Filed Under (Ethnomusicology, Malian culture) by Rob on 16-02-2017

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on here, but this week I had the privilege of being back in West Africa for some field recording with the Ganadougou people in southern Mali.

Before starting, we had a 50 mile motorbike journey: here I am with the microphone stands and several bottles on my back:

The workshop didn’t get underway until almost three hours later than scheduled, for various reasons, but it was worth the wait, a these folks had great voices and knew their traditional genres well.
Here I am making my usual list of all the song genres in Ganadougou culture:

They’ve got some pretty interesting instruments too, including half a gourd floating in a bowl of water (something I’ve come across several times across W Africa).

And then there was a young chap with his hand made metal scraper:

And, of course, there was a balafon too, which really added to the quality of the music:

(I’m looking pretty tired by this stage in the afternoon!)

Recording these songs helps to preserve the Ganadougou culture and their musical heritage, as well as passing on important messages via radio and mobile phones. If you’re wondering what they all sounded like, have a listen here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Filed Under (General) by Rob on 01-01-2015

I’ve been playing cocktail/jazz piano since the late 90s and, although opportunities in West Africa were somewhat limited, I still had a number of gigs and performances whenever possible.

So, here’s a wee promotion video I put together of a few of my favourite pieces. I’m afraid my sustain pedal is a bit squeaky, and the sound quality is far from perfect, but it does give an idea of what I do:

Remember, I’m available for weddings/parties and the like, so drop me a line if you’re interested!

Filed Under (Beninese culture, Malian culture) by Rob on 22-12-2014

Here’s a piece I recently wrote for an event where local authors read out passages from their books. I hope you enjoy it!


So, do they know it’s Christmas? The answer is most definitely yes, or maybe no. You see, it all depends on where you are. In the average African village, a day’s journey from the nearest city, Christmas morning begins in much the same way as any other morning: with cockerels crowing before the sun has even hinted it’s going to rise, goats braying tirelessly, and small groups of ladies – always up before the men – heading out down the narrow, rocky path which leads to the local well half a mile away, heavy clay pots perched skilfully on their heads. And as the huge, red semi-circle of the sun rises slowly and majestically on the misty horizon, dozens of white, wispy columns of smoke can be seen across the village, emanating from small wood fires in dusty courtyards. Within minutes, the warmth of the sun is felt, and long shadows from tall palm trees make the dirt road through the village momentarily stripy. Tropical birds, one by one, break into their usual exotic melodies to greet the new day, taking over – almost seamlessly – from the crickets, who’ve been chirping away non-stop since dusk.

If there’s a church in the village, it will probably have a Christmas service, though rarely an early one. Some will even sing somewhat Africanized renditions of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Silent Night’, accompanied by djembe drums, and with melodies somewhat modified to fit their pentatonic scale. After the service, they might share a ‘special’ meal of rice, sauce and chicken. Not particularly special though, as this is what they have every other day, alternating chicken with goat, or perhaps fish if the village is near water. No excitable children rushing downstairs to open masses of pristinely-wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes. For starters, all the houses are single story! No brightly-coloured lights adorning the streets – this village still has no electricity, so that would be something of a challenge. And there’s none of the obscene over-indulgence the West deems both normal and acceptable as part of the ritual of celebrating Christ’s birth. These villagers consume the same number of calories in a week that the average Westerner would eat on Christmas Day alone. But they’re just happy to have some food in their stomach to get them through the day. And are they less happy than any of us on this special day? If anything, I’d say they were happier in many ways. They have none of the pressure which commercialization has brought to the Western Christmas and are just happy to spend time enjoying each other’s presence, and maybe doing a little less work for a day.

