Kwame Brenya’s new album, Brɛnya Ne Barima is a narration of stories that takes the listener from the subconscious to everyday lived experiences. The metaphysical seriousness, together with the effective playing of words that traverse the album make it stand out as a contemporary great. Kwame Brɛnya combines genres such as palm wine music, highlife, a completely new sound, termed nhini (see below for details of nhini) to convey the tragedy of the human condition. The poet derives inspiration from legendary Agya Koo Nimo, Okomfo Kwadee, Akan, Nana Ampadu, Amakye Dede to tell stories about life and living it.
The stories are reflective of a collective African lived experiences. These collective experiences have been vanishing from our shared memory, as modern art forms continuously derive motivation from exotic forms. But major intellectual advancements on the continent have had their nascence and/or inspirations from the wisdom embedded in these collective stories. For example, around the mid-20th century, during the revolutionary time that quelled colonialism on the continent, the main political actors drove inspirations from wisdom embedded in these communal experience. Nkrumah’s Consciencism, Senghor’s Negritude, as well as Paulin Hountondji, Kwesi Wiredu, Innocent Asouzu and other prominent philosophers that engaged in the so-called ethnophilosophy were inspired by such collective wisdom. When ethnophilosophy took off, the philosophers involved returned to their traditional ethnic groups to forge their synthesis. Despite the varied foundations to their philosophies, as Ada Agada pointed out in his book, Existence and Consolation, they arrived at almost the same categories. In the Akan ethnic group for instance, reality is conceived as okra (an immaterial principle that could be given an eternal existence), sunsum ( a physical moment of the human mind that constitute the personality of an individual) and honam (the body). Similar conceptions of reality are obtained in Yoruba’s okan, ori and ishima, and many other different ethnic groups across the continent.
It’s important to outline these facts about African philosophy in order to appreciate Kwame Brenya’s contribution, through his arts, towards safeguarding an important source of the continent’s intellectual foundations. In addition, this outline will put the breadth and depth of Brenya ne Barima into a broader African philosophical perspective, as the stories and melodies span multiple West African countries. The perspectives that the listener gleans from the album cuts horizontally across the continent, and vertically across different stages of life’s journey.
The album’s journey begins with Ɔkwantuni. Similar to the ethnophilosophers in the 20th century that went back to engage the traditional wisdom of the their ethnic groups, Ɔkwantuni begins with a percipience from an aberewa (an old lady), probably Kwame Brenya’s mother or grandmother imparting her sagacity that comes with old age to the Ɔkwantuni. On Ɔkwantuni Kwame Brenya narrates the journey of a traveller through the forests in darkness. This darkness is a portension of the gloom that is to unravel as the listener delves into the album, especially the first half. The darkness is described as being derived from poverty, but this darkness, in and of itself, is poverty. The darkness therefore motivates the Ɔkwantuni‘s journey. It is significant to point out that the Ɔkwantuni does not fail to take note of the path to his origin. He notes that once he gets to Akɔm he knows he’s close to home. The remembrance of his roots counteracts emigration’s potential to sever one from their roots, effectively depriving one of original forms of motivation that stimulate an intellectual synthesis. Historically, the effect of emigration (whether forced or voluntary) on intellectual development in Ghana and most of Africa, has been detrimental, at best. Emigration leads to brain-drain and an eventual disruption of intellectual frameworks, such that no cohesive, systematic abstractions can be developed to guide public life. This has led to Ghana, and the continent’s dependence on intellectual systems developed elsewhere, in effect sustaining foreign imperialism on the continent. The issues of emigration are also covered in details in subsequent songs. But Akɔm which can be translated as a sort of concoction, is also used to invoke a transcendental authority to quench the darkness (poverty) that motivated the journey in the first place.
