Ghanaian-British musician Andrew Ashong is a diamond in the rough. Introducing a much-needed dream-like soul within the industry via his self-titled EP in 2014, he became a welcome guest in South Africa as part of local DJ Paul Mamabolo’s second-anniversary vinyl event Wax On.
A dreadlocked and graceful man of such delicate fortitude with impressive amounts of soul and musical knowledge under his belt, he has received much-deserved nods from the likes of Gilles Peterson and Theo Parrish to name but a few. Read on for his insightful chat with us about his trip, life and music and his presence in it.
You had mentioned that your father is a pretty old-school guy so your wanting to take on music from a really young age probably wasn’t at the top of his list of things to accomplish for you. How did you navigate around that with him?
I didn’t really… there was no getting around it. Unsurprisingly, his outlook and expectations cultivated my own perspective, so even I wasn’t really aiming to work within the field of music. He really respects and appreciates music and the arts in general; he just never particularly ushered me towards it. It was just something I did… everyone that knew me knew I was really into music, but I was just happy to love it and surround myself with beautiful music without ever really ‘taking it on’ as a career or anything. Plus, I was often getting involved with my father’s various projects in Ghana (within education and science, like the Ghana Planetarium) so my interest in music was never that relevant in my family to be honest. It probably changed a little when he saw my name in the newspaper and heard my music on the radio. Although I still don’t think he took it as work until he learnt that I had a manager and agent!
Plus, I was often getting involved with my father’s various projects in Ghana (within education and science, like the Ghana Planetarium) so my interest in music was never that relevant in my family to be honest. It probably changed a little when he saw my name in the newspaper and heard my music on the radio. Although I still don’t think he took it as work until he learnt that I had a manager and agent!
What is it about Highlife and Ghanaian music in general that got you as a youngster, and what is one of your earliest memories that sealed the deal for you in terms of your interest in music?
Music has always been there. Maybe part of that is a condition of many peoples and cultures across the world in that music is just forever there… as part of life. It seems like quite a modern Western world perspective to see music as something purely presented from a stage, screen or other larger-than-life projection or elevation as a product and/or something associated with celebrity.
Being able to communicate with other people is both an admirable aspiration and an unquenchable thirst.
Obviously, I grew up seeing and hearing things on radio and TV, but we also sang and played together a lot for enjoyment. It was ours, since music belongs to everyone, in a sense, and the feelings have been here forever. As far as the Ghanaian stylings of Highlife etc., I think everyone has a soft spot for the joyous sounds heard early in their life, particularly if you had a happy childhood. It just sounds comfortable, and probably always will.
Being a jack of all trades, how do you see yourself? As a producer? A singer? An instrumentalist? A performer? Does it get chaotic at times? So how do you keep this wealth of knowledge you’ve built up over all this time organised in your head?
Gosh… my hands can’t really keep up with my head actually and there are so many things I want to do, but haven’t yet. I listen to lots of different music from different places and times, so I feel pretty familiar with various different musical ‘languages’… but I’m often thinking or hearing things that are slightly beyond my current reach. Maybe that’s what keeps me busy. Just like speaking a foreign language, I guess the best motivation to inspire you to learn new words and extend your vocabulary is simply the desire to say something you can’t already say. Being able to communicate with other people is both an admirable aspiration and an unquenchable thirst. Nobody really ever feels they have mastered one instrument, let alone several.
In terms of descriptions and labels, I’ve never felt qualified to call myself anything in particular really, especially since I always spread myself so thinly. I never ever saw myself as a singer, much less a performer… I guess I originally set sail as more of a producer/beatmaker who tried to make songs, which usually required some playing. I never really ‘learnt’ or ‘practised’ anything in particular, but ended up developing my playing through the recording process. I’ve also ended up singing lots these days just because I’ve been performing on stages and fronting live shows.
How did you develop your creative ‘voice’? Does it feel like there’s something outside of you, that comes and goes through you according to where you are in your life, or is it something inside of you that needs to be siphoned out every so often?
Like a fingerprint, I feel like the creative, inventive and unique elements are inevitable for any human doing anything like this. I don’t really dwell on myself or ‘me’ as such… If and when something pops up as inspiration, I’m usually just trying to do it justice and represent it well. Like telling a story or knowing a joke… It’s your responsibility to tell it well. But the joke exists whether or not you tell it well (or even at all!). So we learn to deliver these things as best we can because we feel indebted to their potential to connect or resonate with others.
We get so easily fixated on the artist opening our heart or the preacher feeding our spirit… but, in a way, they are all only lubricating our own existing machinery.
It seems as though people simply connect or identify with feelings, thoughts and images accessed through art, so it’s only really ever a key to a door. Focusing on the key might not be so crucial, and even the door itself may be misleading… since the experience may be found behind that door, or possibly in the actual room. We get so easily fixated on the artist opening our heart, the philosopher unlocking our mind or the preacher feeding our spirit… but, in a way, they are all only lubricating our own existing machinery.
It seems like history, legacy, taking time and making things worthwhile is really important to you, from the music itself right down to its packaging and its performance. What goes through your mind when you manifest something like your EP exactly the way you want it, outside of all that corporate, record label type fuss?