Now, if you go to urban Africa, then it’s an entirely different kettle of fish – or turkey if you’d rather. The swarming main streets of crazy Cotonou, Benin, are lit with brightly-shining, bell-shaped lights, alternating red and yellow for about a mile. Enormous Christmas trees – artificial of course – adorn the lobbies of swanky hotels, which pipe cheesy festive airs through every speaker at their disposal. And any white person outdoors at this time of the year, will be followed by groups of children carrying nativity scenes they have made from cardboard boxes (of varying quality, but never quite up to Blue Peter standard). As they scurry along behind you, they all sing the same song, in the hope of a coin in return. It goes:

Mon petit Papa Noël
Quand tu descendras du ciel
Avec tes cadeaux par milliers
N’oublie pas mon petit soulier

Which means:

My little Father Christmas
When you come down from the skies
With your thousands of presents
Don’t forget my little shoe

In many capital cities, a Christmas Market is held – for the ex-patriates of course, although some more prosperous Africans go along, often those who have lived in the West. The markets sell jewellery, wooden carvings, paintings, clothing, dried pineapple and mango chunks, peanuts – anything these ‘rich foreigners’ will spend their money on. At one such market, there was even the chance for my three children to go and see Father Christmas (for a small fee, of course). The queue was short and we were soon stepping into his tinsel-filled grotto.
Bienvenu les enfants! Venez vous asseoir!” he called out, in a tone of voice which somewhat betrayed the fact he’d already said these very words twenty-seven times today. Now, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to see a black Santa – this is Africa, after all, but I’d never seen one before, and consequently suffered a minor culture-shock at the sight of this skinny, dark-skinned chap, sweating profusely beneath his red and white coat and fake beard. He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t even say “Ho, ho, ho”, but he did look the part. My children – having grown up in West Africa, did not bat an eyelid – why would Santa have to be white anyway? I thought for a moment, but decided against explaining to them what a native of Greenland ought to look like; they were happy, he was happy, and my kids went away clutching three gifts with a combined value of less than half the entry fee. Kerching!

You see, urban Africa has quickly learned that, at Christmas time, Westerners go crazy and spend even more money than they do the rest of the year. And so, every opportunity is taken to quite literally cash in on this. The larger supermarkets (still no bigger than your average Co-op) are adorned with giant inflatable Santas, reindeer or even snowmen. (How many local folk even know what snow is?) Inside, you can buy all manner of festive fare: French cheeses, wines, spirits, pâtés, chocolates – even Ferrero Rocher. Then there are Christmas lights, balloons, tinsel, party poppers, over-priced board games and endless tacky toys made in China, guaranteed to last at least until Boxing Day. Artificial trees – green, white or silver – take up a significant area of the shop floor, ranging from small and cheap to huge and expensive. I once even saw a real Christmas tree in a Lebanese-run supermarket in Bamako, Mali. Goodness knows what journey it must have made to get there. And it was priced at a mere 250,000 cfa – that’s three hundred English pounds. Tempted as I was, I decided I couldn’t quite justify blowing that much on a tree, however lovely it looked – or smelt! The best thing is that none of this starts until early December, when the supermarkets’ containers of festive goods finally arrive and are unpacked. Before that, there’s not even a hint of Christmas. And so, we get three weeks at the most of Christmassy goings- on, which is quite long enough in my book.

As a family, we always managed to recreate a pretty passable Christmas Dinner with what we could get hold of. Veg is easily available from any market: carrots, potatoes, beans – sometimes even broccoli. Brussels sprouts are something of a challenge, however, and can only be found in the tinned variety. They ooze out of the can, soft and brown and squashed, tasting even worse than the real thing. One British friend who spent an African Christmas with us almost a decade ago, still cites the ‘tinned sprouts’ as his most ‘memorable’ experience of the day. Mind you, he wasn’t there the year we bought a most interesting turkey from our Lebanese merchants down the road: My wife, Lois, was alone in the kitchen when she unwrapped the bird one sunny Christmas morning. She let out an almighty scream, and came running into the lounge, crying:
“You do the turkey, you do the turkey!”

Intrigued, I went into our small kitchen, only to find an entire turkey, lying on the worktop: head, beak, claws – the lot. It looked just like, well, a dead turkey. It took me a good half hour of twisting, dislocating and chopping, before it even started to resemble a British supermarket turkey. And we got less meat than expected that year – I had paid for five pounds of ‘turkey’, but wasn’t expecting the first pound to be inedible.

If you gave me a choice between the three types of Christmas alluded to above, then I’d choose the urban African Christmas almost every time. I know I’d miss cosy log fire-lit pubs, the smell of real Christmas trees, and fresh sprouts. But an African Christmas is a much more relaxing affair, and does not invade your life for a quarter of the year, like back home. And you can choose to be Christmassy or not, getting together with like-minded ex-pats to enjoy a simple festive celebration, without the sometimes awkward obligation of spending a day with extended family members you hardly know. The weather’s warm and sunny too, of course, affording one the chance to sing outdoor Christmas carols in a tee-shirt (just don’t forget your mosquito repellent).