If the narrative on Ɔkwantuni is metaphysical, Anansesɛm, the second track on the album denotes realism. Anansesɛm (Ananse stories) are usually anecdotal, and are meant to serve as adages for living, but Brenya uses Anansesɛm to portray a lived experience. What makes a lived experience real if not the presence of a mind to perceive it? On Anansesɛm, Kwame Brenya declares that the journey knitted on the album are autobiographical. Brenya accentuates how he has borne the repercussions of personal life decisions, as every one should. He carries us through childhood decisions, difficulties that come to bear as one reaches youth and challenges of adulthood. Youth can be precarious, and trivial events, like having sex, can have tremendous effects on your life’s trajectory. These difficulties make Brenya seek peer counseling from Akan, whose 2017 album, Onipa Akoma sculpted similar lived experiences (see next paragraph for this details of this interaction). The experiential interacts with the mind, and as the experience shape the mind, the mind in turn shapes one’s experiences. But does the mind exist because of the experience or the experience exists because the mind does exist? This isn’t cyclical, but dialectical, and it’s this sort of dialectic that Brenya and Akan undertake on the next song on the album.
Dabi Dabi is presented as a dialogue between Brenya(Kwame) and Akan (Kwabena). Kwame seeks truth; he wants to know why all his life decisions have been towards being of service to his community, but the same community tries to bring him down. He symbolizes this as climbing a tree to pluck fruits for his people, but as he climbs, his people, lining up as tree bugs suck his energy. Kwabena is baffled and seeks further clarification from Kwame. In the end, Kwabena advises Kwame that such obstacles are expected when one plants good seeds. Dabi Dabi (one day one day), these seeds will bear fruits, in spite of the obstacles.
And so, in the face of the challenges mounted by Kwame’s community, Kwame takes to heel to continue his journey in a place far away. Brenya chronicles the events that took place during his journey to a distant place on the next two tracks: Bobo and Dakar. These two tracks reflect the experiences that many who emigrate due to economic hardships face in foreign places. During the 1970s and 80s, in the wake of a mass exodus of Ghanaians to Europe and North America for better economic conditions than what Ghana provided, Burgher highlife was born. This genre of music reflected the lived experience of these Ghana immigrants in these foreign countries. Anyone who has immersed themselves in the songs of this generation of Burgher highlife, such as A.B Crentsil’s Papa Samo, Lumba brothers’s Ye ya aka akwantuo mu, or Lee Dodou’s Etui will find echos of the past in Bobo and Dakar. Except that the past is really not gone, because the economic conditions that led to that mass exodus are still with us, at even more pronounced levels. Brenya integrates the idea of the past being present with us by narrating his experiences with emigration from the middle of the experience, instead of starting from the beginning. So, the account on Bobo begins mid-way through his return from Dakar. He gets stuck on his journey back at Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso. It’s a story of a wailing (translated as aboboo in Twi), homeless, penniless immigrant in an unknown place, an experience not uncommon among immigrants who migrate to other places due to economic reasons. The more interesting part of the journey to Dakar is what happened when Brenya gets to Dakar. He is received by an old Senegalese (or perhaps a Ghanaian who is stuck in Senegal) man, but later finds out that there are many Ghanaians, some of whom have been there for decades. When the man explained the reason the many Ghanaians are unable to return to Ghana, Brenya laughs at the reason, but will later become a victim. Experience is the best teacher, and the lesson from Dakar is that sometimes economic migration is inevitable, but as Brenya exits the song, he advises: do not sleep on your hustle when you immigrate. The moment you start sleeping on your hustle, that’s the moment you become stuck.
The stories on Bobo and Dakar are not the only experiences that immigrants face. Immigration usually comes with loneliness. On Ankonam, Brenya touches on loneliness. Here, loneliness isn’t described vis-a-vis the immigrant who is uprooted from their community of loved ones to a foreign land. Brenya also uses Ankonam to portray loneliness that results from death of a loved one. In a sense, these two situations have a common feature of displacement from established social relations. This displacement leads to a yearning, a hoping that one day, we will reconnect with the dead. This yearning was fundamental to Ada Agada’s Existence and Consolation, which has been described as ‘A truly African philosophy’.Existence and Consolation philosophy can probably be put as a yearning of a lost being, in this case a mood, which is a sort of primordial photo-mind that probably preceded the human consciousness, or existence. We yearn to reconnect with this mood. But will we? Life is a tragedy. The tragedy of life and death on Ankonam is transmitted to the life of of Yaw Barima, whose life Brenya narrates on Sika ne Barima 1&2.
