Songs of the Lalaworlor: Musical Labor on Ghana’s Fishing Canoes

Songs of the Lalaworlor:  Musical Labor on Ghana’s Fishing CanoesA Paper Presented at Mystic Seaport’s Music of the Sea Symposium Germanville Church,  Mystic, CT   -  Saturday June 14, 2008

By Bennett Konesni           



It's 3 a.m. in Nungua Township and I'm stretched out on a cot in a small, sticky room in front of a whirring fan. Suddenly there is a knock and a gruff voice, and I groggily throw on a t-shirt and swing my legs down to the floor.  It’s time to fish.

Six days a week in harbor towns all along Ghana’s palm-fringed coast, teams of fishermen make their way down to wooden canoes perched and waiting on the beach. They begin their work at a time of day most people sleep, those hours after the partygoer sleeps and the shopkeeper wakes.   In the dark, the men skid their boats off the sand and into the water, pointing the canoes directly into the roaring surf.

During the fall of 2005 I spent two months in Ghana recording and learning the way the local fishermen sing while they work.  I spent my time with members of the Ga tribe, a group of 300,000 people who live on a narrow 200-mile stretch of coast around Ghana's capitol city, Accra.   This tribe is legendary for their abilities as fishermen.    People here say that they eat mainly fish, look like fish, and even sing like fish.

Nungua, a sprawling township formed around an old fishing village, is home to over a dozen musical fishing teams.  A few mornings each week I woke up early to go along as a member of one of the teams, to help ply the depths using threadbare nets and powerful songs.

Each morning's early wake-up call leads to a white-knuckle ride through the breaking waves off the beach, and then ample big-net fishing in the few hours on either side of dawn.  In time I grow to enjoy the routine and eagerly anticipate the rush of pushing off the beach into the foam.  The boatswain of our craft, Bortey Radi, idles the engine and we all pause, waiting for a lull in the surf like a jaywalker seeking an opening in a sea of speeding taxis. Then he guns the engine and we plow through the spray, ending up on the long, rolling swells of the Gulf of Guinea.

It's 45 minutes before we reach the favored fishing grounds.  We seek anchovies, what the Ga call Armoni, a favorite local treat that can be seen smoking atmospherically in traditional red-clay ovens on shore.  To catch these fish the men post a lookout in the bow, peering down at the dark water running alongside the boat.  If he sees silvery sides glinting in the moonlight he shouts, and the others immediately begin to cast 600 meters of net out over the side of our speeding, leftward-turning canoe.

The net is 600 meters long and 180 meters wide and each edge is lined by a long rope, one sporting colorful styrofoam floats, the other heavy steel rings.  Trapping the fish involves cinching the bottom edge of the net together and leaving the other  edge floating on the surface.  This creates an enormous dish of netting about the size of two football fields, which, on good days, is chock full of splashing, writhing sea life including fish, snakes and occasionally sea turtles.

It is during the cinching that the songs begin.  The song leader- who is called the lalaworlor- starts a lone call.   Then in powerful harmony everyone responds, reaching forward and hauling straight back on the cinch rope as they sing. The men sit one or two per bench, with their feet dangling down into the hold or propped up against the bench in front of them. The rope runs down the length of the canoe and each man grabs onto the length closest to him and hauls.  As each man pumps forward and back he sings, responding to call of the lalaworlor.


One of the lalaworlor's jobs is to create a good tempo for the rest of the workers.  They in turn sing improvised patterns that follow and elaborate on the lalaworlor's basic beat. The songs are arranged simply, with a lone voice urging the group to respond, but the simplicity of the call/response format contrasts markedly with the complex rhythms created by the crew.

For example, if a song has a simple two-beat feeling (one, two, one, two) some of the fishermen will respond by dividing each single beat into three (one-and-a, two-and-a, one-and-a, two-and-a).  Meanwhile the leader continues with the original two-beat feel. This overlay of duple and triple meters forms the basis of polyrhythm in the canoes, and provides a palpable sense of momentum as the workers sweat and strain on the ropes and nets full of fish.

While some men love employing triplets and the sense of three in their singing, others will syncopate their singing so that the emphasis is just opposite that of the leader. Still others give swooping, anticipatory pick-ups to the constant repetitions of phrase—another device that keeps the song, and the workers, in locomotion.

As much as the songs are influenced by rhythmic vocal creativity, they are shaped by each individual’s movements. When a man is feeling exuberant he stands up on the bench in front of him, grabs the rope and then springs backward, ending up flat on his back on his own bench. Most of the others in the boat get pulled along with this charade, and so does the song, accelerating briefly, then settling back into its regular rhythm. The crew grins, and some laugh, and everyone keeps hauling and singing.