I always felt the music I was creating was not yet worthy of a vinyl release actually, but if you are going to do it, then it makes sense to do it wholeheartedly. The three tracks on my last EP were all dear to me. Mostly because they were among the first ever tracks that I recorded feeling like they were a good representation of what I wanted to say.
Never Dreamed produced itself all at once pretty immediately and it felt right. I didn’t fiddle, tweak or mess with it really. I respected it for what it was and it sounded like it had a style or personality of its own which made me feel like it had earned a place.
I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds even thousands of sounds, grooves or songs and very few convince me. I usually haven’t finished them or delivered them well enough to waste vinyl on them. It’s more important now more than ever to maintain some kind of quality control and mindfulness, as it’s so easy to release music digitally every five minutes without much thought or consideration.
For someone who spent a lot of time recording but never really considering putting things out there as a live element, how does it feel for you now that your live performances are so well received?
It’s such a trip… I feel so lucky to be able to do it at all, a real privilege of insights and blessings. At every gig, I’m reminded how essential human connectivity is. It’s taught me a lot. I always dreamt how a live show should knock your socks off at each and every turn, and have a quality of sound that is as close to a studio recording as possible, but getting too hung up about that stuff can obscure the deeper truth. Once again, if you’re concentrating too much on the ‘key’ to the ‘door’, you may be missing the point.
‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
There are so many ways to say the same thing. Some say it with five words, others say it with fifty. Some with long complicated words, others with short simple ones, plus we all use different languages. When you’re playing for others on stage, it’s only ever really about resonating with the audience, and simply being mindful, present and willing. In between gigs, it’s so easy to lose sight of the greater aim and intention, getting caught up in how every small detail should be. It’s a never-ending lesson in seeing the wood AND the trees. Reminds me of something the great Maya Angelou said, ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
What would you say to someone who loves music the way you do but is afraid to approach it publicly? What would you say to convince them to let the world see what they can do?
Stand up and be counted… many of us feel like we’ve been misrepresented for too long. So speak up… with your angle, since nobody knows your truth, from YOUR politics to YOUR heart. We all fit together like pixels on a screen and you could be the missing piece of the bigger picture. We all seem to need reminders about faith, hope, love, courage, patience and all those beautifully human experiences. Plus, we can often use a little nudge towards them. As a musician, you are frequently in a position to help people reach those places within themselves that may be hidden or a little dusty and inaccessible. In times like these, with a lot of misinformation, detachment, exhaustion, anxiety and indifference… you may have some very magical revelations for your fellow beings on their individual journeys.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Nandi?
I met Nandi many years ago through some mutual friends while she was in the amazing stage show about the life of Fela Kuti, Fela! She was living around the corner from me and actually directly opposite my old school. I could hear that she probably had an incredible tone from her speaking voice alone, and obviously, she could hold a note. At the time, I was just making music at my home studio purely for the sake of enjoyment and development. Since she was only around the corner, she would come over and jam around some ideas sometimes recording along the way as well.
Anyway, a few years later, Gilles Peterson asked me to do this acoustic gig in a chapel at the beautiful House Of St Barnabas (Soho, London) and it was meant to be acoustic. I immediately thought of Nandi joining us on vocals and guitar, as it was going to be a family affair and she plays a few instruments too. She’s been involved with the live shows ever since (when she’s available), particularly the stripped-down acoustic type shows.
What was it like meeting some of our local musicians? Any interesting folks who surprised you along the way?
Awww man, everybody over there had such good vibes. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with the good people we met all over. I love all the various different styles being brought to the table and the enthusiasm with which they come too. We met a bunch of people from Kid Fonque, Zaki Ibrahim, John Wizards, BLK JKS, Nomsa Mazwai… and many others. So many inspirations, real excitement… I really loved everything I heard and I can’t wait to get back over there to collaborate with some of my new friends.
Actually, the day I returned to London I saw The Brother Moves On perform in my part of South London. I had originally met them in London nearly two years back… I was hoping to meet them again but hilariously, when I finally made it to SA, they happened to be going to London for a couple of gigs so we were gonna miss each other. I did, however, chill with my brother Shoni who is an honorary member of The Brother Moves On family. Super cool guy.
Are there any lesser known performers/producers you feel deserve a spotlight, that you’d like to give a shoutout to? (Someone you ran into randomly at a jam session or something like that?)
A brother by the name of Ras Mava came through with his beautiful spirit and blessed us with his presence at the Straight No Chaser club in Cape Town which was full of vibes and spontaneity as we had never met in person until that night. Much love to him… looking forward to connecting in the future. We met a cool young brother who goes by the name Beat Sampras in Cape Town, who sounds like he’s cooking up some tasty stuff in his lab… looking forward to hearing his beats.
There were loads of cool musical peeps out there, but the guy that completely rocked my world was the great DJ Mighty who took us on an out-of-body experience with his monumental and transcendental set… we were supposed to be playing live after him but I really didn’t want to interrupt his journey. It was spiritual stuff. That guy is in another galaxy, light years ahead of most humans. Truly blessed.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewashong