The "Working in Ghana" Project


[Dr. Stevens grew up in England, but spent some time as a child in Ghana, where his father was a university faculty member. Now in his 50's, he has spent half his life in Ghana. He has owned a recording studio in Ghana for more than a decade. Dr. Stevens completed his Ph.D. a few years ago; his specialty is ethnomusicology, a topic on which he has written several books. He and his Ghanaian wife are parents of an 18-month old child. Dr. Stevens was interviewed at the University of Ghana Institute for African studies where he was attempting to repair a digital tape recording machine. He spoke with Allan Wicker.]

I've had a recording studio since 1982. When I started it, there was only one other such studio in Ghana. The music at that time was primarily "highlife" music. Bands would come and record. I used to do one overdub, but basically it was a live format.

This has changed over the years as technology and fashions have changed. There are now about twelve studios in Accra. They're all computer studios, so they don't operate with live bands. Instead there are one or two musicians who repeat themselves. And the music has changed from high life to gospel music which has highlife music in it.

One result of this is that the business in my studio has dropped because the fashion amongst the youth now is for a very artificial sound. It's like they're seeking artificiality--it's not just bye-the-bye, you know. It's what they want. They want the sound of a drum machine, not a real drummer. They prefer the sound of a synthesizer to a real trumpeter. So the music's changed.

What I've done in response is to change my studio into a mobile facility. I go into the provinces where there's more live music--and more of the sort of music I'm used to. But it's difficult to run the studio financially now. Whereas I could live on the studio ten years ago, I can't any more. People now consider my techniques old fashioned. I do use a drum machine, but not a computer set-up. What I have is good for use in the provincial areas, because I record drumming groups.

[How do you feel about these changes?]

I think it's a disaster, and at many levels. For one, if music is a sort of barometer for how the future is going to be, it means there is a capitulation by the youth here to something that isn't really their own--and isn't really human. It's sort of a "ghost in the machine" type of problem. A second, spin-off problem is that Europeans who are interested in "world music" are no longer interested in Ghanaian music, because it's totally artificial. When they come here, they don't find live bands, and when they find them, the bands don't play Ghanaian music. Countries like Senegal, Mali, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria are dominating the world music scene. And Ghana was way ahead of everybody fifteen years ago.

This could be a temporary phenomenon. The youth could get fed up with the currently popular music and switch back. The next generation of youth could find this modern trend old fashioned. This is not just a Ghanaian problem, but a world wide one about dealing with machinery.

Europe went through this phase of flirting with high tech in music about ten to fifteen years ago. There has been a reaction in Europe by musicians who are becoming "unplugged." They're going back to natural music and live bands. There is a sort of return to the dance floor. So it may be just a cyclical thing. But it's very depressing to see the speed with which live popular music has ended. I can hardly believe the speed with which they're dismantling their own culture here.

And there are other signs besides music. The attack on the "trokosi system" and various other ceremonies that are accused of being pagan. It seems to be part and parcel with the self-destruction of culture here. The forces to stamp out these things are growing--there's a definite swing. And even the government itself is a very "modern" government. When it first came into power, they were opposed to the chieftaincy system. They opposed quite a lot of traditional things, but later on they moderated. But there is a kind of modernistic trend in the politics of today--and in, you know, the interest in Christianity. Music is yet another example.

[Could you tell me more about your studio operation?]

I used to actually put things on the market. But I ran into a lot of difficulties. You couldn't legally bring money into the country to pay the musicians. The whole thing became very complicated. And I also got double-crossed several times in Britain when I was here in Ghana. So I pulled out of production. I do only recordings now. The performing groups hold the master tapes, not me. When I started recording I hoped to be a kind of go-between. The interest in world music was just starting, and I was in at the beginning. But I found it impossible to do that and live here. There were too many misunderstandings. I nearly ended up in court once. I was completely innocent, but that wouldn't have helped me. So I had to pull out from that particular role. It was a bitter disappointment.

Now artists come to record and pay me, and we're clear. This basically means that my studio can't really move forward, because the only way to make money in music is through production, not just running a studio. So in a sense I got stuck in a cul-de-sac.

