Accra Might Just Have a Sound Problem

When I first interrupted my schedule to write bullet points down for what would become this very blog post, I was sitting in the outdoor space of a very bougie café in Accra. Aesthetically, my surroundings were serene, full of enough vegetation to fill a garden. The little ornamentations from various cultures and eras should have seemed mismatched, but they came together well to form an artsy and antique vibe that ought to have inspired any patron to tap deeply into a sense of peace and calm. But from inside, where the confections display and the coffee machine were situated, employees of this establishment were jamming loudly to aggressively energetic Afrobeats music.

On any other day, this might have been just another personal annoyance. On this day, however, it was a struggle to hold myself back either from breaking down into tears or breaking out into screams. I held myself together and did neither. Instead, I spent a few minutes looking around and wondering if I was insane.

Somewhere to my left, another patron was deep in concentration, working on what I imagined to be some academic assignment. She alternated studiously between her laptop and a fat textbook with a level of focus I could only aspire to. She didn’t seem to have any qualms with the café’s music, aggravating my anxiety that perhaps my inability to function amidst sonic distraction was a personal deficiency. Then again, she had headphones on—probably serving her with whatever sounds she’d curated to help, rather than hinder, her own productivity. An effective strategy, except for those of us whose generative ability relies often on silence.

Natural preference for silence aside, circumstances within my household had cultivated within me, over the course of maybe a year, a nearly visceral abhorrence for too-loud music. A member of my household—one with admittedly deep psychological issues—had adopted a habit of blasting music on their unfortunately formidable loudspeaker at thought-drowning levels throughout their waking hours.

By the time I found myself at the bougie café, I had already spent at least one year trying to figure out how to do basic things such as sleep at night, nap in the daytime due to lack of sleep in the night-time, wake up at dawn to get writing done before work, and more, while loud music disrupted all my attempts to do these things. In seasons when I wasn’t required to go to an office, I found myself needing places to go every day—a café, a friend’s place—to get work done or otherwise preserve my sanity. And so every time I left my house to escape the noise, only to be met once more with noise, it inspired in a me a violent desire to yell, cry, or strangle someone.

The day I went to the bougie café was one of those days that I started out with no intentions to leave the house (or spend money, for that matter), but I had to do so anyway, due to unbearable frustration with the sonic terrorism in my house. I wanted a quiet space to think and write, and thus decided to place myself in a serene environment.

Only to be met with aesthetically incongruous, louder-than-necessary Afrobeats music.

The bougie café in question has actively marketed itself as somewhere people can go to work and concentrate. Visually, they’ve created a unique, conducive environment to do just that. Sonically, however—particularly on the day I was losing my mind—I feared they had lost the plot somewhat.

I was near tears as I called an employee’s attention and asked for the music to be turned down. Guilt for ruining someone else’s good time warred with the thought that as a paying customer, I had at least some right to say something if the environment wasn’t allowing me to achieve what I came there—and spent money—to do.

My heart rate, which had been building up to anxiety attack levels, slowed back down once the waiter fulfilled my request, and I finally had the presence of mind to write. And instead of working on the fiction piece I’d intended to tackle, I started to write this. Because I am truly concerned that Accra might have a sound problem. Or several.

City vs. Culture

Accra is obviously a city and as such, is plagued with the sounds of one. Since being traumatized by the situation in my household, I’ve become hypersensitive to the fact that Accra is rarely, if ever, quiet. There are bars in the night-time, construction work in the daytime, street preachers in the early morning, traffic in the afternoons and evenings, sounds from a primary school’s assembly at the top of the day, and do not get me started on the seemingly countless churches.

While it may be true that cities are generally louder than villages, suburbs and countrysides, I think there are certain things that are peculiar to Accra because of the culture of its people and what we allow to be considered normal. On an individual and social level, we do not pay critical attention to sound, and we treat sound culture with a nonchalance that gives birth to various types of dissonance and cacophony, both of which we continue not to care about as they are happening.

Sonic Mismatch

One type of dissonance is the case of the visual aesthetic not matching the sonic aesthetic.

