It was the mid-1960s. My mother’s final days as a teacher had brought us to Tema, Ghana’s new harbour city. It was connected to Accra the capital by a 20-mile modern motorway. Cliff Richard and Bee Gees blurted out of most record kiosks and drinking bars. Hip guys also carried showed off with small Akasanoma transistor radios, tuned loudly to Marmalade and the Beatles on GBC Radio Listeners Choice or Voice of America.
Tema was centre of the World
Tema was hip and synonymous with music from around the world – an exciting melting pot of people working and living out their dreams in an exceptional multicultural city. The popular drinking bars at Site 14 were open all night, patronised by seamen who brought in all the hit records. Streams of visitors came through the port. Meridian Hotel was not far from there. It stood on the Greenwich Meridian from where you can reach the precise centre of the earth, a few kilometres into the sea, from the Atlantic coast.
I first heard Sam Cook’s “Chain Gang” walking past Site 14 after school one day. I attended Oninku Primary school, a stone throw away. Site 14 was also a red-light district, which meant that primary school boys like me had no business here after sunset.
Compared to Soul and Highlife, Pop music wasn’t great for dancing, even though slow tempo songs like “House of the Rising Sun” by Animals and Bee Gee’s “Massachusetts” were ideal for ‘smoochie’ at student dances. I was too young for that.
The craze for pop music in Tema erupted when the Lebanese proprietors of Casino, Tema’s prime cinema surprised everybody with two great Pop films – “Summer Holidays”, featuring Cliff Richard and the Shadows and “Pop Gear” with a dazzling lineup of stars. I remember sneaking into the afternoon show with friends and shrieking along like the Beatles groupies in the film. The only problem was that the images on the screen were barely visible in the sunlit open-air cinema.
Best vocalist competitions at school.
Pop records were superbly produced and did wonders when you chose a song from that genre for the Best Vocalist competition at school. I got booed off a few times screaming James Brown’s “Mash Potato popcorn.” I then got smart and switched to more sedate lyrical wonders like The Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life.”
Eventually, I won with “To Love Somebody”. Not the original by Bee Gees but Janis Joplin’s version.
A little explanation is in order. The rules of the competition were clear enough.
- You must not repeat or embellish the lyrics in any way. which I did. 😩
- You must Imitate the accent precisely. I didn’t see why😱
- You must have a great singing voice. I did not. 😟
A two-week rehearsal with a Bee Gees tape gave me great confidence. 💪
A book of lyrics from a book shop in the central market also cured me of repeats and unnecessary embellishments. However, I made no progress trying to imitate Barry Gibbs’s voice. He was an Australian singing with an American accent? I nearly gave up. Then I discovered the version by Janis Joplin. It sounded so improvised I could make it my own.
Everybody laughed when I started singing but somehow I persevered and won them over. Imitating Joplin’s raw version simply got the judges, my opinionated classmates, confused.
I got stuck a few times but I switched to a trembling voice, and repeated: “You know you know, you know, never never never never never”. I would then drop to my knees for well-deserved applause.
I tried winning again with “Mercedes Benz”. This time It didn’t work. I was booed off but Joplin and The Animals had won my heart forever. Through this process also, I was lucky to discover that I had a good voice for poetry.