Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every other week. This week, it’s Dampoo and his highlife.
The holiday season in Ghana is the busiest time of the year for music. There are possibly more shows in the second half of December alone than there are the rest of the entire year. It's the best time to check out all of Ghana's top artists, as they perform several times, all over the country. This story is not about any of them however, it's about an ear-worm of a song I've been listening to in loops over the past few weeks:
Download: Dampoo, "Susu Biribi"
"Susu Biribi" means something along the lines of be careful, be conscious of your actions, be focused. "My lyrics are heavy. If you understood twi, you would realize it immediately". Those are the words of Dampoo, an aspiring artist who's had his eyes on the music circuit far longer than I expected. For Dampoo, writing lyrics started in high school in the mid-2000s, when he formed a group with Asem, now one of Ghana's most established rappers, Magnom, one of the hottest beatmakers at the moment, and a number of others.
But his passion for music can be traced back even earlier. Dampoo grew up in Kwahu, in Ghana's Eastern region, the grandson of the local king. As such, he was literally brewed in ancient Akan tradition: he learned how to play the drums, he would take part in live performances. At home, his dad played music 24/7, and after work he even DJed at a local pub.
Of course, being a teenager in the 2000s, Dampoo was also exposed to a lot of hip-hop, from Reggie Rockstone to the Fugees. He laid down a few raps with his high school homie Asem in 2004, then featured on a number of songs, but he waited until he completed university to launch his own first single, in 2010. Perhaps feeling a softer response than he had hoped for, Dampoo changed his strategy in 2012 to favor a more local sound. In his own words, "Susu Biribi" is highlife, a genre he feels "people relate to more, in the sense that it addresses issues more."
Dampoo's lyrical content is deep. With "Susu Biribi" he tells the youth not to be reckless. To put this into context, remember that Ghanaian cultures have been deeply disrupted, during and after colonization, to the point where, today, most of Ghana's urban youth lives in between two worlds. First, a traditional world they may not always feel entirely comfortable with, perhaps feeling shame or simply feeling disconnected, and then the magnetic influence of the world abroad, with its often unforgiving capitalistic rules. In short, a lot of kids in Ghana aspire to getting as much money as quickly as possible, and to flaunt it as much as they possibly can. As depicted in the video:
This is the youth Dampoo is speaking to, encouraging them to be wise with their money, and to take a step away from partying and womanizing. A quick look at some top Ghanaian videos will easily justify why someone would feel the need to say these things in a song.
Dampoo has big plans, and is ready for the long road to success. "You need to pay your dues to the game before you get recognized. Making sure you get the right video, send the song to make it available everywhere, take note of where listeners are, target your audience, pick relevant radio partners." Having done songs with Asem, Bradez, Lil Shaker and Gasmilla, all old friends and top artists in Ghana, I ask Dampoo if he feels his personal connections are helping. "The bottom line is you need to put out a good song. If it isn't and you put Jay-Z on it, it will still be a whack song."
In 2013, Dampoo intends to continue pushing. He has a degree under his belt, enough knowledge and skills to make informed decision in Ghana's shark music industry world, but he intends to build himself up even further. Besides writing songs and hustling daily in Accra's central market, Dampoo is studying theater at the University of Legon. "Lately, musicians are getting more educated. My parents wanted me to get a formal education. They wanted me to realize music is also an industry, and they wanted me to know what I would be doing."
With all the right tools in his hands, Dampoo seems ready to carry highlife into the future. Here's to a creative, productive 2013, happy new year. Afihya pa!