Various Artists: Living is Hard

Various Artists
Living Is Hard: West African Music in Britain, 1927-1929
Honest Jon's

I didn’t know what to expect from Living is Hard. Was it going to be West African dance music, I wondered. Will it be group singing? Maybe ngoni or kora, perhaps a kind of proto-blues or proto-highlife? Or music that sounds like an earlier version of the calypso on London is the Place for Me, that series of recordings from the 1950s that Honest Jon’s started releasing a few years ago. Where did the series end? Part four? The London covers are decorated with one black and white photograph each, as Living is Hard is, so I imagined that the contents might be connected in some mysterious way as well, as if the photographs could have retroactively influenced the music.

They didn’t. Of course they didn’t. The music on Living is Hard is low-key West African folk music, all of it performed by men, alone or in groups. Most of the musicians are singers, with one obvious exception being the members of the West African Instrumental Quintet who perform a galloping, seductive track called “Adersu — No. 2”. The Quintet plays guitars, or instruments that might not actually be guitars, but sound close enough. Someone accompanies the guitars with a high-pitched percussion noise that could be a pencil on a glass bottle. Other groups use drums. Douglas Papafio’s “Kuntum” comes with a brisk rattle that sounds like the anticipatory drum-roll you might hear in a circus as the next act is about to be introduced. The instruments are the simple, portable kind that a traveller would have on them, or that they could buy in Britain itself. There’s no sign of any of the West African xylophones, or anything else large or heavy.

As far as I can figure out, most of the musicians are Ghanaian, and the music comes from those parts of West Africa that were under British colonial rule. This might be elaborated in the booklet. I’ve only got a cardboard sleeve. The men sing in Fante, in Twi, in Ga. Britain’s Gramophone Company recorded these songs in order to export them and sell them abroad in West Africa under the Zonophone label, so despite the fact that they were in London, there was no need for anyone to sing in English.

In Papafio’s “Sakyi” you can hear a long-voiced call-and-response that might have eventually sprouted into gospel. Prince Zalumkah “Ligiligi” could ambitiously be called a very early rap, and throughout “Akiko Nu Bonto” (by George Williams Aingo) there’s a suggestion of highlife, but when you’re making these connections, it’s impossible to feel that you’re not trying to push things too far, that you’re straining after the comparisons, willing them into existence. There’s a field-recorded atmosphere over the entire album that doesn’t sit comfortably with modern genre descriptions like rap. This is folk; it’s roots; it’s everyday people giving their personal stories and complaints a shape, or performing their own version of a popular local song, as Harry E. Quashie does with “Anadwofa”, rolling his round-edged voice against the twang of a bitey guitar. The bones of other genres are there, most particularly high life, but the mood is private.

Quashie sounds as if he’s performing casually, very simply and spontaneously in a back room with some friends. Towards the end of “Ligiligi” Zalumkah seems to be going hoarse, as a normal, non-professional singer would after two and a half minutes of relentless chanting. He swallows saliva, misses his place, then picks up the song again. The backing chorus, a group of men who keep the beat by singing, “No nong,” and, “Shing a ling,” stumble briefly in confusion, trying to adjust themselves to their leader’s misstep.

Singers come into the chorus of Isaac Jackson’s “Nitsi Koko” in a pattern of uneven staggers, as if this is something the group has done before offhand, but not actually sat down and planned.

They’re as far away from professional modern versions of traditional West African music as a modern British folk band is from the informal pub singers that Topic compiled on their Voices of the People albums. Living is Hard is a compilation that deserved to be made, not only because the music is beautiful and worth hearing, but because it offers us a glance into the idea of continuity, of the flow of time. Strange to think of someone like King Sunny Adé performing today, all cheering audiences and rock star lighting, and realise that it can be traced back to something as plain as this, a few men in a room swallowing their spit and repeating hastily, “No nong. No nong. Shing a ling.”

RATING 7 / 10
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