In my dream, the music is coming from the neighbours of my childhood. I am marching across the field, moon high in the sky, soybeans dampening the bottoms of my pajama pants. My jaw is clenched and my head is pounding along with the bass. It devours the country’s silence, bumping and thumping its way into my bones.
Boom. Da-da. Boom.
I reach the modest blue farmhouse where Brian, a mild-mannered brain cancer survivor, lives with his wife Dale, who fed the dog when we were out of town. Dale meets me at the door, holding it open just enough for me to catch a glimpse of the party behind her: pear-shaped middle-aged Canadians dancing, some of them clutching brown bottles of beer. “We already turned it down,” Dale says, her face flushed. She is lying, this imagined version of Dale, with her cropped matronly haircut and her innocent face. The music is too loud and she is lying. She has not turned it down.
I wake up in Apapa. A cramped, working-class neighbourhood in Ghana, West Africa. You might call it a slum. The power is out, so the ceiling fan is silent and still, and the windows must be open for air. But someone, somewhere, has a generator. And an impressive stack of speakers.
Boom. Da-da. Boom.
I reach for my phone and check the time: it’s 2 a.m. I’m sleeping naked because of the heat. I roll out of bed, remembering our sheets have a dusty, mildew smell no matter how often we get them washed. When I get to the window I drape one of the brown-and-beige striped curtains across my chest and look outside.
Our second-storey apartment towers over the neighbourhood like a lighthouse. I can see a dismantled shack, now a pile of scrap wood, a taxi parked for the night, the majestic outline of a single, proud palm. The bass continues to thump and groan. A neighbour I do not know is bent in the doorway of her home, wearing a piece of African cloth known as a wrapper, sweeping red dust from her steps with a hand-held broom made of palm fronds. Surely she would rather be sleeping, but has decided to make herself useful.
I notice an older woman, her hair wrapped in light blue fabric, slip between two shacks and down an alley. Her steps are uneven, wobbly. I can’t tell if she’s drunk or just old, but I’m sure she’s coming home from the party, wherever it is. This information is of little use to me, I realize, and return to bed.
Iain has a pillow over his head, but appears, miraculously, to be sleeping. I push my orange foam earplugs deeper into my ears. They do little to muffle the bass. Sometimes I dream I’m pulling earplug after earplug out of my ear, as if all the earplugs I’ve ever used have accumulated in a cramped space in my head without me realizing it, becoming some kind of gnawing mass. The earplugs keep coming out, one after another, tiny pieces of foam recovered. Like clowns climbing out of a clown car, but horrifying.
How did we end up here? It’s a question I’ve asked myself on other nights like this, although I know the answer. We took a leap, and this is where we landed—snug along the coast of West Africa, in a small country known for its cocoa, gold and relative stability. For its welcoming, gregarious people, and their music.
A few months ago we were in Toronto, living in a nearly-perfect two-floor apartment with exposed brick and hardwood floors. We worked full-time jobs and watched our friends buy houses and get married with the crushing awareness that it wasn’t what we wanted. We’d been talking about moving abroad since we met four years earlier, and it suddenly felt like it had to happen now.
Things happened quickly after that, and by mid-April we were rumbling down the streets of Accra in a taxi with “Only Jesus Saves” stenciled onto the back window, sweat dripping from our foreheads, our senses overwhelmed by sights and smells: by porters carrying fruit and live chickens in metal bowls on their heads; by women dressed in bold patterns of fuchsia, lime and cobalt blue; by incessantly honking taxis, sleek BMVs, and European ambulances converted into mini-buses; by brilliant bougainvillea tumbling over fences; by skeletal three-storey buildings, abandoned before completion; and by the acrid smell of open sewers, mingling with exhaust and smoked fish. And the children everywhere, all of them smiling and waving, some of them dancing or playing games with used tires or flip-flops, ripped from their feet for better things.
A messy, exhilarating place.
“I’m glad we’re here,” I whisper, hugging Iain in our room at the guesthouse we stay in for the first few days. It has hard pillows and a low ceiling, which Iain discovers when he slices his hand in the ceiling fan. But we don’t mind. We are finally doing it.
A few days later we move into our apartment in Apapa and our landlord Joyce casually mentions “the woman who sells the beer,” who lives next door.