I love an African city Christmas, but, just occasionally – maybe every three or four years – take me to an African village for a Christmas untarnished by materialism, and where genuine love and hospitality pervade all aspects of life. For me, that’s what Christmas is really about.

Rob Baker
December, 2014

Rob is author of “Adventures in Music and Culture”, available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. He lived in West Africa for eight years and is currently writing his second book, which is set in Mali.

Read an earlier blog post about Christmas in West Africa here (including a picture with Santa!)

Pictures of the turkey incident can be found on this blog post.

Filed Under (Beninese culture, Ethnomusicology, General) by Rob on 01-11-2014

Rob’s first book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” has appeared in a number of publications and websites over the past few months. Here are some of them…
(1) In June, the book appeared in Goodreads.com

Have a look at the page here. It currently has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 – would you be able to rate it on there too?
(2) In August 2014, it was added to “Travel Africa” magazine’s Summer Reading List

Travel Africa Magazine2
(3) Then, in September, World Magazine listed it amongst their top ten, for being the “most interesting and well-written”. Click here to see the page.

World Mag2
(4) Also in September, I made it into the pages of “Wanderlust Magazine”, a UK-wide publication for those interested in world travel. It can be found on page 21 (click here to view).

Wanderlust Magazine review2
(5) And finally, the book can be found on the For Your Bookcase website where, amazingly, it’s on sale for two pounds less than on Amazon!

For Your Bookcase2

If you are able, I’d be really grateful if you could share the book with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Also, if you could review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be really helpful too!


1. Sunshine
I’ve just come from Bamako, Mali, which gets an average of TEN hours of sunshine a day. Ten hours!! Sometimes, we’re lucky to get that much in a week back home.
2. Nice tropical fruit
Succulent pineapples, tasty bananas, juicy mangos – they never taste as good back home. When my mother visited Africa, she didn’t like the taste of the bananas. That’s because she’d eaten nothing but bland, almost tasteless British imports, so when she finally experienced the REAL banana taste, it was too much!
Oh, and the ‘large mangos’ in Tesco are not large – not by African standards at least 🙂
3. Cheap public transport
The other day I made the two mile journey into town for the equivalent of 21 pence. Sure, we were crammed into a dented, rusty minibus with no door on the side but, hey, the ventilation was good, and the journey exciting!
4. Chwarmas
I know they’re not African, but there are great Lebanese chwarma restaurants throughout francophone West Africa. For those who haven’t sampled their delights, a chwarma is a bit like a doner kebab, but soooo much nicer. 
5. Being able to chat to anyone, anywhere
If you try to engage in conversation with a stranger back home, you might get funny looks, or even be ignored (unless, of course, you’re asking for directions or you live in Yorkshire). In Africa, I’ll walk through the Market and warmly greet anyone, asking how their family and work are doing, and wishing a blessing upon them. In fact, so many folk say ‘hello’ to me in the market, that I have to ignore some, or I’d never get anywhere. I wish Brits would talk to each other more (it really doesn’t hurt, honest!)
6. Dramatic thunder storms
Occasionally – very occasionally – Britain has a huge thunder storm. Think of one of those, then double it. I LOVE African thunder storms: so loud, so dramatic, so exciting. 
One time, in Cote d’Ivoire, lightning struck a friend’s house and the strip light fell from the ceiling and smashed on the floor below. And in Cotonou once, a palm tree spontaneously caught fire when a thunder bolt hit it. Scary, but so exciting!
7. Being able to wear brightly-coloured clothes all the time
In Britain, if you wear anything brighter than brown, black, navy or grey, it’s rather out of the ordinary. So, when I turn up at church there in my red, yellow and green shirt depicting giraffes and lions, people cannot help but make lighthearted – but nevertheless critical – comments. “Turn that down mate!” “Are you going to Hawaii?!” “Do you think you’re still in Africa?” Answer: no, because if I were in Africa, nobody would make these cutting comments. There, I’ve walked down the street in what look like pyjamas and it’s completely normal. How you dress is of minuscule importance compared with who you are (and how you treat others).
8. The ex-pat sub-culture
For some reason, you make friends more quickly ‘on the field’. You also become good friends more often than not, and remain in contact even after you’ve left. I think it’s partly due to the ‘all in the same boat’ syndrome, as everyone’s away from their home culture. Also, some embassy staff only do two years in one place, so you can hardly wait six months before inviting them round! Whatever the reason, some – nay most – of my best friends have lived overseas at some point. It gives you a different outlook on life and, I think, a more balanced world view.
9. Being able to speak African languages
Because they’re fun! Lots of interesting sounds like ‘gb’ and ‘kp’, fascinating greetings and interesting vocabulary. In one language, the word for ‘bike’ means ‘metal horse’. Another has 15 words for ‘banana’ and only one for all vehicles. Such fun!
10. Hand shakes
Apart from the very first time you meet someone, we don’t tend to shake hands in Britain much. In Africa, you shake hands every day when you meet – I like that. And there are some funky variations too including the ‘finger click handshake’ on the W African coast. 

