Azonto: the dance, the music & the mindset
“Bossu, we want start dance. When you go start play azonto…?”
Some say azonto is a fad; a trend that came from nowhere and will go nowhere. Politicians use the word in the throwaway manner in which they used that other recent catchphrase, ‘sakawa’. Azonto remains – to many adults – a vaguely derogatory term that means “ugly” or “uncultured.”
They just don’t get it.
While it may seem so to the uninformed mind, Azonto did not emerge overnight. It has been in gestation for a very long time. Its Wikipedia entry has already become a needless battlefield over the origins of the dance. However, it draws links between azonto and other indigenous dance forms, like Bukom’s ‘Apaa’ (in which activities like washing, driving, and boxing are represented in dance form) and ‘Kpe’, a dance (popular in secondary schools) in which the dancer freezes and uses his or her hands to mimic a gunshot at the end of every move. The simple fact is that azonto is not one dance, but a beautiful amalgamation of so many styles. Incredibly adaptive, watching it danced well is like watching the history of Ghanaian modern dance.
In a global village in which stations like MTV and Channel O pump their respective country’s cultures over the African continent, there may be fragments of foreign dance in there too… but nothing that makes azonto any less Ghanaian. No culture exists in a vacuum. All peoples absorb influences (especially Ghanaians). Unravel azonto and the DNA you will find is mostly Ghanaian.
What is interesting about azonto is that it is more than just a dance: it is also a form of music. It is almost as though the dance evolved in the shadows, waiting for a partner to dance with… and found one when highlife caught up with the ‘dance-ification’ of popular music going on around in the world.
This is very reminiscent of what happened when B-Boys discovered DJ Kool Herc extending the length of James Brown breaks (the popular parts of his songs where he famously ‘gave the drummer some’) and started dancing in those breaks. Whatever they were doing before came to be known as ‘break dancing’. More importantly, a new form of music was born: hip-hop. It too was described as a fad. Thirty or so years on though, hip-hop has become an all-conquering mainstay of American (if not global) culture. More than a form of music, it is a culture. Similarly, Azonto represents the potential of hiplife to evolve into something more.
If the music was not called azonto, it would probably be called ‘dancelife’. Highlife has always absorbed and synthesized popular (American) music. Around independence, it went from palm guitar to jazz. In the 80s, burger highlife emulated the likes of the Jacksons. Kojo Antwi’s highlife is unmistakeably reggae influenced. Most recently, highlife cross-pollinated with hip-hop to form hiplife.
Recently, American commercial hip-hop (so popular in Ghana) has been flirting with European-style dance music. In Ghana, such music was once called ‘asokpo’ and was largely looked down upon as music for non-African people who did not know how to dance to complex beats.
That all changed with the arrival in Ghana a few years ago of UK funky house. Leading the charge was half-Ghanaian, UK-based artist, Donaeo, whose hit song ‘Party Hard’ remains as ubiquitous now as it was then. There was a rise at the time in interaction between homegrown artists and their UK-based counterparts, who were dominating the British charts with new sounds like grime and funky house. Local producer, Richie, had already started experimenting with the sound, most notably with Eazzy’s ‘Wengeze’ (maybe the first in a long line of great azonto songs marred by okay-ish videos…) Things really took off though once Appietus produced 4X4’s ‘Miss Doctor’ (which sounded eerily familiar to Donaeo’s track) and then crafted 5ive’s catchy ‘Muje Baya’ (frankly, a rip-off of DJ CNDO’s ‘Amerido’).
Asamoah Gyan had started using (a slightly different, push-pull version of) azonto as his goal celebration. Around the same time, a video of a girl dressed in blue, dancing at a Tema omo tuo spot to Sarkodie’s ‘You Go Kill Me O’ (featuring heavyweight azonto exponent, E.L) went viral on Youtube (one of several azonto videos to do so). At first, people watched it to laugh but they were completely drawn in by the complex simplicity of her moves. Wherever those moves came from, all of a sudden they were everywhere, as was Gyan’s celebration.
More than being cool, azonto is fun. It is highly adaptable, and capable of absorbing other dances; it is competitive and it is cheeky, all of which have given fuel to its spread both in the region and in Ghana’s disapora. It has the potential to define Ghana for non-Ghanaians who until now have thought of Ghana only as a politically progressive West African country where people say ‘chale’ a lot. In azonto, young Ghanaians have done a lot more than recreate tradition: they have created new Ghanaian culture.
What then is the future for Azonto? Culture that grows from the ground up does not tend to fade into non-existence. Like energy, it is difficult to destroy but rather converts into other forms, much as it itself emerged in the first place.
There was a time when Hollywood films were more popular in Ghana than African films. That has changed. There was a time when wearing African print was considered backward. That has changed. There was a time when mimicking the American ‘Dougie’ or the Carribean ‘Dutty Wine’ was the done thing in clubs and in music videos. That too has changed. Even GH rappers with Locally Acquired Foreign Accents are being forced to absorb pidgin into their rhymes to stay relevant.
The future of azonto is the future of us as Ghanaians. Azonto represents much more than song and dance. It represents a mindset in which Ghanaians specifically (and Africans in general) start taking pride in our own creativity and potential, something we all too often do not do, especially in culture where we too often relegate what is local to ‘primitive’ or ‘lower class’.
Imagine if that pride spread into other areas of our lives and culture. Pride and faith in our ability is one of the biggest things holding Ghana back. Break that mindset, and the future, as well as the world, is ours for the taking.