Before technology revolutionised how we hear music—through ipods, phones and online streaming—it altered how that music was made. With the hi-technology equipment available to the music producer today, music, it can be said, is more synthesised than made. Today music instruments are superfluous, none more so than the traditional African music instruments.
The seperewa (also seprewa), one of such instruments, has had a fascinating journey to its present dwelling place in the margins of west African music. Described, in its initial form, as a “six-stringed bridge harp with a wooden box body and a neck,” its place was taken up upon the introduction of the western instrument it sounds and looks like: the guitar. The name itself was derived partly from how it looks and perhaps how it should be handled: the syllables represent the Twi words for ‘speak’, ‘touch’, and ‘small’. Put differently: “this small instrument can speak when it is touched.”
A Ghanaian harp, it was obtained by the Asantes as a spoil of the 1730 war from the Gyaman of Bonduku in present day northern Ivory Coast. Osei Tutu (ruler of the Asantes) kept the instrument for himself, employing a man who played it and bringing him to Kumasi as personal singer. It is said that upon his death, his successor constructed a copy of the instrument in his honour. In time, from that lofty position, the seperewa became available to the lower-ranking chiefs and much later, reached the populace.
For a period, the seperewa enjoyed a status as perhaps the centrepiece of Ghanaian highlife and palmwine music. That is, until the guitar’s entry, which saw several palmwine and highlife music transported to the new instrument as the 19th century drew to a close. “So the guitar is actually playing the music the seperewa was playing in the 1930s,” says Colter Harper, the ethnomusiciologist who has spent some time studying traditional music in Ghana.
Besides its semblance to the guitar, the seperewa also shares a kinship with the harp lute and the kora, the famous string instrument from the Sahel region. “The music doesn’t sound like Malian music but the structure of the instrument is similar,” says Harper.
The seperewa mostly survives through individuals who were taught to play the instrument by the forebears. One of such persons is the artist Osei Korankye, who was taught to play the instrument by his grandfather in the 1950s and has extended the usual 6 strings to 14. “When you talk about highlife,” he said in an interview recorded in 2015, “it started from the seperewa when you listen to the style of playing the guitar you can see the elements.”
Korankye, who has to be seen as the instrument’s keeper and advocate, has earned his livelihood playing the instrument at festivals, funerals, and royal functions so much that others have come to learn the instrument for purely commercial purposes. “I don’t have to be selfish,” he says. “I have to teach it.” And teach it he does to interested persons and at the University of Ghana, Legon, where he also does research. He plays it at national events and has worked with highlife players.
He played one of two seperewas on the 2008 release by Riverboat Records Seprewa Kasa. A guitarist from Osibisa also featured on that record. The album drew the attention of Robert Christgau, famed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics.’ Christgau wrote admiringly of the record, calling it “lovingly fabricated neotrad highlife” and gave it a B+ grade.
Korankye has now recorded a solo album. Titled Seperewa Of Ghana: Emmere Nyina Nse, the album was released in February 2016 by Awaaaba Music. Both albums represent a step into the 21st century as they are available for download online. Interestingly, both Akwaaba Music and Riverboat Records are labels with western affiliations. While Riverboat Records is UK based, Akwaaba, based in Ghana, is run by Benjamin Lebrave, a DJ turned label founder born in Paris, France and now living in Accra. The picture the scenario paints is one of hiplife ruling the local airwaves, as the traditional musician has to look elsewhere for commercial and critical attention.
As the incursion into CDs and online downloads means the seperewa has taken a leap into the zeitgeist, its foremost player adeptly combines both the traditional and the contemporary. “Sometimes I modernise it,” he says about his playing style. But “I can also sing to suit the occasion.”
Osei Korankye's 'Seperewa Of Ghana: Emmere Nyina Nse' is available on iTunes.