This piece is part of the Algorhythms project: artists telling stories about music they discovered from humans. Because where we discover music is an important part of its impact, and not all music is discovered through an algorithm.
Bridget Kearney (Lake Street Dive) and Benjamin Lazar Davis (Cuddle Magic, Okkervil River) have teamed up with Ghanaian musicians Aaron Bebe Sukura and Stevo Atambire for an album called Still Flying. The title track, released last week, flows between English and Stevo’s native Frafra and is aptly described in the press release as capturing the “everlasting high of youthful abandon.” It’s got all the freshness of a spring day, when all that must be done is run around in the sun. And the story behind the album’s creation is filled with cultural exchange and human-based music discovery. For their Algorhythm, Bridget and Benjamin shared some of that story…
“This whole record, Still Flying, is about people sharing musical ideas and traditions with one another — challenging your ears to seek sounds that are new and wonderful to you and also offering up what you know to share with others, who might be seeking it. We were lucky enough to get to collaborate directly with some incredible musicians in Ghana, Aaron Bebe Sukura and Stevo Atambire, who are each from different regions of the country, with different musical traditions. Stevo is from the Upper East Region and plays the kologo (a two-stringed instrument in the lute family.) Aaron is from the Upper West Region of the country and specializes in the gyil-based music that comes from there. Before we got to compose and record with Aaron and Stevo, we were fans and students of their musical traditions (and we still are!). Aaron taught us many songs by ear; we would learn each of the separate parts and then slowly, slowly start to understand the way it all fits together, and the structural, harmonic and rhythmic patterns that make it so unique.
Last year, in the middle of writing and recording for Still Flying, we took a trip up to the Upper West Region with Aaron, hoping to hear more gyil music in the place that it originates from and to meet Aaron’s family. It was a 16-hour overnight bus ride up there. As we got closer to the region, we started hearing more and more gyil music, kind of like how driving into the Southern US, the radio stations start leaning more toward country. As we entered the Upper West Region of Ghana, we were excited to notice the gyil music blaring out of store-front speakers, barber shops, people’s homes and even Catholic Church services. It was a feast of gyils — more than we could have ever imagined! And everyone we met was so generous in sharing their music and traditions with us.
We went out searching one day for some cassette tape recordings of gyil music to take back home with us. We were in the very small town of Babile, which doesn’t have a devoted music store, so we were just kind of asking around. We weren’t having much success and were becoming exhausted with our search when we met a man working at a convenience store. He said something about ‘come back tomorrow’ and a ‘drive’ and we understood it to mean that we should come back the next day and that we would then drive to another location where the tapes would be. Somewhat confused, we came back the next day with a car, only to realize that he hadn’t wanted to take us for a drive, he had wanted us to bring a USB drive! So we got a USB drive and he filled it up with hundreds of local recordings of gyil music that he had on his computer. This was the greatest gift to us — having this giant collection of music that we loved from this place to carry with us back home and keep listening to and learning by ear. Even now, as we’re confined to quarantining in our apartments, so many miles away, we have all of this music with us, thanks to that man at the convenience store, and thanks to Aaron for introducing us to the music and taking us to his home city.
So, thank you to Aaron and Stevo for sharing your music with us, playing the gyil and the kologo on this song, “Still Flying,” and for singing and writing the song with us. And thank you to that man from the convenience store in Babile, for the great gift of music!”
Still Flying is out May 8 via Verve Forecast. Our full Algorhythms playlist is here.
Interested in discovering music from Ghana that would probably never make it into your Discover Weekly? Check out the Grey Matter beta.