THE ROOTS OF AZONTO: GAFACCI TALKS

Chatting to the Azonto pioneer about Ghana's uptempo music scene.

THE ROOTS OF AZONTO: GAFACCI TALKS

Chatting to the Azonto pioneer about Ghana's uptempo music scene.

Those of you paying attention will have noticed that the latest Ransom Note Records release is a something of a curveball. We’ve always been into the pioneering spirit of acid house, where DJs could draw on anything from frosted coldwave to blood quickening Latin house, and bubbling 303s could sit next to those classic funk, all in the spirit of making you dance. To this end, when we finally got the chance to sign a modern classic of Ghanaian Azonto we jumped at the opportunity.

Azonto is a dance sound that blew up in Accra around 2010 – 2012. A mix of EDM synths, uptempo beats that shared DNA with UK Funky and high speed rapping, for a brief moment Azonto was the dominant genre across West Africa, taking over Ghana, and then neighbouring Nigeria. The tracks were tight, skeletal productions built around driving claps and stabbing synths, whilst vocalists rapped sang and autotune-warbled over the beats, generally trying to come up with a new dance craze that would propel a song to the top.  

Gafacci was one of the producers involved in the Azonto boom from the start. His track Kpo Kpo Body (pronounced koo koo body) was an early example of someone mashing together hip hop bass with high speed drums – it proved to be a nationwide hit. He followed with a series of productions for major Ghanaian names, all of which established him as a serious producer in his homeland. Meanwhile, a beat slipped out of his studio to be jumped on by a relatively unknown rapper named Bryte. Bryte laced the minimal instrumental with the playfully lascivious lyrics of I Like Your Girlfriend, the lyrical equivalent of two and a half minute spent trying to chirpse someone else’s girl, and uploaded it to Youtube in grainy quality. In Ghana it caused little more than a minor stir. In the UK, however, the track was noted by a range of DJs, from Brackles to Bok Bok, who were searching for tunes that maintained the energy of UK Funky. It’s mix of warped techno and cheeky lyrics making it a near perfect pop song.  

Despite gaining cult status, it was largely accepted that there would never be a decent quality version of the track available outside of Ghana (anyone who plays Azonto tunes has long since accepted that sometimes a banger’s a banger no matter what bitrate it comes in). Bryte didn’t appear to have any online presence and no one outside Ghana seemed to know who had produced the track. Earlier this year after an amount of searching, we found Bryte online via his recently made Soundcloud page. With a bit of back and forth over the DMs, we sorted out giving the track a proper release. After we’d signed that off, it transpired that Gafacci was the original producer of the beat – something that we’d not known (and Bryte hadn’t been in a hurry to tell us, lol). When Gafacci got in touch about the project, we decided that he deserved to get his shine as well – his beat being so essential to I Like Your Girlfriend’s magic. Over a crackling Skype connection, it turned out that we caught him at the right time; he’s poised for a European tour, making beats with Mixpak and running his own JOWAA imprint – but first he filled us in on the early days of Azonto-

When did you first start producing? And what were you making?

I started off writing hip hop songs, trap. I was collaborating a lot with the mainstream Ghanaian artists, people like D-Black, Dee Money.

Was there anyone you wanted to sound like?

Yeah, Pharrell!

So were you just trying to make music that sounded like Pharrell, or was there more of a Ghanian element?

The Ghanaian element came up because it was natural. The neighbourhood I’m from, music is a staple thing in society. You hear it everywhere, so I was getting a lot of influence. When I started making beats I could do afrobeats and hip hop at the same time. The thing I was trying to do was have a cross platform sound, music that would be listened to by people in the upper and middle classes and people in the lower classes as well, poor people

Is there a big difference between what they listen to?

Yes, yes. The difference is the masses, the lower classes, are the ones who drive the music scene in Ghana. For a song to be big, they have to be behind it. When a song is very big in the upper class territories it’s very difficult to be a nationwide hit, but when the song comes from the lower classes it’s very easy to be a big hit. All the time I was trying to make sounds that would be a balance. A song like Wisa - Eekiiki Mi – that’s good amongst everyone, it has that balance, The same with a song like You and Me by Joey B.

What were you writing beats on?

Fruity Loops. Right now I’m using Fruity Loops and Ableton – I sequence in Fruity Loops and perform in Ableton.

Azonto was breaking through in 2010 – was that something you were drawn to?

I Like Your Girlfriend was an Azonto beat – at that time Azonto wasn’t too popular. I produced a song called Kpo Kpo O Body, and I was trying to reinvent the process I went through to get that song. I ended up with I Like Your Girlfriend. UK music was also very big at this point in Ghana – around 2009 – 2011, music like Funky D and Donea’o, there songs were very, very big here.