Rob’s Book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” is available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. Find out more here.

Filed Under (Beninese culture, General, Malian culture) by Rob on 25-08-2014

Now, before I start this list, a disclaimer: firsly, I LOVE Africa, even though there are things about it that I don’t like. Secondly, some of the things listed below are also reasons why I love Africa, because they are what makes Africa Africa. Finally, I leave this beautiful continent tomorrow and know I will miss it, so this is my own personal therapy to soften the blow somewhat. Here goes…


1. Being constantly conspicuous because of the colour of my skin
I walk out of my front door and, within seconds am greeted with “Toubabou!” (which means “White person”). I walk down the street, and at least every five minutes, a small child shouts at me: “Toubabou! Give me 100 francs!”
On the edge of the market, a mobile phone card salesman spots me, and calls out: “Orange!” Because I’m white, I must want to buy phone credit, and might not notice him if he doesn’t call out. He is wearing a fluorescent orange vest, mind you, and is standing beneath an orange-coloured parasol in front of a big orange booth (which so has the word “ORANGE” emblazoned across the front). Still, he has to thrust the cards in my face calling out: “Orange! Orange! Orange!” just to be sure I don’t miss him.
At the market, every stall holder is vying for my attention. ” Toubabou, what are you looking for?” “Toubabou, step inside.” “Toubabou, come and look at my jewellery…”
The other day (and by no means for the first time) I was walking towards a T-junction. A taxi passing on the road ahead spied me out the corner of his eye, stopped, then reversed back until he was level with me. “Taxi?!” You see, because I was white, and walking, I must want to get in a car! Sometimes it kind of makes you feel special, but other days I just want to be invisible.
2. Corruption
It’s that sound you dread: the traffic policeman had blown his whistle to stop you. “Your papers please!” You know there’s nothing wrong with your papers – or your vehicle for that matter – but experience tells you that he’s likely to give you a hard time in the hope of getting a bribe.
“Your windscreen is cracked, I will have to confiscate your papers.”
The tiny dint in the glass is no more than half an inch across and definitely not grounds for this.
“Or we can try and settle it here and now,” he adds. Sigh! Half an hour of patient pleading later, and the papers are returned. You only have three choices here: have your papers confiscated, wait patiently, or continue to fuel corruption in Africa. Please choose wisely.
3. Mosquitos!
They get everywhere, through the tiniest hole in your screening or net. They can buzz annoyingly, give itchy bites and – of course – pass on the biggest killer in sub-Saharan Africa: malaria. And even the non-malarial kind can give you dengue fever. Nasty wee beasties, with no redeeming features I can think of.
4. Dangerous driving conditions
You’re driving through the city, swerving round huge potholes when a taxi overtaking a lorry heads straight towards you. You break and swerve to the side, narrowly avoiding the ditch. Back on the road, and a man is pushing his two-wheeled cart in front of you. You want to overtake, but motorbikes are hurtling past you on both sides. When it’s finally clear, you pass, but have to brake almost immediately: a donkey, its front legs tethered together with string, has strayed into the middle if the road. You break and skid to a halt, inches from its terrified eyes. As you do so, an inattentive motorcyclist collides with your wing mirror, breaking it into pieces. And that’s just a one minute extract of driving in urban Africa!
5. The continent’s continued over-reliance on the West
New tarmacked road in Benin – who build it? The Belgians.
Bamako gets a New Bridge – who paid for it? The Chinese.
Now, these are positive developments, but I wish Africa could take control of its own development, and manage, somehow, to build its own infrastructures. If this doesn’t eventually happen, the whole continent will continue to rely upon the West like it does now, and this fosters a ‘nanny state’ attitude amongst many locals: ‘Not to worry, the West will come and bail us out again soon’. I don’t deny the continent’s poverty, or need for aid, but I wish Africa were able to control and manage its own development more.
6. Not being told the truth
“How long will my meal take?” “Only ten minutes, sir.” An hour later, it arrives.
“When does this bus leave?” “Right away, sir!” Three hours later…
“Here’s some money for a new bike.” “Okay, I will buy one tonight.” Next day, he has no bike, and had given the money to his family.
Africa has a ‘shame and honour’ culture. This means that appearing shameful is the worst thing ever, whilst appearing honourable – even if it means lying – is the desired outcome. This is very frustrating for Westerners and, of course, leads to a greater dishonour in the long run.
7. Political instability
You see it time and again: election season comes and most ex-pats decide it’s a good time to take an extended vacation, just in case. All too often, democracy has failed in Africa; introduced by the West, it is a good system of government in principle. However, it doesn’t tend to fit naturally with African history, culture or the African psyche. And so, elections are held and – often – folk know already who’s going to win. If the ‘correct’ outcome is not achieved, then there is unrest. I’m told that Senegal is the only country in West Africa never to have had a coup d’état.
8. Inverted racism, which puts whites on a pedestal
I ask directions to the nearest electrical store. The chap offers to take me, adding: “We’ll go this way, past my friends’ house. They will be impressed when they see me with a white man.”
Why? What’s the difference? The only difference is that, on average, we’ve had more opportunities. For education, healthcare, transport etc. But why do many Africans still look upon us as ‘better’. Culturally, Africa is much richer than the West, I’d say. And the importance of relationships, family and spending time together is much more accentuated in Africa. We’ve thrown much of that away, in favour of long working hours, making money and materialism. So, Africa, please don’t think that we’re superior; we just have a different history and different priorities.

