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Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana, which is released next Tuesday, might well be the strangest recording released by Folkways Records since the Smithsonian Institute acquired the label in 1987. In decades prior the label was famous for issuing certain titles with a decidedly narrow audience—who could forget 1964’s classic Speech After the Removal of the Larynx, or 1958’s Sounds of North American Frogs, which became one of the surprise hits of the imprint's reissue campaign. But for the most part the label’s mission has been preserving vanishing musical traditions from around the globe with a mix of academic rigor and savvy packaging.
The great ethnomusicologist Steven Feld is responsible for this new release, chronicling a phenomenon that’s been active in Accra, Ghana’s capital, for about seven decades, but only recently came into public view. Por por music—the name is an onomatopoetic description of the sound—is basically built around the rubber bulb horns that were once ubiquitous on children’s bicycles. In Accra these horns were used on transport trucks and over the years their use expanded. If a truck got a flat tire in a remote area the various workers would create a raucous chorus of honking and ad-hoc percussion to warn approaching vehicles that there was a disabled truck ahead. Eventually the workers began to incorporate local rhythms and with time bands started mixing in original lyrics, familiar hits, and traditional pieces. It's a clattery, nasal barrage of dance music; believe it or not, pumping up a spare tire tube is one of the preferred dance moves.
In 1960 a local television program used a por por version of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as its theme song. But for the most part por por music was consigned to funerals for fellow transport workers, offering the same kind of celebratory air as New Orleans funeral brass bands. In fact, it’s only been in the last six years or so that the music has started being heard in public performance. The Ghanaian photographer Nii Yemo Nunu—son of a truck driver—had been taking pictures of the “musicians” for years when he shared his knowledge with friend and saxophonist Nii Noi Nortey, who began jamming with the La Drivers Union Por Por Group in late 2002. Before the long the band was gigging at a number of prestigious cultural functions; in 2004 they even opened an Accra performance for the British jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine. Feld was introduced to the group by Nortey and he began chronicling the group’s work.
I’ll be honest—sitting through all 72 minutes of the CD can be a trying experience. There’s not much melody within the chanted vocals, and while the rhythms are infectious, the constant hocketing barrage of single-toned squeeze horns teeters between tedium and torture. But there is method to the madness and if you can adjust your ears to the restricted tonal range you can notice how resourceful the group is, finding an unexpected contrapuntal spectrum in all of the bleating. Feld’s liner notes are typically informative, obsessively researched, and accessible, and the photos by Nunu are excellent. This CD clearly isn’t for everyone, but I can almost guarantee it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before.