The West African Instrumental Quintet - "Adersu - No. 2" (Living is Hard: West African Music in Britain 1927-1929)
It should really be impossible to divorce the music on Living is Hard: West African Music In Britain 1927-1929 from the circumstances under which most of this music was produced. The League of Nations only agreed to universally end slavery in 1926, just 40 years after the major powers of Europe agreed to the tenets of the Berlin Conference and divvied up Africa. It’s hard not to hear duress in the most celebratory of these songs. It’s hard to reconcile the vibrant art behind some of these tracks with the dismal, grey short lives that many of the performers – dock workers, house servants, and more – must have lived.
As the title suggests, Living is Hard represents the music of West Africa as recorded in Britain, presumably by guest workers and others who found themselves on that cold, dreary island. The selections themselves cover a broad number of ethnic groups, including music of the Ga, Yoruba, Hausa, Twi (all from Anglophone colonies now known as Nigeria and Ghana) and Wolof (chiefly from the French colony now known as Senegal). Many of the 23 recordings are primarily a cappella and relentlessly repetitive, drawing into focus the classically West African attribute of "call and response.” It’s not always a singer singing "A" and the chorus responding with "B": sometimes it’s singer "A" and chorus "BCB”; other times it’s even more complex While the a cappella tracks sound largely upbeat and major, the performances themselves, thanks in part to the age and technology of the recordings, are decidedly tired and downbeat. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of the cover’s black and white photo of an African gentleman in a suit, averting his eyes from the camera, or maybe it’s the image of these vocalists travelling to England in the hull and not in a cabin, but the trailing, tired delivery tells of a misery deeper than the origin of the songs themselves.
The instrumentally-driven tracks on Living is Hard sustain a variety of styles. There are guitar-based folk songs that suggest a parallel evolution to Caribbean folk music, such as Harry E. Quashie’s "Anadwofa,” and a number of vocal and percussion performances that range from a few voices and a pair or sticks or a hoe blade (Isaac Jackson’s galloping "Nitsi Koko") to thunderous rumba (Douglas Papafio on "Kuntum”). One of the album’s treats is "Adersu No. 2" from the West African Instrumental Quintet. Atop the sounds of clave and shimmying acoustic guitar, the group drives in a sonic and rhythmic circle that is equal parts gypsy reel and "Magic Bus,” speaking a melodic vocabulary that shares as much with the mournful traditions of Eastern European as it does with the typically more buoyant sounds of Sub-Saharan Africa.