Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Learning from Azonto

published in the Fiji Times on Wednesday 22nd August, 2012

I returned to Fiji last month, for a short break, to find my children in heated debate. The subject was not about ownership (who owned the pencil they both wanted to use), or equal participation in decision-making (choosing clothes for church). It was not even to do with human rights abuse (the torture of having to do exercises to improve their handwriting).  The argument was a potential diplomatic row in the making: whether the Ghanaian dance craze “Azonto” should be accepted in the household.

Coming from a semi-hermitic life of theological study and work in Korea, I was out of touch with “all this Azonto stuff” and so my wife proceeded to explain to me about how this new dance and music culture had arrived in Fiji and was very popular among young people.  Later I was to witness the students of Dudley Intermediate School incorporate Azonto, both music and dance, in their Tadra Kahani item, as they presented it as their sevu to the school board before performing it on the stage.

The argument was not just over the fact that my daughter was fed up of listening to the song: “Azonto azonto… enough already!” There was also confusion over what “Azonto” actually meant. After receiving a forwarded email that proposed that the word meant: “the worst form of prostitution,” I decided to find out more about this dance and also the culture associated with it.

The major criticism that I found about Azonto came from Ghanaian musician and instrumentalist Azonko Simpi, who laments the loss of traditional song and dance in favour of modern music which lacks originality. A number of people seem to hold this view and some more conservative Ghanaians have called for “Christazonto” (Christ’s Azonto) to be banned from performance in churches.

However according to Ghanaian magazine Dust, “The simple fact is that azonto is not one dance, but a beautiful amalgamation of so many styles. Incredibly adaptive, watching it danced well is like watching the history of Ghanaian modern dance.”

The Accra-published magazine, in an article titled “Azonto: the Dance, the Music and the Mindset,” also gives another definition of the word Azonto as, “a vaguely derogatory term that means ‘ugly’ or ‘uncultured.’”

According to the article in Dust and also in Wikipedia, there are links betwee azonto and other indigenous dance forms, like Bukom’s ‘Apaa’ (in which activities like washing, driving, and boxing are represented in dance form) and ‘Kpe’, a dance (popular in secondary schools) in which the dancer freezes and uses his or her hands to mimic a gunshot at the end of every move.

The article describes the development of not only azonto but other forms of western-influenced Ghanaian music and dance:

Footballer Asamoah Gyan had started using (a slightly different, push-pull version of) azonto as his goal celebration. Around the same time, a video of a girl dressed in blue, dancing at a Tema omo tuo spot to Sarkodie’s ‘You Go Kill Me O’ (featuring heavyweight azonto exponent, E.L) went viral on Youtube (one of several azonto videos to do so). At first, people watched it to laugh but they were completely drawn in by the complex simplicity of her moves. Wherever those moves came from, all of a sudden they were everywhere, as was Gyan’s celebration.

More than being cool, azonto is fun. It is highly adaptable, and capable of absorbing other dances; it is competitive and it is cheeky, all of which have given fuel to its spread both in the region and in Ghana’s disapora. It has the potential to define Ghana for non-Ghanaians who until now have thought of Ghana only as a politically progressive West African country where people say ‘chale’ a lot. In azonto, young Ghanaians have done a lot more than recreate tradition: they have created new Ghanaian culture.

It also ponders what anzonto means for the Ghanaian people:

What then is the future for Azonto? Culture that grows from the ground up does not tend to fade into non-existence. Like energy, it is difficult to destroy but rather converts into other forms, much as it itself emerged in the first place.
There was a time when Hollywood films were more popular in Ghana than African films. That has changed. There was a time when wearing African print was considered backward. That has changed. There was a time when mimicking the American ‘Dougie’ or the Carribean ‘Dutty Wine’ was the done thing in clubs and in music videos. That too has changed. Even GH rappers with Locally Acquired Foreign Accents are being forced to absorb pidgin into their rhymes to stay relevant.

You can read the article in full online at
I was struck by the concluding words of the article:
“The future of azonto is the future of us as Ghanaians. Azonto represents much more than song and dance. It represents a mindset in which Ghanaians specifically (and Africans in general) start taking pride in our own creativity and potential, something we all too often do not do, especially in culture where we too often relegate what is local to ‘primitive’ or ‘lower class’. Imagine if that pride spread into other areas of our lives and culture. Pride and faith in our ability is one of the biggest things holding Ghana back. Break that mindset, and the future, as well as the world, is ours for the taking.”

In Fiji we adapted reggae to create Vude. The voce or chants in music by groups such as Rosiloa showcase our modern Fijian culture to the world. Groups such as Kaba ni Vanua present the traditional beauty of i-Taukei meke and sere, while the Shobna Chanel dance troupe present the fusion of our cultures in their dances and Vou takes it to another level. The poetic hiphop of Redchild, Sammy G and Mr. Grin express the word on the street (or around the tanoa). 

It would seem that in our culture, our music, our dance – the non-formal language of our people we have moved in leaps and bounds in developing a new and inclusive identity for Fiji.

Perhaps we need to reflect on the same possibilities that azonto offers Ghanaians and look to how in this time of nation building – music, dance and art – our culture can show us the way forward. After all constitutional commission not only accepts emailed submissions, they accept it in song and dance too.

“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”


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