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What Exactly Is Nigeria’s New “Pon Pon” Sound?

What is the “pon pon” sound pervading Nigerian pop today?

Back in June, Davido shared a snapchat saying “Na ‘pon pon’ sound dey reign now ooo!! NO JONZE!! ALL OTHER SOUNDS NAH D LEAST FOR NOW LMAO.”

It was widely believed to be a shot aimed at Wizkid whose singles from Sounds From The Other Side relied heavily on dancehall, when much of Nigerian pop was settling into an era of calm production, an import from Ghana.

Davido, for his part, has found new heights for success since the release of “If” at the beginning of the year, followed by “Fall.” The production on both songs is also today referred to as “Pon Pon.”

Other well known examples have been “Mad Over You” and “For Life,” both by Runtown, as well as others from Falz, P-Square, and more recently from Flavour and Wizkid.

So, “Pon Pon” has been used to describe both the dancehall and hiplife influences, while being markedly different from each other.

The signature percussion in dancehall is the dembow, while that which is borrowed from Ghana is “characterized by its mellow vibe and soft-hitting synths, mostly in pairs, hence the name “Pon Pon” says Sess The Problem Kid, the formidable producer whose beat tape we premiered early this year.

Speaking over WhatsApp messages from his base in Lagos, Nigeria, Sess says “I can’t say where exactly it originated from, but I can say that people started paying more attention to it after ‘Pana’ by Tekno.” He also adds that “the pair of soft synths is not always compulsory. It’s just a common feature.”

“Pana” was released, just over a year ago, in July 2016 and is now now closing in on 45 million YouTube views. Tekno’s first big single was the heavy-rhythmed “Dance” in 2014, before re-establishing himself in 2016 with the mellow “Duro.” He dropped other singles but it was “Pana” which took him to new heights, also ushering in this era of calm.

Some will point to Mr Eazi’s “Skin Tight” (2015) which was produced by Juls, who is Ghanaian & British, and whose style rarely veers off the mid-tempo or mellow as evident on his delightful album Leap of Faith.

“Skin Tight” doesn’t have the precise arrangement of soft synths referred to as “Pon Pon” but is defined by an insistent-yet-soft piano and percussion that made it a hit across Nigeria, Ghana and London at a time when the dancehall-influenced version of “Pon Pon” was in rude health.

Osagie Alonge, editor-in-chief at Pulse Nigeria and host of a pop culture podcast called Loose Giant, believes the confusion over what exactly is “Pon Pon” is symptomatic of a bigger societal concern in Nigeria “the confusion goes back to us not clearly defining things, and when we don’t define things, we mix them up.”

Both Sess and Alonge appear more interested in how much listeners have taken to the sound, and less about agonising over it’s origins or any talk of appropriation. Alonge believes “it’s just another wave that comes into the music industry and everybody rides on it until someone veers off. This has been happening for over a decade now since ‘konto music.’ Terry G and Timaya had their own styles and everybody also went on that wave.”

Do people ever know why they like a particular piece of music? Everything can be described physically—the stacked percussion on a trap beat, the knock on the dembow, the gong an ogene makes—but are these the specific reasons why people take to any one sound?

The answer may well be neurological or even spiritual, but beyond the emotions they evoke, or dancing and singing they encourage, only the particularly interested will worry their heads with the sound’s ontology.

Despite being a producer himself, Sess is more interested in how well the sound has been received “I feel like what makes a song last goes beyond what it sounds like. If people can connect on a personal level, it becomes a part of them and so it resonates”.

Sess would rather not guess how long the Ghanaian-inflected “Pon Pon” sound will dominate, and if by next summer a newer wave would cascade into another as trends tend to. The bigger problem, Alonge insists, is that “we’ve failed in curating the periods in music and basically almost everything in Nigeria.”

Mr Eazi, who is of Nigerian & Ghanaian heritage, ruffled feathers in January when he tweeted saying “Ghana’s influence on Nigeria music cannot be overemphasized” an open secret that continues to be a hidden truth.

The many who slagged Mr Eazi off for stating the obvious in January could not have imagined just how pervasive this latest borrowing from Ghana will become by August.

As pervasive as the trend is, and as easy as the sound is to sing to, not every artist could have adopted it successfully. I ask both Sess and Alonge for examples songs based on Ghanaian-influenced “Pon Pon” which have failed and neither will give examples, perhaps to avoid offending industry colleagues and friends.

Alonge does one better by sending to me an Instagram montage (above) of the many Ghanaian-style “Pon Pon” songs made so far, which shows how indistinguished many are, but also how ubiquitous and continuously soothing it is.

The reader and listener will judge what songs are failures and which ones are successes.

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