“You can buy beer from her,” Joyce says, leading us through dusty streets to the La market. When we return around 4 p.m., marching up the stairs carrying the vegetables in small plastic bags, we are engulfed by a wave of sound. Ghanaian dance music, cranked as loud as it can possibly go. The apartment hums. We unload our groceries, go to our room and sit on the bed. I feel like I’ve been swallowed by a whale. That scene from Pinocchio always horrified me. We are sitting inside the creature’s wet, dark stomach, feeling every vibration of his mighty larynx.
“The women who sells the beer” runs an illegal bar in her backyard, directly under our bedroom window. She blares music from an outside speaker from about four until eleven o’clock. Every. Single. Day. When she has customers, and when she doesn’t. Her name is Helen, and we can see her sitting alone in a plastic lawn chair, waiting for someone to show up.
Helen, we would later learn, is only part of the problem: there are several sources of bass in Apapa, with new ones cropping up at random. Some nights they are in competition with each other. But it isn’t just music. In Apapa, life happens outside, in the open: around our apartment swirls a constant stream of deep Ga voices; children laughing, crying and screaming; crowing roosters and squawking crows; and garbage trucks with tinny ice-cream jingles, which come around every morning as early at 5:30 and sometime go on for hours.
And then there’s the roar of jets taking off over the city, bound for distant lands.
We want to move, but Ghana’s rental market is a mess. We know Ghanaians who pay the equivalent of $175 CDN a month for an entire house, and expats paying $3,000 or more. Our skin colour gives us away every time, and we can’t find a suitable apartment we can afford with our NGO stipend. We’re stuck in Apapa.
We develop survival tactics. Earplugs, and sometimes calming music with headphones (although I am opposed to the idea of adding more sound). We stay out as late as possible, going to the gym after work, rambling around the dark city streets with our backpacks, taking long dinners at an Italian restaurant with wood-oven pizza. A few times, when it is late and we’re wide awake and tears are the only thing keeping me from opening the window and screaming profanities that no one will be able to hear, we take a couple of the tiny blue pills my doctor gave me for the panic attacks I have when I get bloodwork done. They do nothing. One night, we pack up and move to a hotel across town. But the hotel isn’t much quieter. We barely sleep at all.
I Google “the loudest place on earth,” convinced some academic has studied and compared noise levels around the world and determined Ghana to be the loudest. Nothing. I Google “the loudest place on earth Ghana,” which is practically cheating, and still nothing.
“It sounds like southeast Asia,” says my brother on the phone. He’s just returned from four months in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
“No,” I say. “This has to be louder.”
But then, what do I know? Before coming to Ghana I’d travelled only in Europe and Latin America, where I could sleep through or move away from any problematic ruckus. And I was younger then, not so obsessed with quiet, productive time, sometimes falling drunk into a bunk bed after a night out, where not even bass could find me.
“It’s better when we understand,” Iain says, early on, and he is right.
We learn that there are two kinds of parties in Apapa: one at the beginning of a life, and the other at the end. When babies are a week old, parents throw a naming ceremony to announce his or her name. There’s music and dancing and an MC spitting into a microphone, trying to convince guests to donate money for the child’s life. This may go on until the wee hours of the morning.
Funerals are the biggest celebrations of all—much bigger than weddings, the excessive celebratory cornerstones of Western culture. Funerals are huge outdoor parties where guests dress in the same colour, usually white, black, red, or light blue, and eat heavy Ghanaian food like jollof rice, fried chicken and banku, a ball of pounded corn meal and plantain. In some coastal Ga communities, the dead may be buried in a colourful handcarved coffin that tells the story of their life—a fish for a fisherman, a Bible for a preacher—a quirky tradition that has garnered international attention. There might be other theatrical flourishes: a professional mourner wailing through the crowd, or props, like a bladeless whirling chainsaw to tell the story of man who felled trees for a living.
But you don’t need a party to play music. Gospel-tinged reggae with bone-rattling bass. Saccharine American pop ballads everyone knows the words to. Rapid, driving dance music with accompanying dance moves such as the azonto, which includes hand gestures that say “I love you” or “I’ll call you.” Or the politically-incorrect “Al Qaeda,” which is all in the shoulders.
Joyce, whose uncle owns our compound, takes us to the local authorities to file a complaint about Helen’s bar. She is willing to do anything to help us, and to ensure we stay to pay the rent, but I can tell we’re breaking some kind of cultural code. In Ghana, people don’t ask their neighbours to be quiet. Ghanaians believe in the right to be loud.
