Oi Oy!by Ts'eliso Monaheng / 05.06.2013
It’s Monday night at the Afrikan Freedom Station, a space run by Steve Kwena Mokwena in Westdene, Johannesburg. The poet Mak Manaka has just finished the first part of an impromptu performance in front of what we’ve been told is a painting of Lesego Rampolokeng’s soul done by Lefifi Tladi at a collaborative exchange at that very space in late May. Joy Frimpong, the Swiss-Ghanaian artist who’s been to South Africa before on a residency, stands in awe of Mak’s definitive style of slam; the force of his non-fabricated, militant approach to words reverberates off the tiny room’s walls. Later on, Joy will stand at that very spot to sing a blues-infused paean to her man, a man who left her all alone. It’s a different setting from the one at King Kong this past Friday where she performed a set comprising mostly of songs from her latest album, “Kokokyinaka”, a follow-up to her 2010 debut, “First box then walk”. The songs on the album are a by-product of her travels through parts of West Africa on a mission to collect stories and sounds. We sat down before her performance to chat about childhood memories, travelling through West Africa, and hair.
Who is Oy?
Oy is Joy Frempong, that’s me. It’s become a duo; it’s Lleluja-Ha on drums, so we’re two people on stage now.
How did you get involved with music?
It’s always been around. I had a love for music. My parents were Christians so I was playing piano at church, accompanying people. Later I got introduced to jazz by my vocal teacher, so I did jazz education. At the same time I was introduced to experimental music, very experimental singing. That was all during school, I was trying out a lot of stuff. It was through school that I got to know different musicians, and I was jamming around a lot, always on the experimental side. One day I decided to do the solo project. The first album was a solo project; I had some guests on the album, but on stage I’d perform it alone. The second album has really been a collaboration.
Was this after you moved from Ghana to Switzerland?
I only spent seven years of my life in Ghana, so all of this was [afterwards].
Do you have any vivid memories of your childhood?
For sure! There are some specific memories, but most of all it’s just the general space and the way of living that was so different that I remember. We kept going back every couple of years to visit family; my parents moved back thirteen years ago so I’ve been back and forth a lot since.
How do you find that back-and-forth journey between Europe and West Africa? Do you find that you always have to re-adjust?
I remember as a kid how it was. I was growing up and usually it was three years in-between the visits, and everytime I perceived it as a different thing. First it was just the other home, and then suddenly as a teenager I became fascinated by this place like ‘oh wow, this is so special!’ And then later I had this moment where I was trying to find my spot in Ghana; how do I belong there; do I belong there at all? And then I finally realised that it’s actually nonsense, I have to understand myself; I have this side and it’s part of my identity at the same time. I mainly grew up in Switzerland, so it’s just me moving like I move anywhere else. I think the most important part is the people you meet whenever you travel. Funnily when I’m in Ghana – because everything there is so connected to family – I didn’t meet so many people that I became friends with. It was always connected to the people you meet because you’re linked to them. When I travelled to Burkina Faso, to Mali, to South Africa, it was different. There I was disconnected from family, it was actually easier to [connect].
What do you recall from going to Burkina Faso, for instance, where there’s this whole history with Thomas Sankara, and at the same time the disparity between the rich and poor. Did you relate to that environment at all?
In Burkina I met a storyteller who is more into traditional storytelling. But he’s a young guy who learned it from the French, which is funny! It’s funny how this twist is also happening, with the French having all the cultural institutions and offering courses, and then you have local people who are actually doing little twists through Europe back to their [homeland]. And then there were these hip hop people I met, I had a contact [through] a German person I knew. This was a group of politically-active young guys, and we just spent one night at their home. That was completely loaded, it was Christmas I think! We ended up in this apartment full of smoke, and they were just going bam, bam, bam! At the same time, I found it interesting that I found them; the way they dressed and the way they spoke, they were completely burning for their country. If you travel through the countryside, it’s so disconnected from how certain people live. That’s also what’s striking about South Africa, where you have all these parallel worlds.
It’s like travelling through different dimesions…
Yeah. It’s something that I was also struggling with in Ghana as a visitor. Usually I’d visit my family, and they lead a very simple life – a small compound, six people in one room, that kind of life. If you give them ten dollars, [to them] it’s a whole shitload of money. Then you got to relax, you do some vacation on the beach and then you spend 30 dollars per night; you just know how much money that is! But you just have to somehow accept that it’s the case. There’s a growing middle class in Ghana, which I think it’s a good development.
