kasa’s music looks back to the heyday of highlife, decades before the sound was replaced by pop. People like ET Mensah were doing their thing with a delectable, sometimes Caribbean lilt, old but not staid, capable of sounding fresh the way the swing of the Andrews Sisters can still sound fresh. Seprewa Kasa’s songs trickle and curl in on themselves, coiling and uncoiling, and the musicians sing with affable voices. Relax, they say, relax. Their voices are not the best, but would voices that were too polished seem out of place here? The old highlife musicians often sounded like this too, somewhat wavering, with burrs along their tongues. These aren’t high-powered singers, they’re instrumental musicians who make do with their own singing because it’s what they can afford and it fits the songs well enough. Besides their voices aren’t that bad. They’re not Salif Keita, but the hell with it. Keita would overwhelm these modest instruments, and overwhelmed instruments is not what we’re here for.
By the end of the album, you’re dozing—not through boredom, but because you’ve been so thoroughly lulled. Seprewa Kasa doesn’t rely on a percussive beat to keep your attention ticking over. It works through a kind of aural hypnotism. Three minutes into “Agyese Wobre” and you wake and wonder what just happened. The men are still singing. Whether you enjoy this laid-backness or not depends on you. By the end of the album, laid-back sound might seem lazy. Too much drifting around in circles! Too much repetition! You might long for bite and grip and action. Don’t look for it here. Seprewa Kasa is all soothe and salve.
// Notes from the Road
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