The authorities—a few sleepy-looking women in an office stuffed behind La market—send an officer to tell Helen to keep the music at “room-temperature.” It takes a few more arguments for her to fully comply; she builds a small extension onto the back of her house, moving her bar and its speaker inside. She hates us, but we are grateful.
It is a small victory. The noise continues, because it is everywhere.
Samuel, one of my students, notices I’m tired as we share a cab home from an interview in downtown Accra. I tell him it was a noisy night in Apapa. He gives me a toothy grin.
“If you were at home, what would you do?” He is always asking questions about Canada that sound a bit like accusations.
“It wouldn’t happen at home,” I say dryly, my handbag on my lap. Samuel once told me I looked like a Jehovah’s Witness, the way I walked with that bag tucked so tight under my arm.
I reconsider, remembering a few nights on Boston Ave., the quiet east-end street where we lived for a year, our neighbours close on all sides. “Actually, it could happen,” I tell Samuel. “And if it did, I’d go over and ask them to turn down the music. If they didn’t turn it down, I’d go back and ask again. And it they still didn’t, I’d call the police and they’d be there in fifteen minutes.”
We had done it, I was almost embarrassed to remember, just a few weeks before moving to Ghana. A neighbour was playing a drum kit in the bay window of their living room at midnight. Iain called the cops.
I visit the director of public health at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Dr. Simpson Anim Boateng, a welcoming man with a cool, quiet office. He is as disturbed by the city’s noise pollution as I am. I could hug him. He tells me the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended noise limit is 48 decibels at night in residential areas. He and his colleagues have recorded as high as 102, at the back of someone’s house, near a church.
He shows me the laws intended to control the noise. One bylaw explains that a person may play music at a “reasonable pitch” until midnight only when a wake is being kept or “a party is being organized.” I imagine a bylaw officer investigating a noise complaint: “Excuse me, your neighbours are complaining that they can’t sleep. We just wanted to make sure you are, in fact, throwing a party here? Okay, great.”
But the bylaws themselves don’t seem to be the problem. The problem is enforcement. Attempts to charge someone with a violation usually end up in court, where the case gets adjourned, sometimes repeatedly, while the noisemaking continues.
Dr. Boateng tells me he has a friend who works in the ear, nose and throat clinic at a local hospital, where he sees children with hearing damage. I feel a spike of anger; that the ignorance of adults should have a lasting effect on children.
“Noise can affect every part of the body,” Dr. Boateng tells me. “It’s sad this way.” He rattles off a list of health impacts: headaches, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, and psychological impacts including lack of sleep. They are not surprising, nor unfamiliar.
Dr. Boateng blames the churches, telling me there are more than 2,000 of them in Accra. He calls them businesses, a bold statement in a country this religious. They use the loud music to attract churchgoers and their money, he explains.
And this is where he loses me. The same noise that attracts Ghanaians makes me want to run away. When I ask if it has something to do with culture, Dr. Boateng becomes stern. “It is not the culture which allows that,” he says. “It is the creed for money by the pastors of the churches.” He repeats this a few times. I leave his office without an explanation.
Here’s what I know: loud music is used to announce that something is happening. It’s a strategy employed by schools, NGOs, businesses and, yes, churches. When we attend a community forum about women’s rights in a rural area just outside of Accra, music blares from speaker stacks for more than an hour while the young and old make their way to the centre of the town to settle into rows of plastic chairs. I hide my earplugs under my thick, dark hair.
Drums have long been used for communication in West Africa, something that has been documented largely by outsiders: in the 18th century, Europeans noticed West Africans using drums to send messages from one village to the next faster that it would take to send the same message on a horse. During the transatlantic slave trade Europeans realized slaves were using drums to send messages across long distances, and, in a bid for more control, banned them. Today they are an important part of festivals and ceremonies, used to welcome, call, and worship. And although drums are still popular in Ghana, they are now often intensified by amplifiers or replaced with recorded music and speakers. Technology and urbanization have turned up the volume on oral culture.
I tell one of my students I’m trying to understand the noise. Ishmael is well-read and inquisitive. He has much to say.
“Noisemaking is part of the African way,” he says. “It’s actually tied to every aspect of African culture.” Ishmael has a diploma in theology, and tells me Ghanaian churches of all denominations have been under pressure to introduce drumming into their services, often using amplifiers. It’s the easiest way to grow a congregation, he says. People believe the louder the music, the more powerful they will be—and the closer they will get to God.
