Hagan, Gafacci & Rvdical the Kid. Photo: Crudo Volta.

How African Polyrhythms Are the Root of European Club Music

We talk to Crudo Volta, creators of the new documentary Yenkyi Taxi, about the deep influence of African polyrhythms.

Polyrhythms, in the West African context, have long been a fertile foundation over which to tell stories. A percussive history passed through generations—through slavery and migration to North America and Europe—the polyrhythm offers a familiar soundtrack for us in the African diaspora.

Within it's contemporary context, the polyrhythm is an export firmly incubated in improvisation from highlife, jazz and funk. The advent of sampling machines soon allowed the percussive break patterns from those genres to be recorded and sampled as loops. As music software became more sophisticated, so did the innovation in changing the tempo of the polyrhythms playing at various speeds, yet still providing the backbone of the beat. A thread later emblematic in hip-hop, the broader-styled breakbeat within the early epoch of the UK rave scene to jungle and drum 'n' bass across the Atlantic.

African polyrhythms—now consumed under the umbrella of house (and it's many sub-genres) across the Mediterranean or the palatable acronym of EDM for American eardrums—have crossed over into the mainstream. There has been a fresh reconnection to the root of the African polyrhythms from the children of those from former colonies in the migrant communities of London and Lisbon through UK funky, kuduro and most recently the Afro-prefixed sound. A digital duality mindful of the past dances with pride into the future, resonating with peers who are taking ownership of their blackness on a global level.

A visual example of this unwavering commitment to own and tell the black experience around African culture is seen through the work of Italian based collective Crudo Volta. Following their excellent debut documentary film, Woza Taxi, which delved into the gqom sound incubated in the townships of Durban, Yenkyi Taxi is their latest visual narrative shifting the focus to how African polyrhythms are the root of European club music.

With the symbol of the Sankofa Bird prominent in the documentary, Yenkyi Taxi is set in Ghana and challenges the archetypal academic gaze which African music often goes through via Brendan "Hagan" Opoku-Ware, a British born producer of Ghanaian descent. The film follows him as he explores the impact heritage has had on his music and the influence of club culture growing up in London.

Collaborating with Accra-based beatsmiths Gafacci and Rvdical The Kid, Yenkyi Taxi is an erudite visual exploration that transcends physical location and champions the contemporary electronic music scene in Ghana whilst paying homage to highlife. Its holistic and considered approach blends the past and present via panoramic shots of bountiful flora and the church as a catalyst for music. The film brings a raw authenticity bereft of appropriation that reaffirms the origins of black sound as one of strength rather than struggle.

We spoke with Hagan and Mike "Michele" Calandra Achode, the creative director of Crudo Volta on the idea of Yenkyi, diaspora and the importance of owning narratives on African culture.

In your opinion, how are African polyrhythms the root of European Club music?

Mike: When it comes to clubbing genres, European crowds have always had a natural inclination for tracks that have a particular emphasis on percussive elements. It's not a mystery that the greatest producers in techno, drum & bass and house have always looked to the African drumming tradition with a sense of reverence and as a sort of historical reference.

Because, if you produce music that is particularly percussion-driven, you will inevitably end up taking inspiration from the African drumming heritage at some point I suppose, simply because African drumming legacy is so huge and pervasive. On top of that you also have had a considerable process of migration of a sub-Saharan African demographic towards Europe in the last 25 years which in addition to changing the social fabric of countries is also igniting a process of, let's say, musical osmosis. So the public spaces where our musical cultures are displayed , (i.e barbershops, market stalls, raves etc.) become a great resource of inspiration and assimilation but sometimes also of cultural theft for producers in search of identity, novelty and ideas. And, you have the Internet of course. That's where possibly documentaries like ours, and many others, show their utility, because they try to reveal contexts and broader narratives, behaving as assets of cataloguing and cultural ownership.

Hagan: I'd say the polyrhythms add complexity to tracks, keeping club music dynamic but at the same time challenging the common rhythmic patterns we may be used to hearing. They almost produce a hypnotic feel which can induce anyone who may be listening to these rhythms into a trance after a prolonged period of listening. Now this technique has been used in various underground genres, aiding the process of evolving many different club sounds and keeping grooves diverse.

The documentary is titled Yenkyi Taxi—Yenkyi is an Akan term (Yen-Che) linked to this idea of the Sankofa proverb of returning back to Africa. What was calling you to go back?

H: I think what really sparked my interest to do this was the big influence Ghanaian music had on my music. However, I've never really done a project which focused on that aspect of Ghanaian influence. So I just said to myself that this would be the project where I would go back to Ghana learn a bit more the music culture and really make a project which is dedicated to coming from that country.

M: I guess we were also having a discussion about how these West African rhythmic patterns have been used in UK funky as well but there has never been an official conversation or reflection on it. So we thought since he (Hagan) had a project called Gold Coast, which focused heavily on his origins as a producer, he thought it would be interesting to have a follow up to Gold Coast. That was the main aim.

How does your dual identity impact upon the music and aid the dialogue about the influence of African polyrhythms?

