Making Azonto: Local Roots and International Branches

As a DJ, having the platform of Africa is a Radio to showcase the music I’m feeling from artists around the world is a lot of fun, and quite rewarding. But, providing insight into the other branch of the music industry I work in, as a producer (creator), is something I don’t do nearly enough of. Partly because the old tradition of musicians relying on journalists to write about our music for us (and paying PR people to make that happen) stubbornly persists. And also because truthfully, self-promotion in this cutthroat social media age is still a bit awkward for me. Still, I often ask myself, “why rely solely on music journalists to get the word out about your work with so many ways to directly communicate with audiences today?”

So, since this platform is a place to delve deeper into various topics, besides taking the opportunity to share the following remix, I thought it would be good to take the opportunity to provide some context behind its creation. By doing so, hopefully I’ll help provide insight, and de-mystify some of what goes into the music production process. Who knows, perhaps writing about making music will become a regular thing over here, and not only for myself but for any artists interested in sharing (hint, hint!)

So here we go:

The above remix is my take on Teleseen’s song Baalbek. The melodies and harmonies of his original were inspired by both Ethio-jazz music, and Brazilian Batucada from Rio (where he and I are both currently based.) He merges the two and takes it into territory that might be welcome on the dance floors of techno meccas like Berlin or Detroit.

For my version, I decided to strip the heavily layered song down to only a few essential instruments, and ended up focusing on one of the several saxophone melodies going throughout the original. From there I decided to concentrate on building my remix around new percussion ideas, instead of harmonic ones. After the saxophone line, the next thing I added back into the mix was the guitar line that hits on the up beat. I foregrounded it and looped the strongest parts so it was continuous throughout the track. Once that was in it reminded me of the emphasis on the up beat of azonto, especially in songs like Sarkodie & E.L.’s “U Go Kill Me.” Expanding on that moment of inspiration, I added a bunch of percussion referencing rhythms prevalent in azonto. I rounded it out by layering the kicks with pitched 808 bass samples to create a new booming bass line, and my azonto-techno remix was born.

The beat for “U Go Kill Me” and many other azonto hits was produced by Ghanian beat maker Nshona. A couple years ago, when azonto was just hitting international airwaves, Benjamin Lebrave pointed Nshona out as one of the main innovators behind the musical style that accompanied the Ghanian dance phenomenon. The mark of his productions is (mostly?) Ga traditional rhythms on digital software such as Fruity Loops. And, I think Nshona’s instrumentals could very much merit the techno signifier on their own accord — making the name azonto-techno redundant:

However, I’m not the only one inspired to take azonto’s exciting energy down a new conceptual path. While the dance itself maybe losing steam in its home base, several producers outside of Ghana are still attempting to push it in new directions. A quick Youtube search reveals several takes on the idea of azonto-techno, each of which are quite unique.

One other example that is rather close to home for me is the Rasta Azonto Riddim, an instrumental by Kush Arora that uses dark synth sounds influenced by industrial music. My label Dutty Artz released an EP of the song with two accompanying vocal versions this past month:

And, as I mentioned before on this site, there has been a noticeable influence of contemporary African Pop on the Caribbean Carnival season this last year. From February through to Labor Day, I’ve been able to witness azonto making its mark on the various Carnival-inspired celebrations around the world.

I’d also be remiss to not mention the experiments of DJ Flex in New Jersey who blends Afropop hits with U.S. East Coast Club music:

Not only interested in morphing azonto with non-Ghanian musical ideas, some folks are interested in exploring the traditions behind the music. Since writing about Nshona for The Fader, Lebrave and his Akwaaba Music label have launched Roots of Azonto, a project that entails workshops and recording sessions in various parts of Ghana — in order to explore and expand the source material for the popular music of the day. By reintroducing “real drum sounds back into the studio” he, and workshop partners like Max Le Daron, aim to expand Ghanian producers’ vocabulary, and at the same time document, and thus help preserve Ghana’s diverse music traditions:

Now for the shameless self-promotion: My remix of Baalbek is part of the Anamorph Remix EP out on Brooklyn-based indie label Feel Up Records. Kush Arora’s Rasta Azonto Riddim was released on an EP featuring versions by Jamaican vocalist Blackout JA and Zimbabwean Pops Jabu. Follow the Roots of Azonto at the Akwaaba Music website, and Nshona on Twitter. And, don’t miss any of DJ Flex’s great remixes on Soundcloud.

*This post is part of our Liner Notes series, where musicians talk about making music.

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