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, he wrote about Bisa Kdei.
You know when a song gets into your head, but you can't really recall when or where you first heard it? Well, I'm pretty sure millions of Ghanaians would relate to this, in the case of the "Azonto Ghost" song, which popped up a few months ago. I remember last March, sitting at a table with half a dozen people, some Ghanaians, some foreigners, some party animals, some quiet types. "Azonto Ghost" came on, but back then none of us at the table knew who the artist was.
When one of us finally figured it was by Bisa Kdei, I had to admit I had never even heard of him. It is after all my job to keep up with music, at the very least at home in Ghana. But "Azonto Ghost" was a complete sonic UFO.
Download: Bisa Kdei, "Azonto Ghost"
It took me months to finally sit down with Kdei and get the story straight. As I expected, his path is unusual, and in many ways, inspiring and very exciting for the future of music in Ghana. We sat in the back of a car by the roadside in the Lapaz, in the area of Accra, and this is what I gathered.
Kdei has always been into music. He grew up listening to the classics, Nana Ampadu, A.B. Crentsil or J.A. Adofo. By his teen years, Kdei started rapping, then singing, and shortly afterwards he learned the basics of making beats. All along he met musicians and producers who helped him hone his skills. He quickly started to make his own beats, then opened his own studio as soon as he finished school.
This is where the shift happened. "I also had this love for motion graphics, so I started doing motion graphics too. This is when I met this movie man who introduced me to film scoring."
For three years, Kdei has been creating music for a number of Ghanaian films, working with many film producers, in particular a certain Mustapha Adams, who did a movie last year called Azonto Ghost. He asked Kdei to come up with a theme song. And before anybody noticed, the theme song became a hit, far outgrowing the success of the movie itself. "It came out of nowhere. I had songs out already, but my hit came out of this movie stuff."
The song spread so fast it even got nominated for the Ghana Music Awards, a rare feat for a virtually unknown artist. What's interesting and unusual with "Azonto Ghost" is Kdei did everything, as he does on all of his songs: "Sometimes I just play my guitar, get the rhythm, then I go to my keyboard and I start the beat, maybe do some percussions. I start singing, I get the concept for the song I want to write." Not only does Kdei sing and make beats, he mixes and masters his own songs. And they are definitely standing out as some of the most well crafted Ghanaian pop songs I've heard.
If you are not familiar with the music biz in Ghana, you should know it is extremely rare for a song to become really big in Ghana without any big name being attached to it. Either that, or a lot of money. I've written about Cash Unit, who were not so known when their song "Ayooo" blew up. But afterward they teamed up with Castro and Appietus, who are gargantuan artists here. E.L. has been rapping for years, but didn't get a piece of the pie until he was backed by BBnZ Live. No such collabos or partners on "Azonto Ghost"—the song was to some extent propelled by the movie, much like Bollywood films fueling most of India's pop music. It's interesting to see this mechanism appear in Ghana, where the film industry is growing significantly. I wonder if similar Nollywood hits came out of Nigeria?
Kdei's newest single is "Over", for which he also edited his own dance video—multi-talented is an understatement. The official video came out last month, and the song has already been buzzing among Ghanaians abroad. While Kdei is still working on the song's promo in Ghana, he told me about other songs he's working on, but I couldn't get a glimpse of this future goodness. "I've been hiding and everybody wants to meet me, when they get my contact they want me on their show." And here he is in Lungu Lungu.
Download: Bisa Kdei, "Over"