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Sound Literacy How to communicate with Ghanaian sounds

We instantly comprehend sound made from sucking the teeth, or pressing our lips tightly together while forcing out air.

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Ghana’s cultural soundscape is unquestionably a significant heritage. In speech as in listening, there are sounds that cannot be transcribed. These are sensations that could only be inadequately expressed in words. It is therefore important to be literate in sound as certain sounds are meant to send definite messages. 

Most socio-cultural activities are interlaced with peculiar sound waves:

When you enter a village and you hear the voice of drums you can be sure that something is happening. When you pay attention to the particular sound/rhythm being made by the drum you will be able to, at the very least, gather clues on what exactly could be happening; is it a warning signal?, is it an indication of a celebration?

Is it a solemn moment? How does the sounds you hear make you feel? When a person clears their throat, can you tell if they communicating disapproval, teasing you, or perhaps just clearing their throat?

In another scenario, a fresh student would have to learn and know the different sound codes of their school; from break time to assembly time, all the way through to ‘run now, the headmistress is coming!!!’  In Ghana we also speak sound.

On the farm 

Indigenous farmers have their sound codes. You do not call out loud a person’s name on a farm land; the traditional belief is that, spirits, both good and evil, reside in nature and calling out one’s name may unnecessarily expose the bearer of the name to attacks if their name falls in the ears of evil spirits.

Instead of calling out a name a “huuuuuuu” sound is used among the Akans of Ghana.

What’s that smell?

When something stinks, particularly amongst Ghanaian children, a sound is made by blowing a gush of air from the nose.

Yes or No?

Instead of disagreeing in words, you can make a click sound in your throat to signify (depending on the rhythm of the sound) agreement or disagreement.   

Pissed/Unimpressed

We instantly comprehend sound made from sucking the teeth, or pressing our lips tightly together while forcing out air. The person, who makes this sound, is either unimpressed or upset. 

Attention please!

In northern Ghana, when you hit your fingers repeatedly on their lips emitting a bubbly sound, you may be calling for attention or complementing the excitement in a dance performance.

Snap your fingers and someone is bound to turn. Like snakes hiss many Ghanaians would make a prolonged “sssssssssssssss” sound (though largely considered rude) to call the attention of someone on the street whose name they do not know. Men especially like to “sssssssssssssss” at women they find attractive on the street.

Ice cream sellers in Ghana “sssssssssssss” or make a prolonged “kiss sound” to advertise their products. 

Silence! 

To call for silence, the “ssssssssssssssss” or “shooooouuuu” sound can also be made. It’s all about, the context in which it is used.

Avoiding wet beds 

A mother rounds her lips, and lets her uppers set of teeth sit on the lower tightly as she blows out air to produce a sound similarly made of cut onions thrown in hot oil to induce her child to pee before going to bed.

How much sound do you know? 

The list is long on the different sound bites that makes communication complete. We must make a conscious effort to explore and comprehend the sounds that live around us.

Apart from music, other art expressions like theater, film and dance is affected by sound. In understanding and experimenting with sounds we expand the prospects of Arts.

Sound effects in our performing Arts affect our feelings. We for instance tend to get edgy about unfamiliar sound. “What is that?” we may ask, upon hearing an unfamiliar sound.

The gong, the talking drum, the horn, the secret sound codes of farmers and hunters in the woods, the messages river music and bird songs carry, the rhythm of our heart beat; these are sounds one must learn to interpret.

Days of fluent sound communicators may have passed us by; the variants sounds that converge to form the music of our daily activities have little of our attention now. 

New influences have sucked out the traditional sound consciousness; natural sounds of market squares, bus stations, the class room, a busy street, could you for instance tell where you are if your eyes were closed? Makola sounds different from Kejetia, Teshie sounds different from East Legon.

Our emotions; joy, pain, disappointment, relieve are more often communicated in sound than in words. It is time to explore familiar and unusual bytes of Ghana’s soundscape.

By Nana Nyarko Boateng

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