I'm also involved with the Ghana copyright commission. It, too, reflects some problems having to do with modern technology. Some years ago the American musician Paul Simon paid about sixty or seventy thousand dollars for the use of a song. When the money came to Ghana, it was originally going to be paid to a musician who was thought to be the composer. But it was discovered that he wasn't the composer--the song was a folkloric work. So the money was used to set up a folkloric board, of which I'm a member. One of the ideas was to make a register or list of folkworks, and to collect money from foreigners who use Ghanaian folklore.

There's a suggestion by the World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO, which is connected with UNICEF, to require First World artists to pay for use of Third World folklore. Normally one wouldn't pay for such material, since there's no copyright. But with respect to the First and Third Worlds, the idea is to act as if the folklore belonged to the state. So the royalty that would go to the composer goes instead to the state. It's quite a good idea, actually. But what has unfortunately happened is that the Copyright Board in Ghana wants to apply this also to Ghanaians. Local producers of music would have to pay a fee and get permission to use their own folklore. I've been struggling with this recently, in newspaper articles. My views are well known, and some members of the Board support me. There are even proposals to require payments for using material in the public domain--material whose copyright has expired.

In 1985, the Ghanaian government nationalized folklore; they in effect presumed that it was anonymous. But most folklore in Ghana, although it can't be pinpointed to an individual, can be attributed to a social group, a family, or a cult. If this law goes through, the only people who are going to gain are the lawyers. Again, the issue is individuality in artistic works. It's another input from the West that gets turned around here into something quite ugly. People like Paul Simon and the WIPO people put forward these ideas in a well-meaning way, but somehow in Ghana they've gotten twisted around and turned into something quite different. It's going to thwart the development of culture--like telling the youth to keep their hands off the culture. I'm quite worried about it because the Ghanaian youth aren't playing much Ghanaian music anyway. If the government begins to say, "you have to pay for your own music," that will be another nail in the coffin.

It always seems to be the interface between new ideas coming in and how it's adapted here. Usually things get distorted. It's like these large multinational developmental aid projects. They've all flopped, and now they're giving aid to the individual farmer, or adopting small, sustainable projects.

Fifty years ago there was no such thing as a private ownership of a musical work--no copyrights--there was only what the ancestors left you. I don't think this is just a Ghanaian problem. The biggest conflict between the States and China was over copyrights. With the development of computer software the matter of intellectual property is going to become more and more important in the future.

I can envision a time in the future when everything, even linguistic forms, will be copyrighted. Then a child won't be born into original sin, as the Catholics say, he's going to be born into original debt. In Europe copyrights have been extended to 70 years, up to the death of the composer. That ties up the culture for many years. I can't imagine what children in the future will face--everything will have been copyrighted. It's ludicrous, this privatization of culture.

In the modern situation, the individual is the basis of the state--in psychology, philosophy, it's always the individual. Whereas here in Ghana, it's the family unit. But now, with the fall of communism, the individual is so sacred--almost like a god. If you take the idea into art, you end up with the copyright, private ownership of artistic works. The individual who, in the 1990's composes a piece, he uses harmonies and rhythms developed by our ancestors, but he doesn't have to pay for copyrights.

It's the same with genetic engineering. If scientists tinker with a cow, they can copyright a genetic code. But they should copyright only the one transformation. They can't copyright the cow, because that includes millions of years of history. We're privatizing not just culture, but also agriculture. We're forgetting that these things were created before us. These are big issues, and so far as I can see, nobody is raising them. Defense of the liberty of the individual has become sacred, even in Ghana. Now everything has got to be privatized. Everybody has to fight for his rights. I'm arguing a more archaic view of ownership--of ancestral recycling of culture.

[Could you tell me about some of your other activities?]

I'm turning into something of an archivist. My studio is becoming more of a field recording unit. At the same time, I'm writing books, getting a Ph. D., and turning into a gray-haired archivist--from an active musician to a recording engineer to a sort of fossil, or at least preserving fossils. Five years ago I set up a private archive, with about 15 musicians. That's another part of this transition into an archivist. I have a depository of works I've recorded and other works. Now I'm working on a project to prepare a photographic exhibit of highlife music. But when I came to Ghana that music was still alive. I think this is a natural sort of trajectory, really, under the circumstances. But it is not what I came here to do.

