The seperewa is part of the deep backstory of palm-wine and highlife music in Ghana. It began as a six-stringed bridge harp with a wooden box body and a neck like a guitar, a construction not unlike that of the Mande kora or the donson ngoni (hunter’s harp). Indeed, history indicates that the seperewa came from the northern Sahel. In one account, the first one to come to Ghana was captured by the Ashanti in a 1730 conquest. It made its way from chief’s booty to lesser chiefs, and eventually became a popular Akan village instrument. In our time, the seperewa has never received as much attention as other West African string instruments. To the extent it has, it is largely thanks to this man, Osei Korankye.
Korankye is an instructor at the University of Ghana in Legon, and he has inspired great interest in the seperewa, teaching students, creating ensembles, and modifying the instrument. His now has 14 strings. Korankye was a force behind the gorgeous 2008 release Seprewa Kasa (Riverboat). (Somehow the spelling of the instrument’s name has evolved along with the number of strings.) The seven lively tracks on this new release mostly feature Korankye playing and singing and backed by spare hand percussion and hauntingly harmonized vocals.
The opening track “Kesewa” sets the tone, juxtaposing the animated, dry plinking melodies of the seperewa with deep toned and finely tuned hand drums and persistent shaker. Korankye’s vocal is classic palm-wine or old school highlife—high, crying, at once joyous and mournful. That emotional duality is key. A huge part of the appeal of this music is its irresistible levity, tempered by a profound sense of yearning and nostalgia.
The sparest songs, “Fa Pa Pa” and “Mmerane,” present Korankye playing and singing without accompaniment. On the intro to “Fa Pa Pa,” he somehow manages a kind of vibrato, almost like a guitar note bend. These two pieces feel like incantations or prayers, both unfolding outside any palpable rhythmic structure. Elsewhere rhythmic structures vary, an elusive 6/8 on “Emmere Nyina Nse,” and a highlife-like amble built around a bell pattern on “Kulo Eliema.” The latter evolves into a delightfully tangled string jam between two seperewas and an acoustic guitar. But it is really Korankye’s individual prowess that makes this such an important and satisfying recording. When he cuts loose on seperewa, as near the end of “Emmere Nyina Nse” or in an overdub on “Ye Nne,” his expressiveness and rhythmic adventurism are nothing short of riveting.
This rare and welcome release comes from the digital label Akwaaba Music, based in Ghana, and generally specializing in more contemporary music. Click here to learn more and download. The download page for this release provides some good background, though, alas. no insight into the song lyrics. No matter. Korankye’s supremely expressive playing and singing provide plenty for the imagination to savor.