Graded on a Curve:
Bola, Volume 7

While the heyday of world music on LP may be long past, there have been enough recent appearances of new global sounds on vinyl to make one hope they represent the beginnings of a sustained trend. One such record is by the Ghanaian kologo player and vocalist known as Bola; his Volume 7 is a forceful and organic blend of the traditional and the contemporary.

Of course it needs to be said that the digital age has swung the doors wide open on a massive outpouring of previously unavailable music from all over the world, giving the casual listener access to a disparate selection of sounds that in prior eras would’ve only been heard by pure accident, if at all. The proliferation of blogs hosting MP3s is viewed by many with jaundiced eyes, but if done conscientiously these websites can exist not as an exercise in freeloading but instead as an educational resource, a platform for communication and most importantly as an instigator of further possibilities.

One such is example is Brian Shimkovitz’s Awesome Tapes from Africa. Way back in 2006, his website began exposing listeners to a steady stream of mostly cassette sourced obscurities obtained largely through his travels to the African continent. By this point, it would take even the most determined listener many months to appropriately absorb the content on his site, but it doesn’t seem to be Shimkovitz’s intention that his visitors hear everything; instead, hopefully a visitor will be captivated by just one discovery from an array of choices that would’ve not crossed their path otherwise. And as testament to those further possibilities mentioned above, Awesome Tapes has begun releasing records, the first being La Grande Cantatrice Malienne Vol. 3 by Malian musician Nâ Hawa Doumbia, and the second being the subject of this review.

Bola Anafo is from the Upper East Region of Ghana and his instrument the kologo is a two stringed lute with a calabash gourd resonator. It’s been likened to the banjo, an instrument which came to America (and the Caribbean) from Africa. But Bola is also a vocalist of potent intensity as well as a musician unconcerned with (or perhaps oblivious to) the often persnickety Western standards of tradition. To specify, in addition to his the omnipresent kologo, Volume 7 also features the use of drum machine, keyboard and synthesizer, and if this fact inspires encroaching dread in the reader, it shouldn’t. It’s immediately clear that the inclusion of programmed rhythms and synthetic additives hasn’t been thrust upon Bola by an outside producer working in the interest of increased record sales.

Instead, the use of recent (if appealingly “inexpensive” sounding) tech quickly situates that listeners desiring an antiquated expression of “tradition” should look elsewhere, for while Volume 7 indeed features a deep connection to Ghanaian culture through the employment of the kologo, it’s far from a museum piece. In a sense, Bola is comparable to the wild junkyard aesthetic of Congolese group Konono Nº 1, in that they share a willingness to incorporate whatever’s necessary to advance the music they play. It’s just that Bola is less eccentric in his developments and more “pop”; one of his biggest influences is King Ayisoba, a fellow kologo player who worked with musicians from the hiplife style, a form that combined hip hop with the longstanding genre of Ghanaian highlife.

The music on Volume 7 is hard-driving dance music that’s matched by the impressive power of Bola’s voice. Singing in the Frafra tongue, his ability as an explosive shouter is only amplified by the difference in language, bringing the sheer passion of his vocals to the forefront and (in my case, anyway) greatly relieving the desire to know the exact meaning of his words. Bola’s singing could accurately be said to lack variation, but that’s surely by intention, matching up well with the qualities of the kologo.

As an instrument with only two strings, the kologo doesn’t possess the wide expressive range of its descendant the banjo, but with one string tuned to bass and the other to treble, it easily possesses enough tonal variance to get the job done. And what’s immediately apparent is that Bola’s playing of the instrument is assured and methodical, the result of long study and dedication. If the eight songs on Volume 7 are initially quite different in sound from the norms of Western music, they are no less complex in conception or precise in their delivery.

And that lack of variation could be a stumbling block in appreciation for some listeners, though I think there is enough overall depth (and a few curve balls, like the brief bit of auto-tuned vocal at the beginning of “Tigantabame”) to keep well-disciplined ears from getting too restless; circular patterns of electronic keyboard that grow in infectiousness, an insistent rigidity in the low-tech drum machines that also establishes a momentum of tight grooves, and the rich mixture of melody and rhythm from the kologo. Again, these songs are plainly conceived as dance music (though quite different in execution from the tight elasticity of American funk); every track on the record save for the last is over six minutes long, and what the raw drive of Volume 7 lacks in variety it makes up for with verve and finesse. This is repetition by design, and the more time spent with it the more it grows.

And there are some very pleasant extra-musical vibes going on with Volume 7, starting with the very title of the record, which underscores that what’s on display is a straight reissue of one of Bola’s numerous cassette releases. That may not seem like a big deal, but from my perspective it indicates a level of sincere respect for this musician and his work. Bola has at least six previous tapes under his belt and very likely has additional subsequent volumes. From these sources, Shimkovitz could have easily assembled a compilation with the intention of spotlighting growth and an artificial (or at least misleading) sense of variation. Though not being privy to his other recordings, it’s certainly possible that Bola burst onto the Ghanaian tape scene fully formed, with each release exploring a unwavering sonic terrain, a hypothetical possibility that I actually find quite attractive.

But if this were the case, I’d likely be reviewing Volume 1. No, Shimkovitz obviously felt there was something special about this particular cassette, and by making it available on LP/CD/download for curious consumers outside the sphere of the musician’s homeland, the integrity of Bola’s art is retained without any needless tampering. And perhaps it’s not a big deal, but when coupled with the fact that Bola is getting fairly compensated in this agreement, the whole endeavor feels like a relationship between equals. After expenses, it’s a 50/50 split between artist and label. Nowhere to be found is that all too familiar aftertaste of the First World capitalizing on the Third.

Along with recent issues of new and old sounds by Sidi Touré (two albums on Thrill Jockey), El Rego (via Daptone), the aforementioned Nâ Hawa Doumbia release on Awesome Tapes and numerous records on labels like Soundway and Strut, Volume 7 makes a strong case for lending an ear to the diverse sounds of Africa.

Thirty years ago, the imperative of world music was shared between major labels, smaller companies (often with government or philanthropic connections, e.g. Ocora from France), and extremely cool indies like John Storm Roberts’ Original Music imprint. Flash forward to right now and the independents are just about all we have left. That might seem worrisome, but with guys like Brian Shimkovitz on the case bringing the music of Bola and others into sharp global focus, it appears that we’ll be just fine.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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