Here at the University, I'm working on about 600 hours of field recordings made in the 50's and 60's, on reel-to-reel tape. It's mainly traditional music, maybe ten percent popular music. Then there's about 500 shellac records, top popular music, mainly highlife. The idea is to transfer all of this onto digital audio tapes. One copy will stay here at the Institute for African Studies, and the other will go to a university in Germany with which I'm collaborating. The funding came from the German Foreign Ministry.

I'm concerned that the Digital Audio Tape technology won't last, however. These reels I'm using are forty years old. I doubt if what I'm transferring them to will last ten years. And the machines I'm using are always breaking down; they don't seem designed to function in the conditions we have here, high humidity and such. But, I guess, we're living in an ephemeral civilization anyway. We're plundering what was given to us by nature. The notion of private ownership is only 300 years old, really, as a basis for morality. And suddenly everything becomes privatized within a century or so.

[You've spoken with fervor about these matters. But let me ask you more directly about your feelings about your work.]

My current situation is destiny, fate. It's a natural thing--I'm doing what I have to do. Sometimes I think I'd like to get out of Ghana, go on holiday, travel. And in the background is the fact that there's no economic security here. One worries about pensions in old age. There's nothing like that here. But aside from that I feel natural doing what I do, even though it is odd for a foreigner to be in such delicate areas as I am.

For me the most satisfying thing is the opportunity to pursue my interests--the freedom. In the West things are so cut and dried. There is a lot of room to maneuver--not just in terms of jobs, but in spiritual ways. Things are not so pigeon-holed. I have a slightly atavistic character--I like things in the process of formation. When things get too refined, I have problems dealing with them. I get bored. Being here suits my personality.

Here in Ghana, things always open up for me. Something gets transformed into something else. Just now I'm trying to get a University job. One problem I'm having as an ethnomusicologist is that I don't have a proper base for my operations--even this project (transferring taped music) doesn't have a place. I'm too much a maverick at the moment. It would be good to be employed by someone with a telephone and a fax machine and such things that I don't have but really need.

My studio equipment is okay, but when it goes, I can't afford to replace it. I know exactly what I need to equip a mobile recording studio. Friends abroad are surprised by the simplicity of what you need here. For example, I advise everyone not to bring a portable DAT machine--bring a good Sony Walkman into the country. If it breaks down, the technology is here to fix it. These things are tried and tested over 20 or 30 years. If you go into a dusty village with a DAT machine that opens up like a VCR, it's hopeless. Even in an air conditioned room there can be problems.

[What people do you interact with in this business?]

A full range of people. Because of my wife's family and friends, I interact with village drummers, right up to the Director of the National Commission on Culture. This is one of the interesting things about Ghana--you have a vast range of acquaintances and friends. You're not stuck in one particular social category. For example, two weeks ago I visited an old man who was a public health officer for many years. He's a Buddhist; he has a white wife with white children. They're now in England, and he's sort of a recluse. He's just one of the interesting people one meets here.

One of the odd things about living in Ghana is that I make a lot more international friends than I would in Europe. For example, I have some very close Lebanese friends. Also Americans. Actually, I rarely interact with English people. Interestingly, although I've been here for a long time, it's only the Germans who are utilizing me. The British Council doesn't utilize me, nor ever offered to help me in any way. This photograph exhibit, for example. It's coming more from the Germans. And all my film projects have been Dutch and Danish and German. I've never done one with an English company.

[You've indicated a desire to have an employment base for your operations. How has your economic situation affected what you do?]

I'm living in an ad hoc way at the moment. Up to a few years ago, when I was a bachelor, it didn't worry me. But getting married and having a kid has changed everything. I can't exist on kenkey and fish anymore. I have done that, and can do it.

Also, I'm living in my father's house. When he died he left the property to me. That's a big responsibility. You might think that if you have a house, that's rent free. But you end up paying more, because I've got 18 people in the house. Some are tenants, some are connected with my wife. Now I've got all these expenses, and can no longer live on a shoestring. That is the only dark cloud on the horizon, the economic one.