9. People always asking me for things
This was touched upon in #1, but to many Africans, a white face is like a walking cash point. “They’re white, therefore they have money, therefore I can ask them for some.” After money, the second most common request is for medicines, and in third place is requests for ‘an invitation to your country’. But during my time in Africa, I’ve also been asked for the following:
a guitar
a camera
a drum kit
photocopying bills
a donkey(!)
a motorbike
Sooner or later, you have to learn to say ‘no’.
10. No change in the shops
I don’t even know why this is the case. You go to buy a loaf of bread for 300 francs. You give them a 1,000 franc note. They look at you (almost disgusted) and say: “Have you got 200 francs?”
“No, I haven’t.” There’s a long pause, then the reply:
“We have no change.” Some shops will say they’ll give you it next time, others will – eventually – go next door and try to find change. One supermarket used to give sweets out instead of change! Crazy, but there you have it.


Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.

1. Mobile phone scratch cards to top up your credit
Yes, rather than set up a direct debit (many phone owners don’t even have a bank account), you buy small cards, scratch off the silver covering and type in the number. It’s often something like *123*[number]#. You can also transfer credit (or even money!!) to others via your mobile phone.
2. Four people on a motorbike
Or 50 chickens, or four goats, or an eight foot mirror, or a giant lorry tyre, or 200 baguettes. Or, how about this:

3. Cream to make your skin lighter
It always seems ironic that the West strives to get ‘a nice tan’ and look darker whilst Africans (and Indians) tend to find lighter skin more attractive.
4. Restaurants where you can eat a big main course for 50p
Admittedly, you probably have to eat it with your (right) hand from a communal bowl, but it’s still tasty and decidedly filling. Hardly worth ever cooking for yourself at that rate!
5. Taxis (and lorries) with slogans emblazoned across their rear bumpers
Many of them say things like “God is Love” or “God bless you”. This one says: “Jesus Protects Me”:
And don’t forget that many of the lorries have impressive artwork on their rear mudflaps – click here to see a previous blog post on this.
6.People at traffic lights either begging, selling things, or washing windscreens
Top items on sale include: Watches (always watches, always dodgy), boxes of tissues, maps of Africa, games of Scrabble, inflatable Santas and electric mosquito rackets. But I’ve also seen puppy dogs, clocks, stereo systems and green parrots, to name but a few. If the lights change and you’ve agreed a sale, you will often see them running frantically after you, until you get chance to stop further on.
7. Market stalls selling meat with added flies (free of charge!)
Oh yes! Plenty of flies! I always hold my breath when passing that bit of the market, because of the smell as well as the insects. Mind you, once cooked, the meat tastes good!
8. Colourful costumes portraying hair driers, lampshades, chickens, pound signs or knives and forks.
Oh yes – bright colours and large, bold designs are the order of the day here, and nobody makes negative comments like “turn that shirt down!” It’s just part of the culture. See some examples here.
9. Random heaps of rubbish on street corners.
Everywhere, anywhere. Particularly in West Africa (over East) in my experience. Look at this one – the sign even reads “No dumping”!!
10. People who congratulate you for putting on weight. “Well done, you’re fat!”
You see, if you’re fat then it’s a sign of wealth. In other words, you can afford enough food to get fat, so you’re rich. I often ponder the immense contrast between this and the West, where most people frequently over-eat, end then have to pay to join a gym to get thinner.

Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.

Filed Under (Ethnomusicology, General) by Rob on 12-08-2014

Last week, I had the privilege of working with musicians from three different ethnic groups in southern Cote d’Ivoire: The Bakwe, the Avikam, and the rather unpronounceable Nglwa.

Although the journey there was significantly shorter than last week’s trip to Daloa, the last few miles were nethertheless quite challenging:

Road resized

After half an hour of bumps, turns and strange angles of driving, we finally arrived at the Catholic retreat centre where the workshop was to be held. A beautiful oasis of calm on the banks of the lagoon, just north of the coast itself:

Bounoua Workshop

As soon as we got there, we checked into our accommodation:

Bounoua Workshop2

Nice rooms, and mine even had an extra special guest waiting for me:

After dinner and introductions, it was time for bed. We have almost 25 participants this week, though the Avikam are low in number for now.

Next day, and teaching began. I started off as I do with most courses of this kind I have taught, by asking two questions:

(i) What is culture?
(ii) Is music a universal language?

The answer to (ii) is almost always given as ‘yes’, until I explain more clearly, giving examples from across the globe. After this, participants realize that, whilst music is a universal phenomenon, it is not a universal language, as every culture of the world defines, composes and makes music in a different way.

We then make the logical step on to the importance of one’s own culture and how, when artforms from the local culture are used, it speaks to members of that culture in a powerful way, and communication is improved too.

Bounoua Workshop1

After this, we list all the song genres present in each culture. A song genre is just a style of song linked – in Africa – to a specific event. Songs for weddings, funerals, harvest, initiation, hunting, war, and dancing in the moonlight. Once listed, we see how many of these have already been adapted for church use and which ones could be used. Sometimes they are almost all already used in church, sometimes almost none have been used. But the idea is the same as that of Charles Wesley: to use the music closest to the heart of those we are trying to reach. We call this contextualization. Or, as William Booth said: “Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?”

In the afternoon, each ethnic group chooses from a list of parables in Luke’s Gospel, being sure to pick ones which speak to the needs of their culture. For example, one participant said to me: “We don’t have mustard seeds here”, and so this was clearly not the best choice of parable for his people group!

Mealtimes were fun and the food was varied: meat or fish with rice, yam chips, spaghetti, or foutou banane:

Day Two
And we begin with teaching on how to improve a song. This includes a number of questions such as “Is the song easy to learn?” “Is the message of the refrain clear and catchy?” “What other instruments could the song include?” Groups then have chance to work on yesterday’s songs. There is further teaching and then, in the afternoon, a second composing session.

