Ghana postal workers music: a unique example of work song
Everytime I want to share with my students some examples of work songs, I turn towards the music made by Ghanaian postal workers in the act of cancelling stamps.
The reaction of my class is almost always the same:
“how on earth can these people make a music so rhythmically complex and acoustically engaging without any musical instrument and in the context of a working activity?”
To be honest, the first time I play these pieces of music the students don’t even notice that the rhythmic patterns are produced by ordinary objects and not by musical instruments.
Anyway, by reading this article you will find an answer to the following questions:
What are the characteristics of Ghanaian postal workers music?
Which field recordings can we rely on to better understand how postal employees from Ghana make music while cancelling stamps?
And finally: what is the reason for them to turn the daily tasks required by working in a postal office into a musical performance?
Okay, we’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get started!
Sources available: 3 invaluable field recordings
As I was digging deeper into the topic of Ghanaian postal employees work songs and music, I found three valuable examples that can represent very well the practice of playing improvised rhythmic patterns and melodies while cancelling stamps.
The first audio file that I want to share with you is a field recording by James Koetting, which is currently available online as part of the Brown University digital collection.
Koetting was an ethnomusicologist who had the merit of recording a vast repertory of traditional and popular music during his stay in Ghana in the 1970s.
Among the numerous songs and instrumental pieces of music included by Koetting in his collection, we find a track where we can hear the organized sequence of sounds produced by a group of four workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office, located in Lagon (1975).
This field recording gained tremendous popularity after being published in the historical book by Jeff Titon, called “Worlds of Music”.
I’ll discuss the characteristics of this and the others pieces of music mentioned here in the later sections of this blog post.
Actually, Koetting was able to record another example of music improvised by the Ghanaian postal workers while they were intent in cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office.
This track has had less success than the previous one but is equally worthy of representing the amazing musical and coordination skills that distinguish the postal workers immortalized by Koetting’s field recordings.
If you want to see, not only hear, how these postal employees combine the production of percussive sounds with their working duties, this video is what you need:
Uploaded on Youtube 11 years ago, this footage comes from the documentary “Listening to the silence: African cross-rhythms” and shows how postal workers from Ghana naturally include music making within their working routine.
Characteristics of Ghanaian postal workers music
The first thing that makes the music improvised within Ghana postal offices worthy of closer attention is the instrumentation.
No ritual drums, shakers or some other type of folk percussion instruments, just a pair of scissors, stampers, naked hands and, of course, the human voice.
And it is here that the magic happens!
Let’s start by examining the two tracks included in Koenning’s collection.
Both involve four postal employees – musicians:
the act of inking the stamper becomes a powerful bass drum, the gesture of cancelling the stamps by beating the stamper on the letters creates a sharper and higher pitched sound, that contrasts in timbre with the previous one, while a whistling tune suddenly emerges, to breath life into the obsessive repetition of the underlying rhythmic patterns.
It is surprising how the clicking sound generated by a pair of scissors takes part in the performance and enriches its polyrhythmic structure.
Even though the music that we hear is improvised, we can easily recognize some recurring patterns that mirror, on the one hand, the cyclic repetition of the actions performed by the workers and, on the other end, help these people mark the tempo.
But what kind of melodies are they singing?
Are they improvised on the spot or taken from preexisting songs?
In the first audio file we can hear the whistling of the hymn “Bompata” composed by W.J. Akyeampong; the second track derives its melody from a traditional song of the Ga people of the Greater Accra Region.
The main melody is almost immediately enriched by another melodic line, which creates a simple but highly effective polyphonic texture.
Let’s abandon Koetting’s field recordings and take into consideration the soloist performance documented in the footage.
Here the musical performance is managed entirely by one individual, who sings a song while generating a vigorous rhythmic accompaniment with the stamper and the naked hand.
The performance starts out with an improvised percussive section where we can find something worthy of being analyzed more closely.
It is interesting to note that the number of higher strikes “played” by the postal worker depends completely on the amount of stamps present in the letters.
The left hand is employed by the worker to move from one letter to the other, and its banging on the letters produces a snare like sound that combines with the crawling noise of the letters that get moved on the surface of the desk.
Function of music among the Ghanaian postal office employees
The examples of Ghanaian work music discussed so far clearly demonstrate how musical events do not require necessarily a stage, a formal occasion or the use of musical instruments.
They can come to light spontaneously even in settings that do not seem musical or inspiring at all, like a postal office.
Patterns of organized sounds help groups of workers coordinate certain activities and make them more fun, enjoyable and emotionally sustainable, especially when they are particularly boring and repetitive.
Cancelling stamps is a task that does not offer many possibilities for the postal employees to showcase their creativity and individuality.
And yet, the peculiar way in which music is felt and experienced by the people of Ghana comes to rescue the workers, inviting them to turn one of the dullest tasks in the world into an occasion for keeping up morale through the sharing of sounds, rhythms and melodies.
To sum up, the custom of improvising music while cancelling stamps has the function of:
- keeping the postal employees in a good mood
- dealing with the monotony of a repetitive task in a positive way
- helping people passing time at work
- coordinating the group of workers
- keeping up the pace
- promoting social engagement and participation
However, it is also important to point out that all the postal employees involved in these work songs refused to consider these performances as music making.
Another fantastic source that can help you go deeper into the fascinating relationship between labor and folk songs in Ghana is Pete Seeger‘s documentary film (1964) on a community of singing fishermen.
And finally, if you are interested in knowing more about Ghanaian folk music and listening to other types of work songs, I invite you to visit the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings website.