You know, as you get old, your energy runs out, and you can't do what you could when you were younger. That does worry me. And I know a lot of white people who have lived in this country; at the last moment they go back to Britain and live on old age pensions. But I don't have that--I've sort of burnt my bridges. It's a worry.

I also get annoyed that all these "experts" come into the country with big grants, or United Nations people. And they don't seem to use knowledgeable local people, particularly if they are white. There's a pool of maybe a couple of hundred just English people who have been here for 20 or 30 years. "Gold Coasters" who have tremendous experience in business. They're never utilized by the British Council. They'll bring in some young guy, put him on a huge salary, and he'll come up with some cock-eyed idea. The World Bank is trying to change this; they're going in more for local consultants. There's a huge, unused local resource here--Ghanaians and foreigners. But if you're a foreigner, you're in double jeopardy because reverse racism operates. They don't want to use a white person who's been based here a long time.

I had a lot of this with my recording studio. The worst cases of racism have never been from Ghanaians, but from foreigners, such as black and white Americans. You can understand that from black Americans, who may have chips on their shoulders. But white people from the music business will come here, get a local partner who probably cheats them, and their project will collapse. I try to get to these people to point them in certain directions, but they won't mind me at all. This is a little negative aspect of living here. It's not too serious, but it is a definite trend.

I've had the same experience in Britain--I've set up projects and later been cut out because I'm not the right color. This is a long-time problem that you have if you're a resident here. You fall between two stools. You're not a Ghanaian, so you don't get employed on a Ghanaian basis. If I were a Ghanaian, I'd probably now be employed somewhere in the Ministry of Culture. So you lose out on that side.

And then there are the foreign aid workers, United Nations, people in the music business. I call it the "safari syndrome"--they're looking for the authenticity experience, which is a myth, of course. You can see it on Labadi Beach--you get a culture that grows as a response to tourism. There's a tourist sex industry. Because in the last ten years, so many foreigners have come, you're getting that. It's a sort of mutual mystification. That's what I meant by foreigners coming here to get the "real" experience. For example, I've noticed that the Ghanaian youth who want to attract white women all wear dreadlocks, although dreadlocks are not a Ghanaian thing. It's part of the mystique of being a rebel, a primitive. Someone could write a very good novel about all these fascinating things.

[You've spoken of your work as being almost a destiny. Could you elaborate on that?]

It's all been very natural, the way it's evolved. Having come here as a kid with my father...I believe in this thing called synchronicity, meaningful coincidence. Coincidences are very thick here in Ghana, on the ground. Extraordinary coincidences happen--I almost take them for granted. Whereas in Britain, if you have one meaningful coincidence a year, you think it's a marvelous thing. Here it's always happening. If you've been here a long time, you get feedback from what you did earlier. For example, last week I was at Larteh (where there is an important traditional shrine), because a friend of mine from 15 years ago, a Ghanaian, has come back from Britain. He's retired now--in his 60's. He's settling in. He's the grandson of the Larteh high priestess. I wanted to arrange for an American I know to visit the place just a week before. I didn't have any direct connection to the Larteh shrine, so I said, "I can take you to another shrine," which I did. And just the following week I'm staying with all the priestesses on a friendly level--not as a tourist. In fact, they want me to administer a musical center set up at Larteh.

[Is there anything else you would like to add?]

Well, on the question of technology, living in Ghana forces one to be simple. It's sort of an Occam's razor philosophy. It's best to take the simplest and most straight-forward approach. If you opt for newfangled things, you're going to end up with a mess. Like with this (DAT) machine. It has screwed me up; I don't know what to do. It could delay the project by two months. The same principle applies to my studio. Here you have to do things in a simple way.

You do need faxes, telephones, however. The lack of them does bother me. People in the West don't write letters anymore. They simply telephone one another. If you're not available at the end of a telephone line, you don't exist for many people. I know. I've lost jobs because I don't have one. You may be referred, but people won't necessarily wait for a letter response. Just now I'm trying to get a phone, but it will take a year or more.