[Words by Tash LC.]
“There are so many different parts that we’re just trying to piece together,” London-based producer Hagan tells me over the phone amongst hectic preparations for the premiere screening of Yenkyi Taxi – a forthcoming documentary examining how West African urban music is weaving itself inextricably into the fabric of European club culture – in which he features. Produced by Rome-based creative collective Crudo Volta, Yenkyi Taxi follows on from the team's 2016 Woza Taxi, which traced the story of South Africa's bubbling qqom scene. This time Crudo Volta went in search of Ghanaian music, travelling from London to Kwabenya, East Legon and Aburi with Hagan, who is of Ghanaian heritage, to document contemporary Ghanaian culture and music in its birthplace. Featuring rising Ghanaian talent Gafacci alongside Soulection affiliate Rvdical The Kid and several drumming groups, the film explores sounds emerging across the country, and the ever-growing influence West African sounds are having on the music playing on UK shores. At the documentary's epicentre is Hagan, who stars as the physical intersection of these two worlds, and the trip results in a new EP of his, which showcases the blending of influences in his life.
“This UK funky sound is so similar to what I used to hear in traditional highlife and hiplife drum patterns,” Hagan reflects in the opening scenes of Yenkyi Taxi. “When you’re at home you’ve got the Ghanaian culture, and when you’re in school you’ve got the London culture.” It’s this marrying of African traditionalism and UK production that has become ever more of a leading figurehead in both club and mainstream spaces. Step into any nightlife spot in London or tune in to major radio stations and you'll undoubtedly hear sounds from Afro swing, spearheaded by the likes of Not3s, Kojo Funds, Mista Silva and more, West African afrobeats, from names such as Wizkid, Yemi Alade and Sarkodie amongst others, or South Africa’s club-ready offerings of qqom and Afrohouse. We caught up with Hagan and Crudo Volta's Miche Calandra, who wrote and art directed the documentary, to talk about the importance of tradition, what they hope to achieve with Yenkyi Taxi, and what young ears on the continent really want to hear.
How did you come together to work on ‘Yenkyi Taxi’?
Miche Calandra: I met Hagan for the first time at (Notting Hill) carnival in 2016. Francesco (Nan Kolè) had just moved to London and we were headed to a party. Francesco was more focused on UK funky, which is how I first came across Hagan, and we ended up discussing the similarities it had with Gqom, in terms of party music, with rhythms from the motherland and from the diaspora in general, like soca and cumina rhythms from the Caribbean.
Hagan: I mentioned to a work colleague that I was going to Ghana for my grandma’s birthday and he asked, ‘Why don’t you make some music while you’re out there?’ I guested on the Gqom Oh! radio show and mentioned to Miche that I was going and he was just like, ‘Alright. I’ll come with you!’ Honestly, I thought, ‘Wait. What is this guy on?’
What does the Ghanaian/London crossover mean in terms of cultural identity for you, Hagan?
Hagan: I lived with my mum and my uncle growing up and we’d go to different hall parties every Saturday. I went to a church that was filled mostly with Ghanaian people, so there would be mainly gospel music but with an African sound. I got to hear all the percussion instruments at church and my uncle was a DJ as well, so I’d go along with him to all the different gigs he played – I was slowly learning about hiplife and the high life and palm wine sounds with the guitars that I loved so much. Then I started covering some of my uncle's gigs and slowly I started taking over his sets – he got pretty jealous. It was just a mad thing to be DJing at different hall parties every Saturday and starting to understand the whole Ghanaian party vibe. Then I had the crossover with the London vibe because I was going to school here. My first language wasn’t English – it was Twi, so when I got to school English was a bit difficult for me to grasp. My aim, in terms of trying to stand out in music, is to show the fact that I’ve got this African-Ghanaian side, however, I’m a product of London. I know we like gritty basslines and our instruments have hard and dark lights. I'm trying to combine those two things together: that kind of tribal side of African music with the London sound. I guess it's kind of evolved into that Hagan sound.
Is the amount of love we have in the UK and Europe for sounds from Africa apparent in Ghana?
Hagan: Gaffaci was commenting that he was shocked at first but that he's now becoming aware of the reach in Paris, and across all of Europe.
Hagan, in terms of being a DJ in Ghana, did you find it difficult bringing an eclectic sound to a set?
Hagan: I played Chale Wote festival in Accra and there’s always the Ghanaian tunes you have to play but then you can mix tunes that have that African tribal percussive element. People won’t necessarily know what it is but they know it sounds good, and then it’s about mixing and introducing those UK funky and gqom sounds with familiar afrobeats tunes. It’s not gonna be done in a year but it will be done over a while, just getting people used to a mixed pan-African influenced music.
Miche Calandra: In the club it's working well.There’s this new craze in Nigeria, we actually covered it in a documentary which is coming out soon, called the shaku shaku movement, which takes a very minimalistic approach to music where they blend elements of the afrohouse sound and take inspiration from qqom, with qqom producers making beats in Nigeria. I guess the internet is blending things now in seconds, but before that, artists like D’Banj were blending already, just without as much access. There’s more space now for mutation, as long as there’s spirit and energy. For example, using polongo rhythms, like Patapaa’s sound, which is a rhythm people hear all the time – if you listen to the language of the people and then you blend with other stuff; BOOM – you’re able to reach a lot of people and create a lot of concepts. I think it’s very important to blend and mix but Hagan was very wary of appropriation when playing in Ghana.
Hagan: I was very cautious of how it was done. I don’t think we appropriated and were able to show both my side and the people of Ghana how the music was evolving. We were getting all the points of view on how things are moving and shifting.
How important was it to cover all elements of Ghanaian culture and musical styles?
Miche Calandra: Very important. We had to be careful to show all sides of Ghana, which has been a challenge in the editing process. The cities show just one side of the country. I was interested in the countryside and the way houses were arranged – it was so organic and natural, but in the city felt like there was a strong desire to replicate the West.
Hagan: I feel you, but the reason I said we shouldn’t just show the countryside of Ghana was because we need to see how the country is progressing, there’s more infrastructure in the city. Ghana is evolving. We’ve got to show how it's moving forward as a country and that’s also shown through music, the hustle and bustle.
What were your ultimate aims with the making of ‘Yenkyi Taxi’?
Hagan: My aim was to show that there’s a scene growing. I wanted to highlight African dance music and the fact that you do have contemporary afrobeats, but that there’s something deeper happening underground that people should tap into – those were my reasons for wanting to go ahead and do this project. When Miche proposed documenting this I had already watched Woza Taxi and I thought, ‘Okay, we can do something bigger than I had already imagined.’ When it comes to my personal story, people already know that I make music but they don’t know who I am – through this, I want to show there’s a whole other side to me that isn’t seen on social media
Miche Calandra: For us, we wanted to show a different side of Africa that you never really get see. By using the language of music, new sounds, culture and dance crazes, which you never see in the mainstream media or on the news, you can tell different stories about Africa. With the UK fusion, as long as people understand the differences and are aware of where the music is coming from. By following Hagan in the documentary, people become aware of where everything is coming from and can look at the documentary as context. For us, it’s about showcasing all this evolution of traditional sounds from Africa. When you have the sounds and rhythms from the Ashanti alongside UK funky, people can watch and understand why it’s sounding like this – why you have these grooves and these percussions. It's not just for aesthetic and decoration. If it blows up it just brings food for the family and as long as there’s background work from us in the community, in terms of DJs and artists, we can justify the existence of a sound and attitude. Our dream would be to eventually see all these sounds coming together in one night.
Yenkyi Taxi releases tomorrow.