Day Three is mostly given over to practising the songs composed, and perfecting them, ready for recording. However, we also do some teaching on organology, and each group lists (and draws) it’s idiophones, cordophones, membranophones and aerophones! Here are some of them:


Day Four is recording day! We have a total of ten songs, all based upon parables. As well as using and celebrating local music styles, these songs will also promote scripture usage and encourage literacy, as well as communicating Bible stories in a clear and culturally-relevant way. Even though each people group had a free choice from over 20 parables, they all stuck to the same few, but these should be the ones which speak best to their world. Here’s what they chose:

Avikam: The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Good Samaritan and The Lost Sheep
Bakwe: The Good Samaritan, The House on the Rock, The Rich Man and Lazarus, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Nglwa: The House on the Rock, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep

Once again, there was a nice square gazebo (or apatam) under which to record the songs:


I only had one microphone stand available for the workshop, and so the chorus mic was suspended from the rafters. Then, the end of the string was attached to a chair, so that the height of the microphone could be altered simply by moving the chair forward or backwards! The remaining two microphones (for drums & other percussion) were taped to chairs.


Now, have a listen to extracts from three of the parable songs I recorded:

1. The Pharisee and the Tax Collector by the Bakwe people

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2. The House on the Rock by the Nglwa people

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3. The Lost Sheep by the Avikam people

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Click here to read Chapter One of Rob’s Book “Adventures in Music and Culture” free of charge. The book recounts Rob’s travels to eight similar workshops in Togo and Benin, and has received seven 5-star review so far.


Filed Under (General) by Rob on 03-08-2014


I’m so pleased to be back in Africa, where there’s always something to blog about! And last week was no exception…

The workshop, held in Daloa, begun on Wednesday with some teaching on the importance of indigenous song genres, particularly in worship:

(Click to enlarge photos)

After this, our 30 participants split into groups and begun composing new songs, based upon different Psalms. I encouraged them to (i) use local song styles for their songs (ii) choose a genre which would match their song thematically (if possible) and musically and (iii) to use local instruments where available.


There were three different ethnic groups present: The Wobe, the Djimini and the Nyaboa, and each of these groups was divided into two smaller groups, giving us six new songs by the end of the afternoon.


Day two began with more teaching, then a second composing session, and the songs were even better this time round! On Friday, some final teaching on instruments and research, then the afternoon was set aside for practising all the songs composed.


Saturday was recording day, and I set the equipment up at 7:00am, ready to begin recording around 8:00. I sat there until 12:30pm, bringing in each ethnic group to perform and record their songs, using four microphones and a mixing desk. All based upon the Psalms, each song was different and fascinating. I was surprised to hear a lot of indigenous two-part harmonies, and lots of polyphony, not just in the percussion section.

But don’t take my word for it, have a listen yourself!
Here’s the Djimini’s rendition of Psalm 8:

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And here’s one of the Wobe’s songs, based on Psalm 51:9-11:

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Finally (my favourite of all), here’s Psalm 137 by the Nyaboa. Wow – listen to that counterpoint!

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Interested in finding out more about how an ethnomusicologist runs a song-writing workshop? Read Rob’s book Adventures in Music and Culture.


Filed Under (General) by Rob on 30-07-2014

Another ‘top ten’ for you today, based upon my day’s experience, and another 9 years living in this continent:

1. Smoke from a log fire – it’s just not the same as a bonfire or barbecue smell, but I love it! It also probably means that something tasty is being cooked!

2. Diesel – particulary from lorries, although a Peugeot pickup passed us today and was belching out an amazing quantity of smelly smoke.

3. Baygon bug spray – it does what it says on the tin, but it doesn’t half stink!

4. Sandy dust after a vehicle passes – close your mouths folks!

5. ‘Jungle Formula’ insect repellent – I’m wearing it now, and it’s a kind of a lemongrass-type smell I’ve grown to quite like over the years.

6. Open sewers – not pleasant.

7. Perspiration – it happens! But most of the time it’s fairly bearable 😉

8. Strong ladies’ perfume – that’s the perfume’s aroma, not the ladies who are strong (though many are).

9. African rain – before you write in to complain, I know that rain itself doesn’t smell of much. But the smell of the streets, lawns, plants and trees after a rainfall is heavenly indeed.

10. Roast chicken – fresh in my mind as I just had some. On many street corners in a big African city, you can find folk roasting or grilling chicken, often on a rotisserie. Very tasty, and tonight’s dinner was not exception (even if it did take 90 minutes to arrive!

Thanks for reading.