A live looper musician and sound artist from the UK travels to Ghana for the first time and tries out a new sensory environment while exploring tactile interactive play in the land of Highlife music. Being in Ghana opened Xana (pronounced Shana) up to a multi-sensory experience of awesome cuisine like Waakye, (spicy rice and beans with goat, cow meat or fish) the famous Jollof, amazing variations of hybrid Azonto, and of course, how religiously conservative many young Ghanaians are. Accra is very different from Xana’s London base but it definitely has notable flavors that has her intrigued.
We later followed Xana to the Tea Baa (Ice Tea Bar & Grill) in Osu for what would be her first jam session in Ghana. After taking the crowd through classics from Digable Planets to a Tribe Called Quest, Xana started freestyling and intertwining a call and response routine with diners into her loop machine. The interaction was phenomenal and the music blew us away. Her sound was everything she describes it to be – a lot of funk, old school jazz and 90’s hip hop influences with a lot of contemporary characteristics. It was evident that Xana was having fun with it and the crowd was too. After what seemed like an intense magic mushroom trip, she wrapped up with a mellow jazz track that is still bouncing around in my head weeks later.
Xana came by the ACCRA [dot] ALT Station in James Town to have a chat, unpack her experiments with sound design, trip on castles and colonization, and the relationship between identity, art and gender nonconformity.
ADA: What has your Ghana experience been like so far ?
Xana: It is a rush of sounds, smell, heat, people, and language. I end up in a new place except everyone around me looked like me. [Laughs] What was impressed upon me was that I really like the smells of places. Smells are one of things that allows me to recall memories a lot easier. And it just smells so smoky.
ADA: What’s your art like?
Xana: I mix beat boxing with vocal sampling and I sing as well. I have a set of drumsticks so if I see something, I start banging on it cuz it might make a certain sound that I like. It’s very much about improvisation and building up and making everything from basic sound. I might start with a baseline or a high hat rhythm, and then I let people come with me on this journey of building up the song. When you first hear one song, it’s like, where are you going with this? I really like that. There are different ways to tell stories. I’ve found my way of telling stories and being spontaneous about it.
ADA: What was it like discovering your creative practice?
Xana: I used to play around with a friend of mine, Charlie. We’d listen to a lot of funk and jazz albums -from the States, Nigeria and British funks – and find as many different styles as we could. We were always looking out for something new. . We just loved the style and how creative people got with music. Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man (1962) – in the beginning, it goes, [starts to doo wop] and I read that he used empty glass bottles to make that sound. It is amazing how people push themselves with whatever they do. In music, you can be really inventive and one of the reasons I love looping is because I invent on the spot. I love using what’s around me to inspire whatever I want to do.
ADA: Who were you into growing up?
Xana: From when I was younger, like five years old, I wanted to tell stories. Wanted to take myself out of a situation I was in. Go somewhere out of the ordinary. So I would take inspiration from the books I was reading at the time.
I read a lot of Sci-Fi and I just liked the idea that something could be infinite. Even listening to funk music or looking at some of some of the album covers from that era, they were very much focused on the idea of space and seeing themselves as something that wasn’t human but from the future. It’s really cool when you listen to artists like Funkadelic, Betty Davis and Jimi Hendrix. Even when you’re looking at Dub, for example, [Lee] Scratch Perry, the way they recorded and produced. Their music was something like electronic sounds nobody had ever heard. And at that time, they made it happen.
ADA: Who are your top five music musicians right now?
Xana: [She reaches into her backpack and pulls out a small black book] In this book, I write songs, lyrics, albums, and musicians that inspire me to make new songs. One of the first musicians I like is Jiro Inagaki and Soul Media. Funky Stuff, 1974. Amazing album.
The reason I really love it is because it starts like when I’m looping. You just hear the baseline, it is something like (she makes a snare drum sound) and then something else comes in and then another thing, and it is so good. Such a good skill for a musician to have.
I will say Grace Jones is another artist I really like. One of her albums, Nightclubbing (1981) has one of my favorite songs called “Walking like a Man”. It’s a really great song. One of my other recent favorites is 99.9% by KAYTRANADA. I listened to it when I was in Prague and I thought it was a really cool album. I really like Osibisa. The whole Highlife vibe. Finally, I really like Moondog. He is one of my favorite musicians. He dressed like a Norse god, he’s dead now and would walk around New York taking pictures with people. He was blind. He’s definitely one of my favorites.
ADA: Do you think your gender identity affects how people relate to your music?
