Lungu Lungu: Finding ELi

Benjamin Lebrave’s twice-a-month column on African music. Against the norm, this new Ghanaian artist studies the stage first.

October 31, 2013

Unusually, a new Ghanaian artist studies the stage first

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 introduces the outlying acoustic artist ELi.

Today we go back to basics: a voice, a guitar, a love song. I suppose for people who listen to folk music or other acoustic guitar driven genres, that's how most music goes, but for someone living in Ghana, it's a relatively rare concept. At least these days.

Once upon a time, people here would occasionally sit under a tree with locally made guitars and some palm wine. They would get tipsy and play music. The style of playing came to be known simply as palm wine music, a genre we looked into in a previous post about Kyekyeku. Today most Ghanaian music is electronic, and the guitar has almost vanished, at least from commercial music.

I'm a sucker for punchy, Fruity Loop bangers—the type exemplified in one of the very first Lungu Lungu columns, about the Ghanaian hit "Ayoo."Download: ELi, "The Devil Is in the Detail"

ELi is a young artist who did not listen to what he was told. He didn't listen to his dad who told him to stay away from music, and didn't listen to the general consensus that dictates that to make it here you need to make people dance—and add a lot of Auto-Tune in the process. "I'm an obsessive listener," he tells me. Not just of music itself: "I spent a lot of time going to shows, observing, listening, seeing how people go about [performing and attending]."

He sang for many years at school choirs, but only took music up a notch two years ago. "I wrote my first song because of a girl," he says, and since then has been delving into all aspects of music, in particular live shows. "I've performed at a lot of places: Chale Wote, Moonlight Café, Indie Fuse, Alewa. These are the ones I am most proud of, I wanted to play all of them when I started."

Contrary to 99 percent of the artists I meet here, ELi is choosing to start on stage rather than in the studio. The usual strategy here is to record as many songs as you can, hoping one of them will create some kind of buzz, from which you can grow. Either you get some airplay, or you find someone to back you up financially, or ideally, both. This is not how ELi is going about it: "I've written a lot of songs, but I've only recorded three."

If I were to go back to what I was trained to do—statistics (!)—I'd create a ratio of songs recorded to live performances, which would show that ELi is an outlier. I won't bore you with such a graph, but I can tell you nevertheless: his drive and approach to music are very unusual here. He even has a concept for it, called Finding ELi. "It's my journey to find myself as an artist. I put out sounds, as well as video and photography."

The song "The Devil Is in the Detail" has been spontaneously supported by a number of cultural and entertainment players here, and has already helped open many doors for ELi. In the immediate future, his plans are to perform at the Asabaako festival and Felabration next year. "I want to go past that level where you always play [familiar Accra venues], and get to bigger platforms. To get there? Hard work."

From The Collection:

Lungu Lungu
Lungu Lungu: Finding ELi