Throughout my time here, Ghanaians have teased me for having a quiet voice, often greeting me in a falsetto. “Just a small water, please,” mocks the male bartender in a high, feminine voice at Alliance Francaise, where we are watching a concert. Only Ishmael dares to explain it. “When you got here, I had difficulty hearing you,” he says. He now thinks that’s because he has hearing damage, along with everyone else. “We all shout!” he says, almost laughing, with the same enthusiasm he uses for everything. He’s thirty-two and nearing the end of a university degree. He says he’s never been told or taught about the health implications of noise.
Ishmael is the only student I know who reads for pleasure. He says it’s much easier to do in his sleepy hometown of Wa, in the rural upper west region, far from Accra.
There is sound in incredible moments. We are invited to a wedding reception on the beach, where Ghanaian dance music plays; we hear that the groom refused to enter until he’d been assured that the speakers were working properly. After dinner, we take off our sandals and dance under the stars, feeling the sand between our toes. A beautiful young woman named Juliet tries to teach us the azonto, showing us how to pivot our right foot with our hands in fists. “Yes!” she squeals, pointing at me.
One night we get a ride home from a bald and hulking taxi driver. He is polite but doesn’t want to talk. Ghanaian high-life is on the radio, and it takes me a while to notice that he is singing along in a soft, deep voice, bobbing his head and dancing with his right index finger. The song is in Twi, but the rhythm is upbeat and infectious. Iain and I start smiling and cannot stop. I have the song in my head for the next two days: Sherry, Sherry, ooo.
And there are moments of calm in Apapa. In the mornings, our neighbours sweep the concrete courtyard surrounded by one-storey buildings the colour of sunshine. They can see us on our open-air patio, which is also our living room, and we can see them, washing their clothes in soapy buckets, our elderly neighbour hunched quietly over her sewing machine, the children playing. Joyce, who is thirty-nine but could be ten years younger, lets the children chase her back and forth under the enormous clothesline, heavy with the clothes of four families. When they finally get tired she tests her favourite, a three-year-old named Naa, on her alphabet: “A is for…? B is for…?” We cannot hear Naa’s response, only Joyce’s exuberant voice, ringing clear.
It’s a Saturday night, 8 p.m. Not a time you can expect to be quiet anywhere in the world, but I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to give an early lecture at the school. I’m tired. All I want is to sit and read, or maybe watch a movie, and go to bed early. I feel entitled to this option. Apapa disagrees. It is one of the loudest nights yet.
We sit on the patio, because there is no place else to sit. Iain has a gin and tonic and a headache, which could be caused by the Ghanaian Kasapreko gin or the pounding music—Bob Marley this time. My chair is vibrating, and I’m releasing the stress with nervous bouts of laughter, an interesting new physiological response.
Our roommate, Jocelyn, stuffs some clothes into her backpack. She often sleeps in the spare room of a French woman she met at church. Iain and I decide to go to the smoothie shop to wait it out.
“There isn’t anything going on over there,” Joyce tells us when we stop to talk to her in the courtyard. She grew up in this neighbourhood, could find her way through its maze of winding alleys in the dark with her eyes closed. “They are just testing speakers.”
They are always testing speakers. But we were the ones who agreed to live somewhere with directions that include, “turn left at the blue-and-white sign that says, “Pierrow Soundz and Electronics.”
The three of us walk, somewhat skeptical, past the communal clothesline, through our compound’s iron gate, and towards the speaker shop. The music grows louder with each step, until we have to plug our ears with our fingers. Outside the shop at the entrance to our neighourhood, six men are gathered around a wall of speakers, some of them only inches away from the vibrating subwoofers. The oldest among them wears glasses and sits at the soundboard, manipulating the controls.
“We are testing the speakers,” he says proudly. “These are professional quality.”
“They work!” Jocelyn shouts. “They work very, very well!”
One of the younger men snickers.
“When will you be finished?” Iain shouts.
“We are about to close,” says the older man, still smiling.
“When?” I ask. “In a few minutes?”
“Now-now,” he says. Which means actually now, rather than just sometime soon.
We step away cautiously, thanking them. We want to be understanding. Unwilling to gamble, Jocelyn leaves for her friend’s. Iain and I go back to the apartment and wait. Within a few minutes, the speaker shop closes for the night.