Who were your musical influences?
From the Ghanaian side, it’s hard to say. There was this percussion stuff around, so I think somehow that stuck, maybe unconsciously. I realised at jazz school that sometimes when I was trying to compose certain rhythms I didn’t know how to put them [down]. Only did I later realise that it was actually this polyrhythmic stuff that I was looking for, but I didn’t know how to [put it down]. Then there were the big singers like Billie [Holliday] and Sarah [Vaughan]. It was important to study, but the stuff I discovered, I remember discovering Ursula Rucker one day who did this spoken word stuff on trip hop beats. So these spoken word artists, some of them I liked. That was the time when I was really going out into clubs and discovering nightlife; that was an important phase.
You spent some time just collecting sounds and trying to find something to blend into the music. Did you always have a vision of what you wanted with this album?
At one point it was a personal story… now it’s almost ridiculous because it’s like ‘Africa’. I think mostly because I always felt quite good when I was in Ghana, I always felt at ease coming back home, just a bit more relaxed. And then all this stuff which you read in the news on Africa which is always so negative. It was just to do some research, point to young scenes, what’s going on in the continent. The idea was to look for stories because I like storytelling, and I somehow discovered ones that I enjoyed. Having stories combined with music is another way of performing and communicating with the audience. So I was looking for stories on this trip; some traditional stories are in there, some proverbs, and some stuff that came out of conversations with people. That’s what inspired the lyrics.
For the music, I just realised [that] generally it’s easier for me to work if I have some global boundaries as to where to go. The first thing was to say ‘okay, let’s start from found sounds’. The first goal was to go out, record as much as possible and try to find samples, just cut little bits out of these sounds; the first loops happened there. From then on it took a free direction; I didn’t always stick to the sounds. I think it’s interesting to have your own sounds because every sound tells its story. The moment of cutting up the sounds was great too because I heard voices of people I’d met on the trip. And then we started the collaboration with the drummer, Lleluja-Ha in Berlin. So he added drums to it, and later I added vocals and slowly evolved the songs from there. Later he did the arrangements of the songs and produced the album.
Lyrically, is there any theme that runs through the album?
It’s just that it’s all connected to this trip to Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.
You touched on the theme of hair on the album. There’s always a debate going on within the black community about weaves – is it right, is it wrong?! Why is there such a huge fascination with something as trivial as hair?
I think it’s the fact that that the African hair is hard to comb, so you always have this thing of how to deal, how to be in charge of it. That’s a topic that everybody tries to find solutions to. And then you have the whole western influence, the western hairstyles. I think that’s also one of the big deals; the reason why everybody straightens their hair and puts on weaves is that they want to follow this other style. It seems to be the big issue.
Who is currently on your radar as far as music is concerned?
M3nsa and Wanlov, the FOKN Bois. I love what they do, not only as a vocalist, but for their stories. They also have this storytelling thing with satire, almost political satire approach. I love the way they combine depth and being serious about things, but being joke-y at the same time. I think often that’s where you can actually hit people because it’s like ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry’. I think they get that pretty well, and the music is interesting too. That was a cool discovery lately. There’s James Blake, I really love what he does, and Little Dragon.
Talking about Little Dragon, Yukimi started out doing some other stuff, in the same way that you did with Filewile. How does that differ from the Oy stuff?
Actually I quit Filewile. I was the vocalist, so I just brought in ideas for the voice. The music was done by the guys. In the end, towards the last tracks we were working on, I also brought in some musical ideas. I think it became more and more easy, but I realised that if I want to go where I really want to go with that band and [if] I want to go where I really want to go with my band, then I just need more time for each. So I had to decide which one to go on with.
Finally, please describe your live setup.
I have a vocal effects device that I can do several pitching up/pitching down, doing other kinds of effects. I have a loop pedal where I mostly loop the voice, and sometimes a sampler that is connected to the loop pedal that loops the samples. And then I have a midi keyboard that goes into the computer. We also have some pre-recorded stuff coming out of the computer, and some additional samples that are in the computer.
Listen to more of Oy on soundcloud.