I was in Lagos around 2011 and Party Hard was being played in all the clubs

Ayyy Party Hard was a continent wide hit in Africa, everyone loved that song. At that time Sway was doing big things in the UK scene – and because he’s Ghanaian a lot of people were turning their attention towards him. Artists like Funky D and Lethal Bizzle, their music had certain fundamentals that they shared with Azonto – in the four beat or the claps – their songs sounded like songs produced in Ghana.

The UK scene fits in well – it has a balance, it works here. Most people go there. America’s influence is just the culture – the way they dress, the way they speak, but the kind of music that comes from America, it can never work here. Big American artists do songs here with Ghanaian artists and they just fizzle out here, they’re not that big.

The current sound in Ghana is a lot slower, more like 100 bpm, have you slowed down your productions as well?

No, I’m still working on high tempo stuff. Everyone is going slow, and I know a time will come when people will want to go fast – I’m just producing and waiting for them to come to me.

I know you’ve been working with Famous Eno as well, how does that work?

How it works with me and Famous is that we send files back and forth – he composes a beat, an 8 bar loop, and he’ll send it to me. I’ll use the sounds he’s created and create something totally new.

 

Is there anywhere in Accra playing this?

No there is no scene.

So do you want to leave to raise your profile?

That’s what I’ve been planning, but the internet has made it very easy for me – I don’t have to be in Europe to be heard there. Most artists over here, when they get there shine, they move abroad. But I feel what I’m doing has potential here. The work I’m doing with JOWAA will work here. People don’t really understand it because I’m not collaborating with popular artists. When popular artists are jumping on the wave, people will tune their ear to it – here the mainstream drives everything, there is no underground.

Do you want to work with mainstream artists?

Yeah yeah, I’m interested in working with those guys, but I’ve tried before. When I was really mainstream myself it seemed like no one seemed to get what I’m doing. In Ghana there is no creative working relationship between artists and producers. Artists want you to finish a beat and send it over to them. Most artists are like ‘I’m doing you a favour, I’m the big guy’, it can’t be a creative process. That’s why I like the new scene I’m in with Famous Eno, Mello, Mina, Tash – I really like that scene because you can talk and collaborate. I like something that has a process, I don’t like too much mechanical stuff, where the artist just wants you to send them the beat, and sometimes their voice doesn’t fit well for the song, it sounds very bad. What I’m trying to do is make the scene that I’m in crossover, and the only way that will happen is if I work with mainstream artists, and not just any mainstream artists, key ones.

So it’s important for you to stay in Ghana-

I need to be here to have an identity. A song like Kpo Kpo Body, the idea came about because I was with my cousins, we were sitting about listening to music that came from a spot. This guy came along, a mad guy, a crazy guy. He came up and he was trying to provoke us and intimidate us. He was saying hey you guys kpo kpo body, kpo kpo body we thought he was going to get violent. But he ended up dancing in front of us, and while he’s dancing he’s still saying kpo kpo body kpo kpo body, and I said, bros, I’m going to use this thing for a song – they didn’t believe me because I’d only just started making beats. I went and made a song about it, gave it to Dee Money and it was a nationwide hit. I get my inspiration from working with my surroundings.

And what have you got coming up?

I’m working on the JOWAA imprint. It's run by me and my guy who also runs a label in Ghana called Akwaaba Music. His name is DJ BBRAVE or Benjamin Lebrave. JOWAA is a project that can get way bigger than it is right now. We have upcoming shows in four cities in Europe in Winter. I’m playing Germany, Belgium and Norway

Not London?

Ehhhhhh, London, your visa! Your visa is mad! I don’t want to get into it... but I want to use this year to get credibility that I’m not someone who wants to come to Europe and run away. I’m playing at the Oslo Music festival in November. I want to go in the future like DJ Juls has – working with artist who fit his sound. Over here people don’t really know what they want, they want you to show them stuff – working with prominent artists on the stuff I do will introduce them to a whole new scene. That’s how Azonto came about, and when it was really doing well everyone believed in it. There’s been a lot of dances trying to replicate the Azonto age, but there hasn’t been one. Right now Nigerian music is big in Ghana again. Azonto changed the whole narrative. We are very trend driven people, but also when something comes we want the next thing –I think what I’m doing now can change the whole thing. It’s not an easy scene to be in, you need discipline and a strong state of mind to do what I’m doing, because when you come in it will test you. But I think what I’m doing will be the future. For me to make this thing work, I have to show everyone that I’m making a living. Then they’ll all jump on the bandwagon…


You can follow the Jowaa project on Soundcloud here - and pre-order I Like Your Girlfriend on vinyl and digital from the Ransom Note Records Bandcamp here

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