by AIGERIM SAPAROVA
This is part two of an interview with JOHN COLLINS – professor, musician and historian of Ghanaian popular music for over forty years. Check out some of Prof. Collins’ essays here – downloadable for free – after reading the interview below.
Was it difficult for you to be respected musically as a Caucasian rather than a Ghanaian? Did you feel you had to prove yourself?
No. One of the things is that Ghanaians are fundamentally not racist. I mean, one of the reasons I had a problem at the university when I was young about them taking me seriously was that they knew I wasn’t playing with the prestigious dance bands or the urban bands, I was playing with these country bands and sleeping on the floor. They have a very bad reputation in the country, so it came off on me a bit as a guitarist or being a drunkard or whatever it was they thought. But in the end what happened was that I was just lucky that when I got to Ghana, nobody had written about highlife or concert parties…I was right in the middle of the Nigerian and the Ghanaian music scene, so by osmosis I collected this information and ultimately ended up in a position of writing the history of highlife and the concert parties.
I’m a Ghanaian any way by nationality.
You mentioned that there is a lot of space here for you to do what you want. When I think of the creative industry and the arts in Ghana, I feel like the space here is a bit stuffy, especially coming from the government. What do you think?
Oh no, the government is the kiss of death. Absolutely – I mean, in terms of art, I mean there have been times in Ghana when Kwame Nkrumah did a certain amount, but basically, popular music is meant to have nothing to do with the government. Well, of course, what has happened today is because of taxation problems particularly in the music industry or the arts.
To just give you an example, they have an entertainment tax. If you put on a live show, you have to buy the tickets from internal revenue before the show, and what happens if you get rained out? It’s this idea that you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. You wait for people to make money – a relaxed environment where people can make money –and then you tax people. This is why I’m involved with MUSIGA, the union project – we’re trying to get the statistics on this to show the government how many people work in the industry and how much money is being generated.
What’s your opinion on the new generation of musicians? How do they compare to earlier generations?
Well you see they have the disadvantage. the new generation never had musical schooling, number one. Number two: the live bands disappeared by the 80s, so they’ve never had role models of live music, so there’s heavy experimentation with recorded music. Although that is part of development in technology, I think for the whole youth practically in the popular music sector this has had a disastrous effect.
I mean this could be a generational thing but I think the whole point about music is that your relationship is between you and the musicians in your band – something like a family and between you and the band and the audience is your extended family. You have a personal relationship and that’s where the creativity is generated. If you create bands which don’t really exist as bands –they don’t even play together. One guy plays on Tuesday and another one on Thursday or it’s a studio band – and when you meet your audience, it’s mediated through lip-syncing or video or something like this. I personally can’t see where the creativity comes in. What then is the point of being a musician?
Then about ten years ago, things gradually started to change and they’ve gone back to live performance – not of them but some of them. And then we had so many different things cooking on the pot in Ghana – we have traditional music, neo-traditional music, bands which are appealing to tourists, world music musicians, we have the salsa scene, the northern musicians for the first time making a mark on Ghanaian popular music, hiplife, disco, the burger highlife revival of old time highlife. pots simmering on the stove.
Do you think you can foresee what will happen musically in Ghana?
In a sense, it’s already happened – hiplife has gone back to singing , it’s not rapping anymore –they call it contemporary highlife. So in a sense, they’ve reconnected with highlife again, but in a slightly different way. It’s very difficult to say which type of music, but I think the northern factor will play a very important role. If you look at some of the world music musicians from Ghana right now, they’re northerners and they’ve never played any role in Ghanaian popular music. Most certainly I think this experimentation in alienation, which is studio bands not having a real band, not having a real audience because you are not playing live – I think we’re coming out of that now.
But what about electronic music?
Yes, even electronic music is sometimes influenced by polyrhythm or jungle beats. I mean, there are some links between electronic music and African music. The thing about electronic music is it’s basically escapist. You know, hard week’s work, you go somewhere, take some drugs and dance for two days, but the beats that you are dancing to are based on Black American music or even to some extent, reggae, Brazilian, African. I mean, it’s not coming from white culture, because white culture was rhythmically impoverished until Jazz came along and opened up the doors of rhythm again. Escapism is quite important in our modern society because our society is so grotesque.
What’s the state of your archives right now?
It’s in mothballs. The thing is, because I was lucky to open up [African Popular Music Studies] in Ghana – if I hadn’t been here, whole layers of knowledge would be gone. They could’ve never have gotten that information because the musicians who gave me the information are dead.
What would you need to restore it?
Money and a premises. That’s the main thing, premises, because the place I live now, it’s not suitable. Who is going to give me a premises in Accra? Everything is so expensive.
To donate to Prof. Collins’ BAPMAF restoration, visit here.
Read Part One of the John Collins interview here.
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