09/09 WW: Arc Djebe ‘Dagbeneva” (Togo)


When was the last time you listened to music from Togo?!?! Even the biggest world music nerds seem to not be so well versed in this tiny West African nation’s rich musical heritage. We’ve heard it all: that it has poor cultural heritage, that all of the talent is sucked up by neighboring Benin, that there simply is no infrastructure in Togo to enable artists to come up with anything half decent.

Well…. it sounds to us like all of the above are well contradicted by one man: Arc Djebe. The Lomé native has been hustling on the guitar for years now – over two decades! His talent took him from Cameroon to Côte d’Ivoire, yet to this day Arc Djebe has been doing everything himself: auto-production, and auto-distribution. Which means a permanent hustle, in a country where music producers are scarce to say the least. With help from friends, occasional grants and live shows, Arc Djebe managed to record 4 mini albums, including this last one. Dagbénéva means “happiness” or “quest of happiness” in Ewe, the most common language along the Togolese coast. Six potent tracks, recorded at home, in Togo, with his band Zozodede.

You can grab the full album directly from Arc Djebe’s Bandcamp store, or from iTunes. You can also download this great great track Kumble (“power”) for freeeeeee:

Welcome to Togo


Most people think of Togo as a way to have food ordered. But it’s also a sliver of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin, a nation some may know for its gnarly ties to international – in particular French – money, arms and drugs scandals. The Gnassimbe dynasty has kept power within arms reach for decades, it is one of the finest examples of corruption in the world, the elite is particularly disinterested in the dire state of the country, which despite abundant mineral and agricultural wealth, is stuck in a rot. The rot is ibvous when entering from Ghana: one side of the border has buildings with rooms and computers. The other side has a shack with officers holding LED flashlights to fill in the paperwork. Sorry, photos of that were not so welcome.

The poor leadership and lack of development in the country are reflected by its extremely poor cultural reach. If anyone reading this can name ONE single Togolese musician, or even any kind of artist based in Togo, we’ll give you some free music!! More than in any country we’ve visited, there are hardly any structures to decently record and produce music, there is very limited access to foreign culture, besides the usual top 40 + garbage 40 (Celine Dion….).

BUT…. culture is very much alive. Hip hop took the country by storm since the mid 1980s, although it took over a decade for it to finally be accepted on the radio. Today hip hop is the dominant style for the Togolese youth, who sing in French, but mostly in Ewe and other regional Togolese languages. The hip hop is mostly influenced by what kids hear on the radio, which is – unfortunately – quite limited. 50 Cent, Akon, Tupac, and some French cats as well. We don’t want to hate on these major artists (actually we do, but we shouldn’t), but we believe there should be room for more. And finally now that internet access is trickling in, kids have some broader access to foreign music and culture.

As a result a new generation of artists is experimenting with the music. We were fortunate to meet with acts such as Dodji (photo of guy with guitar below) and Elinam (full band photo below), who blend a lot of foreign influences with elements of traditional folklore, in particular Ewe and coastal drumming techniques, which are impressively elaborate. We hope to work with such artists so stay tuned…



We should also note last Tuesday April 27 marked Togo’s 50th independence anniversary, hence the fireworks:


And we couldn’t resist but share some of the visuals…. hairdressers do it best over here:


Anlo-Ewe Drum Ensemble…on drum set!

Hey African music fans! I’d like to take this opportunity to say “Miawoezor” (that’s “welcome,” or “akwaaba” in the Ewe language) to Benjamin, who has just arrived in Ghana. In honor of his trip, I decided to take a break from my samba-semba blog entries and write a little bit about traditional Ghanaian music.

The dance-drumming of the Anlo-Ewe society of Southeastern Ghana features a complex rhythmic interplay between three supporting drums and a master drum. The ensemble also includes a bell, which acts as the conductor, and several rattles, which embellish the basic rhythm played by the bell.

Check out this video of Agbadza, a traditional Ewe dance. It’s a little long, but it really captures what it’s like to attend a dance-drumming event in an Ewe village. There are great shots of the drummers at 4:45, 6:31 and 7:40.

What I find most fascinating (and most frustrating) about Anlo-Ewe music is that it’s impossible to play it alone—you need at least five people—unlike music in the Western tradition, where individual practice is necessary for group success. Drummer Kevin O’Sullivan has had a brilliant solution to this problem: he has arranged Anlo-Ewe rhythms for drum set, assigning each limb a different part of the Ewe drum ensemble. Check out his arrangement of Atsiã, an Ewe social dance:

If you’re interested in seeing it performed live (with dancers!), percussionist Amanda Duncan will be playing it on her senior recital at Cal State Long Beach on May 15th, 2010 at 8pm in Daniel Recital Hall. And if you want more info on Anlo-Ewe dance drumming, O’Sullivan’s website is one of the best resources I’ve found on the web; be sure to check it out!

Miadogo! (See you later!)


Ghana to Togo

We are in a car right now, stuck in Tema, right outside of Accra, in a pretty bad traffic jam. Good thing the tape player works, we’re listening to some gospel highlife, it makes the sun and gasoline fumes feel like a breeze… Well, almost anyway.

We’re headed to Lome to cover some of the Togolese 50th independence events, and to meet a few cats there, artists and radio guys. Togo is really not on the map at all, so we’re quite curious to find out what’s hiding there.

The road is only 3 hours from Accra to Lome, plus the past hour stuck in traffic in Tema. But hopefully we make it before dark, it would make it easier to walk across the border with the film equipment and other “obruni” (white man) apparati we’re carrying with us!!

Who’s “we” you may wonder… Ryan Lash, photographer and videographer, and myself, Benjamin Lebrave. We left Panji, Ananse and the rest of the crew in Accra. Ananse (Spider in twi) has been great, both helping us meet with artists, and laugh throughout the process. He’s a natural born comedian, we’ll post some videos of him as soon as we can.

Sorry for the lack of photos, sounds and videos: for the time being I’ve relied almost exclusively on my phone for email, which doesn’t allow me to post anything besides text. If any phone manufacturer wants to sponsor our next trip with a more advanced device, we’re down!

Music… Today we met with Pat Thomas, a legendary highlife musician, who shared his life story with us, from his early beginnings in Takoradi about 40 years ago (!) to the golden era of the late 70s, when highlife musicians often played several clubs during the same night! Highlife carries on today in Ghana, although it is quite discreet in comparison with hiplife. Highlife has basically been absorbed by the churches, the only entities able to fund live music performances. For better or for worse…