The Songs of the Lalaworlor

03 Mar 2006

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 16.

It’s 3 a.m. in Nungua Township and I’m stretched out on a cot in a small, sticky room in front of a whirring fan. Suddenly there is a knock and a gruff voice, and I groggily swing down my legs to the floor and throw on a t-shirt. Time to go fishing, Ghana style.

Six days a week in harbor towns all along this country’s palm-fringed coast, small teams of fishermen make their way down to wooden canoes perched and waiting on the beach. They begin their work at a time of day most people sleep, those unaccountable moments after the partygoer’s late-night farewells and before the shopkeeper’s pre-dawn stirrings. In that inky hour the men use two long 3″ x 6″s and a log to skid their boats off the sand and into the water, and mounting a small outboard engine to the stern they shove off into the roaring surf.

I’m here in Ghana for two months to experience, record, and learn the way fishermen and farmers sing while they work. This month I am spending my time with members of the Ga tribe, a group of 300,000 who live and fish on a small stretch of coast around Ghana’s capitol city, Accra. A handful of days each week I wake up early to go along as a member of one of the local musical fishing teams, to help ply the depths using threadbare nets and powerful songs.

Thus each morning’s early wakeup call, which leads to a white-knuckle ride through the breakers and ample big-net fishing in the few hours on either side of dawn. By now I’m used to the routine and to be honest I eagerly anticipate the rush of pushing off the beach into the foam. The bosun of our craft, Bortey Radi, idles the engine and we all pause, waiting for a lull in the surf like a jaywalker seeking an opening in a sea of speeding taxis. Then he guns the engine and we plow through the spray, ending up on the long, rolling swells of the Gulf of Guinea.

It’s fourty-five minutes before we reach the favored fishing grounds. We seek anchovies, what the Ga call amorni, a favorite local treat that can be seen atmospherically smoking in traditional red-clay ovens. To catch these fish the men post a lookout in the bow, peering down at the dark water running alongside the boat. If he sees silvery sides glinting in the moonlight he shouts, and the others immediately begin to cast 600 meters of net out over the side of our speeding, leftward-turning canoe.

The net is 180 meters wide and each edge is lined by a long rope, one sporting colorful styrofoam floats, the other heavy steel rings. Trapping the fish is as easy as cinching one rope up and leaving the other floating on the surface. This creates an enormous dish of netting about the size of two football fields, which, when the men are lucky and the fish are not, is chock full of splashing, writhing, food.

It is during the cinching that the songs begin. The lalawolor (the song leader) starts a lone call and in powerful harmony everyone responds, reaching forward and hauling straight back. The men sit one or two per bench, with their feet dangling down into the hold or propped up against the bench in front of them. The rope runs down the length of the canoe and each man grabs onto the length closest to him and hauls. And as each man pumps forward and back he sings, responding to call of the lalawolor.

The lalawolor’s job is to create a good tempo for the rest of the workers.
The workers in turn find patterns that follow and complicate the lalawolor’s basic beat. The songs are arranged simply, with a lone voice urging the group to respond, but the constantly shifting rhythms created are fascinating. For instance, if a song is has a feeling of two, some responses divide occasional notes into triplets. Some workers syncopate their singing so that the emphasis is just opposite that of the leader.
Still others give swooping, anticipatory pick-ups to the constant repetitions of phrase: a device that keeps the song, and the workers, in locomotion.

The sound is also influenced by each worker’s individual movements. When a man is feeling exuberant he stands up on his bench in front of him, grabs the rope and then springs backward, ending up flat on his back on his own bench. Most of the others in the boat get pulled along with this charade, and so does the song, accelerating briefly, then settling back into its regular rhythm. The crew grins and some laugh and everyone keeps hauling and singing.

Though the songs set the rhythm of the work, they do not rigidly determine it as one might expect. Instead all of the elements that are connected at sea- voices, ropes, and the ocean combine in a startling equilibrium of environment and sound.

This is because the net is immersed in the rolling sea. As it is dragged over and around obstacles it gets harder and easier to pull. And as waves approach the boat, the net is sucked away from the workers, making it almost impossible to haul in. Then, as the swell passes under the boat, the rope can be pulled rapidly, hand over hand. The musicians must respond to these changes by altering their bodily rhythm, which in turn informs the musical rhythm. The sonic experience of working on a Ga fishing canoe is thus sculpted thus by a fascinating interaction between sea floor, netting, workers, and the watery pulses from the deep Atlantic.

Melodically, the songs are simple but catchy: they use some or all of the notes from the major scale, rarely straying into complex chromatic or modal sounds characteristic of Islamic northern Ghana and much of neighboring francophone West Africa.

The melodies may be simple, but the group builds complex harmonies on top of them. The leader will typically start with a high arcing melody that is replied to by the workers in anything from near-unison to four or six part harmonies. A few low voices hold down the bottom end, while the workers quite easily sing high, tight harmonies around the melody set by the lalawolor.
And of course, each song is different: some are as rich and dense as Ghanaian gospel but only last five or ten minutes, where others last longer but have less emphasis on harmony and more emphasis on multi-layered, dense rhythmic textures. To me, these songs begin to resemble the industrial electronica found at late night dance clubs in cities: dense, trance-inducing sounds that force everything but the beat out of your skull.
Furthering the effect, certain lalaworloi will even change their voices over the course of the song, from sweet and soulful to gravely and rough, almost machine-like sounds. In doing so they create a musical texture that is constantly shifting, even as they sing the same tune beyond thirty or fourty minutes.

It is enough to keep me fishing for four to six hours. As the sky lightens we haul in the net hand over hand while standing on the slippery, rocking planks that doubles as a deck. We feed the net into the hold as barking, black-capped terns gather in a cloud and dive-bomb the panicked anchovies.
After a time most of the net is piled beneath our feet in the hold and the sea churns white as the fish are corralled alongside the canoe, ending all songs. We grab the edges of the net and with one last heave bring the wild catch on board, bushels of writhing, slippery creatures that will in a few short hours be happily devoured as lunch. Then, after a light dinner and an early sleep I will pass out on a cot in a small, sticky room in front of a whirring fan, unconsciously awaiting a knock at the door, a white-knuckle canoe ride, and the energetic call of the lalaworlor.

Kennet Erwin Konesni (Bennet) is an American musicologist

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