In the past year, a new Mexican restaurant opened up in Labone. I have since patronized it once. (I still have not forgiven it for taking the spot of my formerly favorite café in the area, but that is another story.) I had ordered food by phone and was arriving to pick it up. Once I left my car, I was struck by sound much more powerfully than by sight. A DJ had set up station in the outdoor seating area, and was playing some of Afrobeats’ latest, greatest hits. Just like they might be doing in any other regular eatery in Accra.

But as soon as I stepped into the restaurant proper, it was obvious that this wasn’t any other regular eatery in Accra. I was impressed by the striking, distinctive Mexican-themed decor. Vibrant, consistent, and excellent for visual and aesthetic marketing. The playlist immediately struck me as blatantly incongruous. The next thought that followed was: I’m probably the only person in here who even gives a damn about sonic congruity. The waiters who weren’t busy at the moment—and even some who were—were having the time of their lives to the DJ’s set.

While the employees’ joy was entertaining to witness, I considered how much more impressed I would have been if the first sounds I ever heard from this Mexican restaurant were some dangerously sexy Spanish guitar riffs. It wouldn’t have to be Mariachi music. It wouldn’t even have to be strictly Mexican. If I’d walked in to Snow tha Product spitting bars over the speakers, or even the delightful weirdness of Rosalía, my mind would have been blown. I allowed myself to consider that maybe this particular DJ was there by special request for an anomalous event, and that maybe if I came on another day, there would be evidence of equal effort put into the curation of sound as to the visual and culinary themes. Alas, due in part to lack of funds, I haven’t been back since.

On the day I nearly lost my mind in the bougie café, it wasn’t just the volume that got to me. It was also the fact that the music wasn’t making sense according to the visual environment nor to the reasons the patrons were there. A cursory glance around the place would show you people looking intently into laptops or books, or talking to each other. There are places in Accra we go to jam, and this café was never designed to be one of them.

It seems to me that various new and bougie establishments in Accra are throwing a lot of energy into being visually attractive and Instagrammable, and may not be throwing nearly enough energy into sonically aligning with their own chosen brand/vibe, or the needs of their clientele.

Another type of dissonance is the case of sonic interludes actively disrupting the current or appropriate emotional energy.

As a poetry lover and performer, I have personal beef with DJs who do not pay attention to vibe and context when playing for events like poetry shows or album launches. It just doesn’t make sense for me to be regaled with some heartfelt original track about daddy issues and, sandwiched between that and the next emotionally packed performance about re-learning how to breathe post-trauma, the DJ is regaling me with a track about what some guy will do if he catches some girl’s backside. When I hear a devastating poem about sexual exploitation, I want to have the minute before the next poem to just digest and meditate on the content I just consumed. But the DJ will choose that moment to disrupt my emotional processing by playing some dancehall track that the current context simply will not allow me to enjoy.

Imagine what it would be like if we curated the sound accompanying our events—with the informed cooperation of the DJs working that event—to actually fit the event? Imagine a culture in which sound workers found it an exciting challenge to pick the next most appropriate song based on the mood after a performance. Imagine what would happen if it was normal for sound workers to think on their feet and be as creative as they possibly can because they enjoy the work they are (hopefully!) getting paid for and want to dutifully serve the people they are responsible for entertaining.

There are some experiences that would be more immersive and emotionally congruent if we attached greater care and creativity to the music we choose to play, and where, and when.

The Louder, the Litter

A few months ago, I visited my friend in Mamprobi, and on (or around) the same street, there were four different churches, all of which all seemed to be in competition over who could be the most obnoxiously loud on the same night. Perhaps each wanted to show the others that their congregation was the most turnt that night. (I thought of this as a joke, but, you know, I wouldn’t put it past them.) Dreadful cacophony.

In my experience, if any city at all can give Accra a run for its money, it has to be Kumasi, at least on a weekend. Good luck trying to convince me that I won’t find a new funeral after every twenty steps in that city on any given Saturday. But here is the weirder thing: based on my observation, the idea of a loudspeaker system operating at balanced levels is utterly unacceptable. The preacher isn’t spewing the word of God until he’s screeching so hard that the mic is giving feedback, and you can’t pick out a single individual word from the sonic slush besides “Hallelujah!” and “Amen!” The four-person worship team isn’t worshipping well enough until there is literal distortion occurring on an otherwise perfectly good sound system. You will hear the sounds of a stadium-sized megachurch, and upon investigating the source of the sound, discover it to be a single room whose congregation is less than eighty people. There seems to be only one rule for the mixer or DJ (if there is one on duty): make everything louder.