Sika ne Barima transcribes the tragic life of Yaw Barima, who struggles to elevate himself from poverty, but loses his manhood (translated as Barima in Twi) along the way. Yaw Barima believed wealth is everything, so he sacrificed everything, including his manhood to obtain wealth. The tragic story of Yaw Barima is one that represent the lives of many people living in this age of capitalist excess, such as galamsey workers in mining communities in Ghana. As Yaw Barima obtains some wealth after years of hard work in the second part of Sika ne Barima, flashes of glee emanate from the gloom that shadowed the first side of the album. Indeed, Sika ne Barima 2 is the beginning of the Barima side of the album. Life, as Nana Amakye Dede has remarked famously in his song with the same title; Sika Ne Barima, is like a disc player. If one side of the disc isn’t pleasant, play the other side. As Brenya narrates the life of Yaw Barima on Sika ne Barima 2, there is turn from the sorrow that filled Yaw Barima’s life to a glorious one. But this glory isn’t all delightful because Yaw Barima trades one treasure for another. The loss of Yaw Barima’s manhood is key at this point in the album because it sets the stage for more stories roles that are divided based on gender.
The Barima side continues with Ohianimguase, a soothing chorus from Awurama Agyapong, intertwined with an absorbing poetry from Kwame Brenya. On the background, birds are chirping, with Awurama’s soothing voice, as Brenya’s poetry impregnates the space in between with allegories of motherhood, the toils of the working class. It’s a beautiful setting, and also sets the stage for Nyansa and Obra, two songs that describes ethics for living, especially as a working class.
Nyansa describes moral principles such as respect, love, trust, wisdom. These moral principles, and ethics in general guide any society from depravity. When these morals break down, social and economic relations fail, leading to a society entrapped in a Sisyphean of social and economic debasement. Ghana, a resource rich country with talented people continues to face economic downturns. Is this caused my an erosion of ethics that should guide the individual, the state or the community? As a foundation to both social and economic relations, a retardation of morality unequivocally affects social and economic growth. As Brenya narrates on Nyansa and Obra, the individual needs to follow these ethics, but since the individual is in contract with the state, the state, by extension must follow these ethics to ensure trust. Trust and dependability are fundamental principles to the relationship of the individual and the state, as well as interpersonal relationships, such as friendships.
Brenya talks about dependability in interpersonal relationships on kwantifi. Kwantifi combines African drums and flutes (which was mixed by the legendary Panji Anoff, a leader of contemporary Ghanaian music, especially the hip-life music that took off some decades ago, as Jesse Weaver noted in their book, Living The Hiplife). Kwantifi gives more breadth to the moral principles that have been described in the previous paragraph. Kwantifi however adds a communal dimension to the narrative by focusing on friendships and long term relationships.
A pan-West African narration that characterize this album is further explored on Didi. The sound on Didi is unique, a sound that is a product of final year project by a University of Ghana student, Ayi Kwao, and termed Nhini. It’s a head nodding sound, but significantly, Brenya sings in Susu, a dialect indigenous to the people of Conakry in Guinea. This epitomizes Brenya’s experience across multiple West African countries, and how these experiences have shaped his psyche leading up to this project.
Indeed, by the time you get to Brenya ne Barima, you would have gone through a deep philosophical, metaphysical and an experiential events that would guide any moral being towards an upright living.
The album is well-written, arranged piece of work. It’s a reliving of an African canon, a canon that is constantly being assaulted by the threats of neocolonialism propagating as globalization. The album also emphasizes the tragedy of the human condition, the tragedy of death, and how we yearn to reconnect with what is dead. Death is invoked at different levels on the album: the disadvantaged who works his way out of poverty, but part of him dies in the process, or ultimate biological death of the individual. Is death a tragedy or a reward for living?
Sɛ ɛbewie, …
The writer tweets @alexrepgh