Xana: Oh yeah. I think my gender affects other people. It doesn’t really affect me but it bothers other people. As a woman or if you identify as a woman, people are going to have problems with you. By the way you talk, dress, and carry yourself, How you choose to do things. You’re always going to have your gender questioned. I am always Xana and I don’t think “oh, I’m a girl and so I want to do these type of things.” No. I’m Xana and I want to make stories not because of what other people project onto me or tell me how I should live my life. What is that? Gender is a construct.
ADA: Are these battles also showing up in your music?
Xana: Oh yeah! I take pieces of who I am from my experience. So if people are going to make light of my gender, I’m going to want to make an issue of it and reflect it back on them. Why is my gender such a big deal for you? Are you threatened by someone that is different than you? Isn’t difference something to be celebrated? Isn’t that how we get to know each other? Because we point out the differences until we see that we are all actually alike. [Gender] plays a part of who you are but it isn’t as big a part as people want it to be.
ADA: Are you at a place of fulfillment as an artist?
Xana: No! I think there’s always more to grow into. When you’re satisfied, it means you’ve hit and there’s no room to grow. There’s nowhere else to go but where you are. And you also feel you have nothing to learn so you’re not open to new ideas. You’re not open to certain criticism. But I always feel like there’s more, more, more.
There are very few things you can actually be satisfied with. Because everything can always be disproved. Leave room for that. Everything changes all the time when you’re creating something like music or writing. It is also the way you’re changing as a person, and how you go about that in your work.
ADA: Has your family been supportive of your career choices?
Xana: Parents are scared when their kids want to do something and they don’t know if the kid will be able to support themselves. Mine have supported me. They are like, “Oh, okay. That’s what you’re doing”.
It is mainly people outside my circle that look on art, like writing, and say “Well, I don’t see what this is adding to society”. But if it wasn’t for artists and writers, we wouldn’t know a lot of the things that we know. If it wasn’t for creative people, and people creating stories and allowing us to come out of the world in our heads, we would be so focused on reality and fail to imagine.
Everything has a place. It’s unfortunate that we’re living in a capitalist world where the value of what you do is linked to how much money you can bring in. What mainly drives me, isn’t how much I make, but how much I love it. I can’t do anything else. And I don’t want to do anything else. There are so many critics telling you, you can’t do something but the worst critic is yourself.
ADA: What are you working on now?
Xana: We just finished the first part of a show called Salt (an adaptation of the movie starring Angelina Jolie) and I’m the sound designer for the show. I make soundtracks and sound design for films. It brings me out of playing live and it’s another way to challenge me to learn.
ADA: How would you most like to share your artistry?
Xana: I remember I saw Jeff Mills, he’s a Detroit techno DJ, perform with the BBC Orchestra. If I have any kind of dream for my music and storytelling, it’s to bring people together. I would love to have an unconventional orchestra. I don’t believe in the idea of this is normal while this other thing isn’t. The orchestra would play loads of different instruments from a Balafon to other handmade instruments, and bring all these people and communities together to experience this music. When you think of orchestra, you think it’s elitist or out-of-reach due to economic reasons, and it is always a certain group of people that always go. It never seems to be catering to different communities.
ADA: Where have you been in Ghana so far?
Xana: I’ve been to Elmina, saw the castle. I started to think about the idea of identity – where you’re coming from and how it seemed so important – at least in the circles I’m in. Most of the works produced are around identity and who you are.
During the tour, I broke away from my group and bumped into a class from Konongo (old mining town in the Ashanti region of Ghana) and I had an amazing conversation with them. And they were telling me what they understood from the tour. The horrible things that happened and where the enslaved were sent. They told me some were sent to the states, the Caribbean – where my parents are from – and South America to work on plantations. One of the students said, “we could be family then”. You could be family with many people you don’t know because of enslavement. Colonialism took people away from their language, their names, and the very essence of who they are.
That’s why I really like the idea of Sankofa, to go back and go get. But what if you don’t know where it is and what it is and you have to face so many different questions? There’s the idea of going back and finding out you’re from some village in Ghana but you can’t just turn up at their doorstep one day and be like, “Hey! I’m your cousin from two hundred years ago”. No, it’s very difficult. Very complex. Walking around [Elmina] made me think about certain things, like how I navigate the world, how I treat people, and how I take up space in the world. What I take from it and what I’m giving to people at the same time. For me that’s wonderful.
Nii Noi is a mixologist and writer at ACCRA [dot] ALT.
Images by Kpe Innocent