We hear a rumour—we are almost afraid to believe it—that a noise ban will be enforced in our neighbourhood for a few weeks in August. Everyone we ask is a bit fuzzy on the details: will it be quiet for a week, a month? Joyce tells us the elders know; she will ask her uncle. When she does, he invites us to the festival’s opening ceremony at their family home in La township. Iain and I arrive straight from work, his collared shirt tucked into his khaki pants, mine into my pencil skirt.
Joyce leads us to a small clearing under a tree, where a large crowd is gathered around a middle-aged woman dancing in a blue wrapper and white beads. Everyone is singing. As we approach the woman shouts at me in Ga, and before I know what’s happening she’s ripped my sandals off my feet and I’m being forced to join her. With at least a hundred people watching, I try to mimic her side-to-side hop, the downward sweeping motions she’s making with her hands. My face flushed and my heart beating.
“Do you hear the music coming from over there?” Joyce asks later, pointing to a set of speakers in front of a house. “This is the only song you’re allowed to play during the ban.” It doesn’t sound like a song as much as a speech—and a speech shouted, not spoken.
After prolonged negotiations with the elders in Joyce’s family, I’m taken to see a man named Samuel Mensah Adjei, who wants to explain the entire Homowo festival to me, from beginning to end.
In a room attached to his house filled with sewing machines and scraps of bright fabric, Adjei pulls out a schedule printed on the front and back of a piece of paper and begins to take me through each and every stage of the month-long festival. Homowo means “to hoot at hunger,” and pays tribute to the history of famine experienced by the Ga people. The festival is made up of an elaborate series of planting and fishing rites and ceremonies. I listen politely, writing the Ga names for different shrines and rituals in my notebook, but after more than an hour I become overwhelmed; it would take years to understand the Ga culture and its rituals. I don’t want to write about something I don’t understand.
I explain this to Adjei. “But I do want to understand the meaning behind it,” I told him. “What’s the reason for the noise ban?”
He leans back in his chair and smiles. I thought asking him to stop would upset him, but he too seems relieved. The fetish priests, called Wolomoi, need quiet while they fast and pray for the community, he tells me. “They need no disturbances at all.”
And this I understand completely.
The festival nights are quiet—there are crickets in Apapa—and nothing disturbs my sleep. I dream of winter in Canada, a procession of cold people in beige and grey parkas, hoods pulled tight around their pale faces, their footsteps hollow on concrete sidewalks. It is a silent dream, void of plot or drama, and plays like a piece of lost footage from another time. I wake up feeling chilled.
We are going home soon. I thought I would be relieved, but my feelings are mixed. There is so much more I want to understand. I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed. At home, my friends are talking about the mayor of Toronto’s drinking problem; a woman I know is wearing a fried egg costume; everyone is getting married. Here, a student posts photos of beaming street children at a party he organized and raised funds for himself; another shares a report on female genital mutilation; everyone writes of God, that great all-knowing power they pray will bring them wealth, success and comfort.
I stop by a drumming shop in Osu, a trendy Accra neighbourhood with open gutters and honking taxis. The shop owner made all of the stunning wood instruments that line the walls: djembes, kpanlogos, congas and dununs. In jeans and a T-shirt, Kingy Mensah tells me he’s been drumming since childhood, and that all instruments have the same purpose: to praise God, ourselves, and anything else that needs to be praised.
He offers to give me a lesson.
I sit with a beautiful kpanlogo drum tilted between my legs and try to copy Mensah’s hands, beating a pattern on the cowhide surface. Using an identical drum, he shows me how to cup my hands, when to let them fall flat. “One-two-bass,” he says. “One- two-bass.” I’m not very good. My mind keeps wandering.
“I can’t feel it,” I tell him after a while. “I’m too stuck in my head.”
“No, no, you can feel it, you can feel it!” Mensah says. He suggests smoking marijuana—not a lot, just a little—and I have to laugh and admit that might help.
I thank him for the lesson and say goodbye. As I walk away from the shop, the beat plays in my head. One-two-bass. One-two-bass. For the first time, it feels like a statement, an affirmation.
Nicole Baute grew up on a Canadian farm and has travelled extensively, with extended stays in Ghana and India. Her journalism, fiction, and creative non-fiction have been published in a range of newspapers and magazines. She teaches writing online via www.nicolebaute.com.
Photo courtesy of the author.