Ghanaian popular musician, rapper and producer E.L. (Elom Adablah) has achieved a significant following both locally in Ghana and through international circuits for his creative take on the ultra-popular dance music style known as azonto. He recently visited New York, making inroads to bring his music here in the near future. Afropop Worldwide senior producers Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow traveled to Ghana last year to produce two Hip Deep shows: Ghana 1: Ebo Taylor and the Pioneers of Afro-Funk and Ghana 2: 21st Century Accra from Gospel to Hip-Life. While we spoke to many of the artists responsible for the development of the azonto sound, we didn’t get a chance to talk with E.L. until he came to New York. Here’s an excerpt from his conversation with Banning Eyre:
Banning Eyre: Maybe you could start by introducing yourself and telling us about the landmarks of your career. Did you grow up in Accra? How did you become a musician? How you became a producer?
E.L.: Okay, well, my name is E.L. I’m a recording artist from Ghana. I grew up in Accra. I’m signed to a record company called BBnZ Live, which I’m the chairman of. We have a bunch of artists, actually four artists signed under us: Gemini, there’s Lil Shaker, there’s Cwesi Oteng, and DJ Mic Smith, and DJ Juls, so that’s five artists right now. So we’re just out here in the States, trying to work it, trying to get some contacts, trying to lay a platform by which we can perform, do shows out here, and promote the African music agenda. And that’s what we’re working on right now.
That’s great. I know you’re hooked up with Rab [Bakari, Ghanaian music producer and promoter], he’s a great guy for that. He’s got the vision and the connections.
Yeah definitely, Rab’s a great guy.
I’m curious about you though. You’re both an artist and a producer. Which came first?
Well, I started writing music first, but there was at a point in time where we needed someone to make the beats for us, and at that time there was nobody in our environment doing the type of beats that we wanted, so we had to learn to do it ourselves. So I started out writing music first, and then the production came after.
When you were writing music–were you rapping, were you singing, were you playing an instrument? What was music-making for you in the beginning?
I started out rapping a lot in the beginning. I belonged to one of the first hip-hop groups in Ghana, called Skillions (Jayso’s Skillion Records). We started recording in a friend’s bedroom. We were listening to a lot of music coming from Reggie Rockstone and Hammer, and his whole set and stuff. We were just pure hip-hop. And that’s how it started. We started rapping before we started singing and doing other things.
So you started making your own beats and you became a producer out of necessity?
And from what I’m hearing, you’ve become quite an in-demand producer…
How did it change your experience of making music on the artistic side?It’s interesting because there are not that many people who are doing both in Ghana, right?
How did the process of becoming a producer change how you thought about making music on the artistic side?
Like I said, it came as a necessity; we needed to do it ourselves. So I think once you are able to open that dimension, once you’re able to exploit that beginning and then become a pro at it, it opens a whole new horizon for you as an artist. The limits aren’t there any more. You’re able to have a tune in your head when you wake up in the morning, or have an idea when you’re driving around with friends, and you’re able to transform that whole experience into song, into music. So it’s a total experience. And I’ll encourage anybody out there, who, in their pursuit of music, wants to have success, they have to make sure that they have knowledge of different aspects of the music creation process. And once you’re able to do that, you become very, very dexterous, ambidextrous, and able to do lots of different things when it comes to the creation process. So I can do whatever I want when I’m in the studio: I can choose to rap, I can choose to do the pop music, rock, soft rock, whatever I hear in my head, that experience, I can put it down and make it real, make it music.
In our show on contemporary Ghana, we featured your song “Kaalu” which I think is really an impressive piece work, because there’s so much going on it. Can you tell me a little bit about that song? What’s it about, what’s it saying?
You known, when we’re in the studio, we like to have fun, we like to fool around, and kaalu is just like a term of endearment, something you just toss around, like saying, “What up my guy!” But kaalu in and of itself means ‘Don’t be silly, don’t fool around. Behave.’ Behave is actually the best way to describe the word kaalu. It’s just something we use to chill out and poke fun of each other, and it sounds good in the clubs as well. So that’s the idea behind “Kaalu.”
Rab sent me one of your most recent videos for “Ayayaa,” the one where the girl wants her guy to steal the goblet out of the museum; it’s kind of an adventure/revenge story. It’s very amusing. What inspired that song?
