Liner Note: Bufo Variations
I first traveled to Accra, Ghana in 2004, wishing to learn something about bells as time-keepers in drum ensembles. The visit came on the heels of three years listening to church, animal, and carnival bells in European villages, towns, and cities (Bells and Winter Festivals of Greek Macedonia, 2002; The Time of Bells,1 and 2, 2004). It seemed right to pause from the Old World and check out a contemporary yet much older-world perspective on how bells make time. But before that could happen, I experienced another local example of how sound delineates time and space: the deep night croaking of the common toad, Bufo regularis, emanating from sewers flanking city roads, their voices intensely amplified by the cement walls of their fetid amphitheater.
On that first Accra visit, I also met multi-instrumentalist Nii Otoo Annan. From 2005-2008, we performed together in Ghana, Europe, and the USA with Nii Noy Nortey as Accra Trane Station (Tribute to A Love Supreme, 2005; Meditations for John Coltrane, 2006; Another Blue Train, 2007, Topographies of the Dark, 2008). In 2006, I asked Nii Otoo to listen to the Bufo soundscape I had created for the first Ear to the Earth concert in New York. Taking the headphones off, he connected the dots: “You hear, Prof, it is like what I have been showing you in our music. The crickets are sounding like the bell with very strict time, and the kawkawdene (the toad’s name in Ga, Nii Otoo’s first language) are the master drummers, making many rhythms on top.”
It’s now two years later, and Nii Otoo is listening to my Bufo Aria in headphones and recording ten real-time responses. He improvises each variation in a complete take, presented here without additional edits or overdubs (yes, everything you hear is one person at one time). When the toad track is removed from the mix, Nii Otoo’s musical response is fully exposed. To clarify the process, Variation 6, for electric guitar, retains the ambient track so that you hear Ni Otoo playing in sync with what is in his headphones.
Nii Otoo is a respected master of both traditional Ghanaian percussion and popular and jazz musics. He is not familiar with the music of J. S. Bach, but when I play for him the Goldberg Variations, he quickly notices the repeated bass line motion (he is also a skilled bassist) and, as with Ghanaian drum and xylophone playing, the independent and interlocking left and right hands. But it is the harpsichord’s shimmering timbres that Nii Otoo enjoys most upon hearing Bach’s keyboard music. He likens these qualities to the rasp of the toads, the buzz of his xylophone’s resonators, and the snare of the brekete drum. As we record I keep wondering if this is what the Goldberg Variations might sound like had Bach been born in Ghana, grown up listening to Bufo toads, and devoted his musical genius to the mastery of polyrhythm as both a traditional African drummer and a contemporary jazz experimentalist.
At the last session, Nii Otoo sets up a combination of his instruments, adds trap-set cymbals, and with jazz brushes plays a tenth variation, not to the Aria but to “Frogs,” a previous overdubbing of the Aria by Alex Coke on tenor sax, Tina Marsh, voice, and myself on ashiwa bass. “Frogs” was created when Alex proposed that we simultaneously improvise to playback of the Bufo Aria, each in different rooms, hearing only the toads in headphones, and not what each other was playing. Only afterwards, at the recording console, did we hear the synchrony of our collective conversation. Now, to conclude this recording, Nii Otoo continues that feedback loop to the infinite possible musics created through recording to playback, and to the infinite possible musics inspired by rhythms and textures of the natural world.
Steven Feld, Professor of Anthropology and Music, U. New Mexico