In both Accra and Kumasi, we have very warped ideas of appropriate levels. To some extent, I would imagine it is because many people in charge of sound are not particularly trained to handle sound. Not everyone who knows songs also knows the technicalities of operating a complicated mixer. But beyond that, it’s the culture. We have become used to everything always being loud, and so that has become the accepted, unquestioned way to do sound. If it ain’t loud, it ain’t lit.

Zoning is also a problem. Because even the areas that are meant to be residential aren’t immune from the churches, restaurants and bars. It does not seem to be built into our culture to consider whether people will be trying to unwind or to sleep when we feel like screaming to a deity whom we apparently assume to be hard of hearing. And I am certain the seven people at a certain restaurant on a weeknight do not need the music turned up as though a dance party of hundreds is taking place. I have to wonder if the people running such establishments want to create the illusion that their venues are several times busier than they truly are at a given moment.

Public/Personal Border Erosion

I go swimming semi-regularly at a sports complex in Accra. The outdoor pool area is fitted with loudspeakers, which are always on when I go swimming. The playlist is never updated, and I suspect it is one single USB that is never removed from its port because nobody cares enough. You can hear the music as soon as you walk into the complex. You can hear it when you are lounging in the pool chairs, and even when you are underwater.

One day, I was training as usual, and a young man showed up with his own portable loudspeaker. Music was already playing on the complex’s sound system, but even so, this young man saw fit to turn up his own music over it. He placed his portable speaker at the pool’s edge when he was in the water, and beside his pool chair when he was out of it. For as long as I remained at the complex, I was forced to listen to hip-hop that did not appeal to me, and which clashed on multiple levels with the Afrobeats blaring from the complex’s speakers.

I was struck with true, genuine wonder, that anyone of sound mind could go out in public, into a facility that other people were also paying to use, and take it for granted that a) everyone else wouldn’t mind listening to whatever it was he liked to listen to, and b) that even if there was already loud music playing in this communal area, there was nothing wrong with playing more loud music, simply because he felt like it. The sheer bafflement was so great that it stopped me from walking over to have a conversation about sonic etiquette and common sense. I simply could not believe it was happening.

A couple of months ago, on a flight back to Ghana after a writing workshop, I sat, among several other returning Ghanaians, at the boarding gate in Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport. My flights were red-eyes, and having had very little sleep on my first flight—which had taken off at midnight—I was looking forward to dozing off during my layover at Addis Ababa. Despite the gross discomfort of boarding gate seating, my efforts were proving almost successful, until a middle-aged Ghanaian gentleman seated at the same gate decided that he was in the mood for throwback pop music. This meant that for the remainder of my layover, I—and everyone else at this section of the boarding gate—was subjected to a soundtrack consisting of Destiny’s Child, Sean Paul, Mariah Carey, Nelly and the like, from this gentleman’s oddly loud smartphone. Mind you, this occurred between the hours of five and seven-thirty in the morning, when the airport itself hadn’t fully decided to be awake.

Even on a personal level, consideration of other people’s volume/sound preferences just isn’t embedded into our culture. People play their personal sounds on speaker mode, without particular concern about disturbing anybody else. You do what you want with your volume first, and then if there’s anybody who has a problem with it, the onus is apparently on them to tell you to adjust your volume, whereas good etiquette would have things the other way round. I haven’t been able to figure out why Accra’s culture is like this.

A friend was recently telling me that their South African friend, faced with the country’s load-shedding challenges, had resolved to get a generator. In order to do so, this person was required to write to the manager of the property/estate to inform the neighbors and ensure that they were comfortable with the level of noise that the new generator would surely produce. I heard that and thought to myself, “Wow. What a concept!”

-Akotowaa

3 thoughts on “Accra Might Just Have a Sound Problem

  1. Your op-ed is very revelatory. I have a running grudge with street preachers who have now seen fit to blare away on tinny PA systems. This noise pollution has crept into the Volta Region, where I am now a resident, over the past year. Where do we go from here as a country if we cannot place limits on sound, especially in residential areas?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s