You know, Africans like to dance, we like to feel good. So what makes people feel good? You know, sometimes it’s just something you play around with, terms that you play around with, and you get a good song out of it. So “Ayayaa” doesn’t mean anything, it’s just a term, like if you see something which you admire, that’s an expression that comes out most of the time. So that’s a term that we’re playing around with. But when it came to the video, whenever I shoot a video, I try to think outside the box and do something that has never been done before. So, we sat down with the director, South African Justin Campos of Gorilla Films, and we came out with a very ambitious script, an ambitious concept, and we were able to carry it across and execute it. And so far, I see people love it, so that’s all we need. So long as people can watch the video and be like, “Wow, this is a journey, and this is an experience,” then we’re happy with what we have.
Do you ever get into more serious issues, politics, things like that, in your music? We spoke about that a lot with artists in Ghana, about the instinct to do that, or not do that. A lot of people were pretty firm about, “No that’s not what music’s for, music is to entertain.” How do you feel about all that?
Well, I believe we don’t live in isolation, all these things influence us, not just as musicians but as human beings. So whether it’s politics or economy or whatever, it affects us as creative people first of all, and on a larger scale, as human beings. So you can’t escape it. No artist and no musician can really say, “I don’t care about the economy, or the state of affairs of the country.” It is something that you have to care about. And when it comes to topics like that, me myself as a creative, I admit I try to stay away from it as much as possible. But we have to learn that we are living in a country, Ghana, where the industry is not as mature and as functional as we would like it to be, and if it was, we would have so much to boast about. We do have a lot to boast about when it comes to talent and the creative process, but we don’t have the structure that helps us to maximize, and to go out there into the world and proclaim our greatness, and show the world how talented Ghana music is; we don’t have those structures. So it’s a political thing, it’s an economic thing. I want people to get those structures in place, those guys are learning. But then again, I don’t think we should sit on our asses and think the government is going to come along and pick us up and help us; we need to do it ourselves. We have to go out there and make sure that we are using our minds to establish ourselves as successful artists. And find creative ways by which we can be successful artists. And if the government doesn’t help, we have to find our own means and ways of making that happen. And that’s why I’m out here, what trying to do…I’m not going to sit down and say, “Chale, the government’s not helping me out, so I’m just going to stay in my small box.” There’s so much work to be done, so let’s get down and do it!
But I did really sense a lot of vitality in the Ghanaian scene, it was really exciting being there. It was just about a year ago since we were there, so catch me up a bit. Are there any interesting new artists who have emerged since that time? Who do you think are the stars of that scene, the people you really admire?
Oh, I’m the biggest star in the scene right now, I know that about it [Laughs]. But there are so many cats who are coming out that we have to watch out for, especially signed to my label, and I’m not just saying that because it’s my label, but it’s a fact that they’ve been working very hard for a very long time. And there’s Gemini, there’s Joey B, who’s doing big things right now. He’s been around; he’s been to Amsterdam, London, England, he’s doing great things. Gemini has also been working very hard. These two have been doing their thing. There’s also Lil Shaker, who you have to watch out for. Lil Shaker has a bunch of songs out there, with so many artists. He has a song with Wanlov, Sarkodie, and so many more. So there’s a lot bubbling under. And by God’s grace, they get the recognition they deserve, which they’ve been working very hard to achieve.
Well that’s cool! Keep sending us stuff, we’ll get the word out. Now, of course, when we were there last year, azonto was the word on everyone’s lips. But the other day somebody told me, “Ah, azonto is dead. There’s something new taking place.”
I’d like to know what that new thing is, because whatever it is, it’s an offspring of azonto. Because azonto is the Motherland and all these other things that are coming, you can recognize, you can hear…There’s alkayida, which is a new dance, but when you hear alkayida songs, you know this came from the azonto thing, azonto as a general genre of music. So azonto is going to be here, no matter what we choose to call it, no matter what comes from it, it’s always going to be there, and we are proud of it, you know? But it’s azonto until something completely different comes, which is totally set apart from azonto, then azonto is always going to be dominant.
I feel that way, too. It made a big noise worldwide, it’s not just going to go away.
No other trend has made such a big impact as azonto. They are all just branches of the main thing.
Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about the scene in the U.K. We’ve been paying a lot of attention to that lately, particularly Ghanaian and Nigerian artists like Fuse ODG and D’Banj, who really made a big impact over there. How does that feed back to the scene in Accra? Are there collaborations? Do people feel connected to that? How does that all look from the Accra perspective?
Well, it’s something we’re definitely proud of, that African music is dominant out there. Me, I just see it as another opportunity for us to grow African music and to take it worldwide; it’s just another step on the ladder. There’s Fuse ODG out there, there’s Mista Silva out there, you know, they are very close to us. They are Ghanaian, but they’re out there doing their thing. I’m not going to knock their hustle. We have always possibilities to promote them and help them as much as possible. Then again, like I said, it’s a whole new industry, which is there for the taking, and there for us to take advantage of and grow as artists. And this was the same in the States as it was in the U.K., so you know things are getting bigger, things are growing. It’s just something we’re working on, trying to make it bigger. That’s why I’m out here in the States, trying to make links so the scene out here will start growing, the same way it did in the U.K. and wherever else.
That’s cool. I know that London-Accra axis was very important for projecting azonto, for example.
Yeah, yeah. There’s a great Ghanaian community out there in the U.K., so definitely it’s growing out there, and we’re part of that.
Tell me about your experience here in the U.S. You’ve been here before?
No, this is my first time.
Oh, well, welcome! What’s the experience been like? What have you seen? What’s been interesting?
Oh, it’s been great. I’m out here on a mission, to lay groundwork for further development, or work we can do in the future. I’m just out here to meet new people, make connections, and I’ll be back in July to do shows and start something solid here. So I’ll be out here more often.
That’s great. I look forward to seeing you on the stage. Before I let you go, I want to ask you one question about the changing scene for music, not just in Ghana, but in English-speaking Africa…We were really impressed last year to see so many Ghanaian artists going to Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Jo-burg, and Lagos of course; there seemed to be a real circuit, and people told us that was pretty new, like five or six years, with all these contests and events. It’s exciting, but as you said, there’s a lot missing in the structure of the music industry, and of course nobody can sell CDs any more or anything like that, so you have to have a different kind of model. What’s your take on that? How are you playing that multinational, Anglo-African model in your own career?
I mean the world is becoming a smaller place day by day. With the advent of the Internet it makes it easier for people to hear your songs and things like that. I think it’s all in the development of the industry in general, if we’re able to travel outside and meet fans across borders, it’s definitely a development in the right direction. So I think it just accommodates our efforts to grow in that industry. I’m definitely all in for that.
Are you doing that yourself?
Yeah, I’ve been around. I haven’t been to all the countries which I want to visit, but we’re definitely in the process. I know that from here, I’m going to Canada, and then from there I’m going back to Africa, and I’m going to do concerts in a couple countries in Africa. I’ve already been to Nigeria, but I think there’s so much work for Ghanaians to do in Nigeria, for us to partner up with them. And then, from there, I should take over the whole continent. So I hope to go to Kenya, to Senegal, so much work to be done. It’s all in the works, but definitely a step in the right direction.
So, specifically about Nigeria and Ghana, there’s a lot of music rivalry, going back to Fela’s early days, making it in Ghana, right up to the FOKN Bois with “Thank God We Are Not A Nigerians,” there’s a lot of humor, but there’s also a lot of competition and rivalry. And Nigeria is an absolute powerhouse in the African music industry.
What’s your take on all that? What’s the relationship between Ghanaian and Nigerian musicians now?
The relationship between Ghana and Nigeria has always been very close, we’re like the closest when it comes to any two countries in Africa, it’s like Ghana and Nigeria, when it comes to how close we are as brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t see there’s competition, because when it comes to competing, it’s in terms of the creativity, how the music sounds, what the songs talks about, definitely the quality of the music. But when it comes to other variables, like the size of their industry compared to ours, they’re definitely a superpower. Not just in West Africa, but in the whole of Africa. So it’s something to be contested, but it’s something we are part of as well, because, you know, we are also partners with their efforts to make African music known worldwide. So let’s look at it from that aspect, instead of looking at it from an aspect of us competing or anything like that. We are very close as partners, trying to make African music go global.