A guiding force for the forgotten people
The Frafra people, themselves made up of four major ethnic groups, are a subset of the Gurune/ Gurunshi ethnic group of Northern Ghana and Southern Burkina Faso. The Frafra are semi-nomadic, but predominantly reside in Northeastern Ghana, a locale which has played a major role in shaping Frafra history relative to their neighboring peoples in the north. The differences between these groups can be traced back to the colonial era, when the French and the British imposed different administrative practices on their subjects. It goes without saying that the reverberations of colonialism are still felt today by the Frafra people. Their very name was given to them by Christian Missionaries, and to this day, Frafra youth frequently emigrate to Southern Ghana looking for menial work (a practice that began in the colonial times). It’s not hard to imagine how this history might inspire the music of Alostmen, a Ghanaian band whose music is deeply rooted in Frafra traditions. Take it from Stevo Atambire, the band’s leader:
“We are Alostmen because we were lost in the street, the forgotten people,” he said. “People at home see music as a teaching so I always try to send a good message. I talk of this region, how they used to live and what they experience today. I try to bring development, peace and unity to the community, to give them hope to achieve.”
This sentiment seems just as personal as it is political, informed not only by the Frafra’s experience with the alienating forces of colonialism and their semi-nomadism, but also by the fact that most of the album’s tracks were recorded in various hotel rooms while the band was on the road.
These themes are expertly conveyed on Alostmen’s latest record, Kologo. Through and through, Kologo plays like a beacon for Atambire’s people—a guiding force for, and a love letter to, the Frafra and their rich musical traditions. Nowhere is this channeled more lucidly than on the first track, “Kologo,” named after the two-stringed lute on which the record (and much of Frafra music) is based. The instrumental is sparse yet unmistakably jubilant, making use of a driving rhythm section and a looped kologo riff. Atambire, accompanied by chanting background singers and a feature by Wanlov the Kubolor, bursts with reverence for the kologo and its history on this track, betraying a borderline religious devotion to his instrument: “Kologo dey before Ghana/ Kologo dey before my youth/ Kologo dey before my mother/ Kologo music be the root.”
But “Kologo” isn’t just a testament to the power of its titular instrument or Frafra culture as a whole; it’s also a celebration of the ineffable, transcendent feelings music has the power to inspire. The best track on the record, “Carry Me Go,” directly addresses the band’s goal of providing guidance to a community of forgotten people (“I don’t know where we came from”). The song is propelled by a deeply catchy hook, an equally contagious groove and a particularly impassioned vocal performance by Atambire. To boot, check out this live performance of the song. The band moves at a slightly faster tempo than on the record, and Atambire delivers his words with such urgency that people can see veins bulging out of his forehead. The performance also features an awe-inspiring dondo (talking drum) performance by the band’s own Aminu Amadu.
These tracks sound relatively traditional, but elsewhere on the record, Alostmen meld Frafra sounds with genres as diverse as hip-hop, reggae and rock, recontextualizing their music and rendering it more accessible for Western listeners for whom world music might be a blind spot.
The band’s hip-hop influences are most apparent on “Do Good,” which is built upon a goje fiddle loop and programmed drums, and features a rapped verse by Medikal. The bouncy “Minus Me,” on the other hand, feels very rock-inspired, with a funky kologo riff and impeccably timed vocal ad-libs by Atambire. Other tracks, namely “Baba,” feature similarly rock-inspired kologo riffage.
Atambire explained that he strives to do something “out” with his instrument, forcing it to work in ways not originally intended. Wanlov the Kubolor attests to this, explaining how “Stevo will play [the kologo] at the shortest end of bridge and accentuate, almost Hendrix-style…He has evolved the instrument in his own way.” This innovative approach—forcing your instrument to bend to your will—permeates the entirety of the Black music tradition. From Elizabeth Cotten’s signature fingerpicking style, to John Coltrane playing through excruciating pain to achieve a love supreme, to the brutal dive-bomb sound effects Hendrix conjured from his guitar, iconoclasm is the essence of Black music. Alostmen carve their own space into this tradition with Kologo, thanks to their propensity for genre-bending and Atambire’s kologo experimentation.
Genre-bending, in the hands of lesser artists, can easily come off as contrived and gimmicky, but Alostmen never suffer from this problem. This can obviously be attributed to the fact that the genres in question all share a common lineage, but it’s also deepened by the sheer amount of fun the band is having, and the palpable love they feel for the Frafra.
Kologo is explicitly meant as a guiding message to the “forgotten people,” but, with its cross-genre experiments and consistent songcraft, listeners everywhere will likely find enjoyment in the music within. Above all else, devotion is at the heart of Kologo—devotion to the band’s people, to their culture and to music as a whole. Combined with Atambire’s iconoclastic approach to the kolombo and a profound sense of fun throughout, Kologo is irresistible whether you’re forgotten or not.