By KATHARINE M. ORTIZ | photos by Sionne Neely
The first time I heard KING AYISOBA’s sound, I was hypnotized. It was at ADA’s Masquerade Jam last month. With only his kologo [a banjo-like instrument] and a raw oscillating voice, King Ayisoba commanded the stage and had the audience jumping and singing with vim.
Watching him perform live takes the northern musician’s mystic prowess to a whole new level. The King of Kologo music has been making waves on the Ghana and international music scene for close to a decade, bringing traditional flavor to the forefront of pop culture. Always cool and collected, King Ayisoba’s distinct, electric voice carries a timeless message backed by music that’s too good to shake down.
Even more refreshing is the recent collaboration with MoBlack on the housed-out riddim,“MeKa.” Ayisoba speaks out from the start: “I no dey commot fast fast. I dey commot three years time, three years time!” The result is a mesmerizing mix of sonic textures – urban and rural, hi-tech funk and low-fi cool, digital and analog. The music video [featuring the hilarious antics of actor-comedian Ananse] warns against stealing due to the ill effects such a practice creates within community.
I sat down with King Ayisoba recently, catching him just before a three-month summer tour through Europe. We discussed King Ayisoba’s Bolgatanga roots, rocking traditional gear, pidgin and Pidgen Music, and his unrelenting mission to use music for social change.
Catch the full interview below:
I started from my “kiddy time.” If I saw the kologo when I was very young, I would cry. I wanted to take it. My grandfather played this kologo. So he made me one. I knew how to play. Nobody taught me.
When you sing you often use another voice. What is that voice and where does it come from?
When my grandfather sang, he didn’t use one voice. He used a lot of voices. My father said by the time my grandfather was young he used to take the cows and go to the bush. Some of the animals from the bush made this voice. In our tradition if you kill some of the animals, you can get spirit from them. So I think my grandfather got the voice from that, and I also got the voice from my grandfather. So the voice is a spirit.
It’s a term for me because my father told me if you want to play this kologo, it’s not only you who plays it, there are many. So I try to create my style and my ways. So in kologo, [the spirits and audience] hear “kai kai kai” and they know it’s King Ayisoba.
“Kai kai kai” means “I finish everything”. I also say “My great grandfathers are coming back” because this kologo is traditional music. Ghana here, apart from Bolgatanga, you will not see anyone who plays this instrument. People forget. So I let people know that my great grandfathers, they are back.
I sing in Twi, Frafra, and English.
How do you choose which language to sing in when?
I decided to use these three because in Ghana, they think all the music is hiplife or highlife or reggae. If you play this traditional instrument and you sing only in Frafra, they won’t understand. So they don’t respect you. I wanted to make them respect that this local kologo can play a good song in English or Twi or in Frafra. So I took this kologo out for “I Want to See You My Father.”
First they didn’t understand about kologo music. If you played kologo they didn’t take you seriously. Now people understand me, because they know that the kologo isn’t talking any bad music, it talks sense, so that’s why they come to like it now. They understand.
Your music gets called traditional, but in what ways is it still current?
I think my music can be traditional and modern. I started from Ghana, playing alone, but coming to Accra I played with the Hiplife guys. I got a chance to make hits. Always they hear about me, on FM, they see me on TV. And the first time I come out, I won three awards including the traditional song of the year, and the most popular song of the year. I set the record. The young guys now can sing all the songs.
Always if you see me, I only wear traditional clothes. It’s simple. Why don’t we want to wear our traditional clothes? I don’t want to copy American people or European people. We don’t have money to buy expensive clothes like them. Traditional clothes are easy for me. If you try to buy like them, you won’t get money to buy like them. If you want to copy them, I think it will be hard.
The more they like your sound, the more they will go to your truth. Now I see more and more people wearing traditional clothes. I think slowly they will come. 50 or a hundred years, they will come back to their roots. That’s why I always perform in traditional clothes. The President cannot change the country, then let the musician. Our words can change things. Music can tell a good truth.
What do you think gives music that power?
Everything we do here in Ghana is about music. Music is like food. If you are hungry, you have to eat. So I think it’s better if you compose music with a good truth…“Chief, try to work hard, what you get is your own” – it plays everywhere, maybe it will change the chief. Music can tell you things.
But Ghanaian music is not going far. Mali, South Africa, Jamaica, Nigeria – that music is going far. But if you look at Ghana here, I don’t see any musician who’s at a high level. Go to Nigeria, Fela Kuti everywhere. Bob Marley, everywhere they know him. You come to Ghana, who do they know? They don’t know anyone. Because we didn’t create our own style. We are only copying.
I think many people fear truth. And I think truth can give your music song and can make your career big. I have many songs and my people say, “Don’t put out this song. If you do, it will not be good.” But I don’t listen to them. I just do my work and create my songs. They may hate me or try to kill me, but the more they hate, the more your song will grow. I don’t think it’s easy. If you’re not hard or strong, you cannot play truth music.
Can you tell me about your new song “MeKa” with MoBlack?
MoBlack – he is a DJ – produced that song. He called me and said he liked “MeKa” and asked me to give him the song to produce. Now we’ve taken it to Youtube and in one month it has 18,000 something views.
You’ve been on Panji Anoff’s label for a while now. What’s important about Pidgen Music?
Me and Panji, we’ve worked together for ten years, and we are still together. Pidgin music is Panji. He doesn’t want to change your style. He will leave you and give you time. The first time I worked with him, Panji said, “Don’t try to sing like anybody else, just sing your pidgin”. And if you see all the Pidgen Music people, it’s a good team. Pidgen Music production is on top.
It’s exciting that artists singing in pidgin are becoming so popular.
It’s nice, because in Ghana if you speak pidgin, they think you are from a village or you didn’t go to school. So they don’t respect pidgin, they only respect good English. And they don’t know that English is English. In Nigeria it’s not like that, if you go to school or not, they respect pidgin. But here it’s different. What are you looking forward to about the future?
I see a long life and at the same time good work. The people who play this kologo will also come together and give each other big support. I see more things. Like when I go to Denmark, the Danish people know me. If you say “Kai kai kai” they say “Ah! I know that guy!” I’ve started going to Europe more. I think the future will be bright.
Keep up with KING AYISOBA’s moves right here.