It seems the word you hear the most in Accra is no longer "akwaaba" or even "chale", but "azonto". The azonto dance has taken Ghana by storm, and although everybody seems to know the dance here, nobody is really able to say where it came from or how it started.
What is certain however is that one song blew up here and revealed azonto to the masses: "U Go Kill Me" by Sarkodie and E.L. Sarkodie is one of the top artists in Ghana, named rapper of the year in 2010 and known for his razor sharp, extra-fast delivery in twi, the Ashanti language that's the lingua franca in most of Ghana. E.L. is both a rapper and a producer who spent a decade climbing out of the underground until he created the infectious "U Go Kill Me" beat, which has finally put him at the helm of Ghana's music game.
Last December I saw popular rapper M.anifest bringing E.L. to the stage and introducing him as the "tallest rapper in Ghana." When I met E.L., he instantly corrected me: "probably in all of Africa." Height aside, in the last year E.L. has become one of the inescapable names on any major music show here. Besides "U Go Kill Me," he is responsible for a few major azonto hits, such as Keche’s "Sokode", one of my favorites, and his latest single, "Obuu Mo":
Download: E.L., "Obuu Mo"
Bo d3n ts3 obuu mor ona—or "you don't respect yourself"—is a saying in Ga, the language historically spoken in and around Accra. "It doesn't really translate, it's much funnier in Ga," E.L. says. Then he lets me in on a secret. The key to success, he says, is to come up with a simple hook that people will want to repeat over and over, especially in the clubs. "People in Ghana don't want to be told lessons, when they listen to music they want to forget and have fun." Which is why E.L. is making highly danceable pop songs. He says this is the only way to capture people's attention, but that, "once you have them, you can feed them anything you want." And I see what he means as I listen to the few songs he shared with me. Not all of them are Ghanaian club anthem material, some are much deeper, with more subtle lyrics.
About ten years ago, E.L. started as a rapper, and quickly adopted pidgin English, a language (or dialect, depending on who you ask) particularly popular among teens and twenty-somethings, but still poorly recognized by the powers that be. For instance there are still no radio shows broadcasting in pidgin and no billboards with pidgin slogans, as you may see in Nigeria. But this is also what makes pidgin feel more underground or irreverent, and perhaps more appealing to the youth. For more about pidgen rap check out my previous column about Kay-Ara’s track "Me Dough".
E.L. was a founding member of the Skillions crew, pidgen rap pioneers, along with Jayso, Lil' Shaker, J-Town, Gemini and a bunch of others. Eventually he chose to go solo and set up his own studio. He created the beat for "U Go Kill Me" in his studio in Osu, a very central part of Accra. "The studio was GHE-TTO!!!!," he tells me, rain falling through and all. But that didn't prevent Sarkodie from passing through early in 2011, when he heard the "U Go Kill Me" beat. It was initially made for another artist, but Sarkodie went nuts for it, so E.L. immediately recorded the two verses Sarkodie was spitting.
Days later, as the song supposedly sat safely in his hard drive inside the studio, E.L. started hearing crazy feedback about the song, which was already getting airplay in Accra. Turns out it had been leaked. At a time when most artists in Ghana struggle to get their music out, this song came out without anybody even trying. "The song promoted itself," as E.L. puts it.
The song's beat is irresistibly familiar for anybody who's spent time in Accra. Its rhythm pattern, like most of E.L.'s beats, is largely inspired by traditional Ga drumming, especially jama and kpanlogo drumming. These are the types of sounds Accra residents have heard since they were kids, which in turn give E.L.'s music an instantaneous familiarity. Probably a good thing for a hit maker. That and E.L.'s trademark soundbite: "This is crazy chale!" I've seen this familiarity at work—the second a song plays long enough for its rhythmic pattern to show, people get off their chairs. In less dorky terms: "Obuu Mo" WILL make your ass shake. Start practicing your azonto moves.