H: I think it's all about the fact that when I was younger I was listening to African music all the time in my household. I was DJing with my uncle. I was going to parties playing Ghanaian music. As I grew up I started to listen to other forms of music on underground radio stations. I could hear similarities in the drums and rhythms to what I used to hear when I was younger. The importance of having that dual nationality has allowed me to experiment and see if I can produce something tapping into the two cultures essentially.

Mike, how do you find it from a creative and holistic viewpoint as you're clocking all these different threads globally?

M: I was born in the Republic of Benin and I moved to Italy when I was nine years old. I've always been slightly unhappy at how Africa looks and feels from an establishment viewpoint especially when it comes to genres or cultures which have a fusion between what's happening on the continent and in Europe. I started reflecting on aesthetics and what kind could be used to project a new image of black music communities away from a broad anthropological perspective. So I used tools such as vernacular language and visual research which you usually apply to Graphic Design in order to come up with a visual language. It's something I've done for this documentary as a Graphic Designer as well. If you look at the documentary, it starts in a very grey environment and Hagan is dressed in Grey as well but when you get to Africa it becomes very very colourful.

Religion plays an important part to music in the documentary and I thought about growing up and how going to church was essentially the first time I ever went to a rave.

M: (Both laugh) That's what we said as well!

H: That's so funny you said that…It's basically a rave yeah.

You don't pay entry until they do collection.

H: (Laughs) That's so true and you have your different BPMs as well.

Within that, how did you find that talking drum element in that church environment evolve into gospel, highlife, etc.?

M: For me it was very interesting as I put much emphasis on this. When we observed gqom, it antagonised traditional Zulu music in a sense that they're obsessed with building an aesthetic which is really pertinent to their time. This is not because they hate traditional Zulu culture but because they don't have the tools to translate it and make it their own, so the shortcut was "okay we're gonna make our own." This time in Ghana was completely different because contemporary musicians wanted an upper grade of traditional music. So they're really aware of what's happening. Even talking with him (Hagan), he was playing percussion in church and made sure I was aware of this. "I started this whole creative output from church and then it moves to the club," that was his training as a music creator and I found it very interesting.

H: The reason why I try to emphasise the church being such a major player for me is because, as Mike said, music almost started for me at church. So I always try and incorporate those traditional instruments into my music. Even understanding that in church there's a whole structure—you have your praise and then you have your worship (as part of the service)—I've always tried to ensure that I can incorporate some of those praise rhythms in my music as well.

How did you find the contributions of the fellow featured artists Gafacci and Rvdical The Kid to the documentary?

M: We were very focused on Gafacci. He's a producer from Accra and he's part of the post-azonto wave of producers. They try to mix elements of contemporary music in Ghana with a traditional element in bass music. So to some extent he was sharing the same approach that Hagan had but he was based in Accra. I thought it would be interesting to have him and Hagan in the same room then he came up with other producers. Rvdical the Kid is one and he's on a different tempo because his inspiration is from hip-hop really and he was around the Soulection collective.

H: : Gafacci is very knowledgeable about what's going on in the Ghanaian scene and what's going on globally. He understands the major players. He understands where his input can be positioned within music. Rvdical also understands himself as a musician, as he went to school in the United States, and how that influence has had a key part in how he makes music as well. Gafacci makes music in a similar way to me. I think we all came to a conclusion that the music we make may sound quite complex but what we're doing is quite simple. I think that point shows that we all pay homage to our tradition and all understood the fact that it's very important to know where you've come from and always keep that within your music no matter how much you're involving just keep that…your roots.

What was your favourite moment of the Yenkyi Taxi documentary?

H: I think my favourite was when we had studio sessions at VIVIVI Studios in Accra

M: Yes that was unforgettable!

H: I always said to myself in my projects that I want to capture that raw authentic African drum sound. I want to capture those grooves at a high skill level that I can play myself a little bit but not as naturally as some of those instrumentalists there. I said as part of the project we would book out a session in the studio with a percussionist. VIVIVI Studios is based in West Legon and there was a percussionist there called Nii. I had already created a skeleton track of what I wanted to layer some of those drums on. Soon as I pressed play on that track Nii was feeling it and everyone was like "okay!"

M: My highlight was the church. The first time I became consciously aware of music was during my great grandmother's death and in Africa when you have a celebration like this, it's a party and people come to the house with big speakers. I've seen that same vibe in the church and for me it was like returning to the past. Another moment for me was in our Airbnb before we left and this kid was a guardian of the place. He took me to buy a Vodafone card and we were crossing the road. He looked at me and said "You're very lucky… You're blessed." I looked at him and I basically saw myself. That was me 20 years ago. That could've been me in that moment and it made me more conscious about what I'm doing and why I'm really lucky as I'm in a position to speak, behave and project things in a certain way. That was really powerful and I really saw myself. That was me in the streets of Cotonou and Porto-Novo as a kid and now I'm here shooting the streets of the country. Everything made sense and it was really a loop.

Collage by Ta'Ron Joyner

I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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