Though the songs set the rhythm of the work, they do not rigidly determine it as one might expect. Instead all of the elements that are connected at sea—voices, ropes, and the ocean—combine in a rough and constantly shifting equilibrium of environment and sound.

One reason for this is necessity: the net is immersed in the rolling sea. As it is dragged over and around obstacles it gets alternately harder and easier to pull. As waves approach the boat, the net is sucked away from the canoe, making it almost impossible to haul in.  Then, as the swell passes under the boat, the rope can be pulled rapidly, hand over hand.

The musicians must respond to these changes by altering their bodily rhythm, which in turn affects the musical rhythm.  The sonic experience of working on a Ga fishing canoe is thus sculpted by the interaction between sea floor, netting, workers, and the pulsing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. 


The fishermen sing about a wide range of topics, from the mundane to the divine.  Songs about everyday life feature prominently, on topics ranging from goats to grandmothers.   One song describes a courtship between two young goats and their grandfather’s approval.  Another boasts about the strength and longevity of the old women in Nungua as compared to the grandmothers in other villages along the coast.  A third laments a wayward lover who sleeps with another man and returns home at dawn.

Many songs include an improvisational element that engages the workers.  During  song about the grandmothers, “Yomo Begga,” the lalaworlor inserts at random the names of nearby towns.  By choosing different towns at different times the lalaworlor keeps the crew listening and laughing when he comes up with a new, unexpected town.

Other songs are about the fish that swim below the boats, and the practice of fishing them.  One song says, in Ga, “Kanye Nonyemono Beleo” or “No one owns the sea.”  As it explores the wild and unpredictable nature of the ocean, the song expresses the belief that its resources are not for any one person to exploit.   This song is frequently sung back to back with a simple verse that warns the group about disobeying God’s wishes.

These songs are not long ballads with verse upon verse of storytelling.  Instead, they are generally comprised of just one or two lines, a call and a response, with perhaps a chorus to cap it off.  With their cryptic meanings and rhythmic repetitions, these snippets of lyricism are something like an incantation, or a chant.   But the simplicity of the lyrics does not reflect the complexity and power of the messages.  Social, environmental, and religious norms are reinforced through these songs, giving the fishermen ideas to chew over as they haul and sing, haul and sing. 


Melodically, the songs are simple but catchy: they use some or all of the notes from the major scale, rarely straying into complex chromatic or modal sounds characteristic of Islamic northern Ghana and parts of neighboring West Africa.

Melodic phrases take many shapes, but a dominant shape in these songs can be characterized by a slight rise from the 3rd or 5th of the scale, followed by a long downward movement toward the tonic, or root feeling of the song.

Another important feature of the melodies seems to be that they can change.  Improvisation around a theme is used by lalaworlors to keep their crew listening, to vary the routine after hours of intense and demanding physical work.  This improvisation, which involves quick, nimble departures from an established melodic line, mirrors the improvisational approach to the lyrics mentioned above.

Some of the songs have a very minimal melodic component, focusing instead on the rhythm of the words as they come out of the singer’s mouths.  To me, these songs begin to resemble the industrial electronica found at late night dance clubs in cities: dense, trance-inducing sounds that force everything but the beat out of your skull. Furthering the effect, certain lalaworlors will even change their voices over the course of the song, from sweet and soulful to gravelly and rough, almost machine-like sounds. In doing so they create a musical texture that is constantly shifting, even as they sing the same melody for 30 minutes or more.           


Harmonies used by the fishermen can be simple or complex.  Sometimes thirds and fifths are as far as the fishermen will go.   But at other times the group builds complex layers of tones on top of the simple melodies, branching into lush chords employing tones beyond 3 and 5.   Strong resonant 7th chords can be heard, along with what almost sounds like tonal clusters.  The ragged voices of the singers, who are focusing on the work at times more than the song, sometimes slip into a tonally fuzzy area that is a step outside traditional hymnody of the spirited Ghanaian church choirs on shore.  This involves adjacent tones and even quarter tones, which, though they are accidental, are an important part of the general feel of the music.

Typicallly, the leader starts with the high arcing melody that is responded to by the group in anything from near-unison to four or six part harmonies. A few low voices hold down the bottom end, while the workers quite easily sing high, tight harmonies around the melody set by the lalaworlor.   These harmonies are not arranged.  Each person sings different parts or lines as they wish, and some people switch between low and high parts during the same song at their own whim.

Harmonically, each song is different: some are rich and dense but only last five or 10 minutes- similar to those sung by the church choirs-  where others last longer but have less emphasis on harmony, focusing instead on the rhythmic textures of the words.

This flexible and improvisatory approach to harmony matches similar attitudes toward melody and lyrics by the fishermen, which reflects the shifting nature of workplace demands.  Some tasks, like the initial looping of the net, take low-energy sustained effort.  It is at these points, when less energy and breath is being put into the work, that the most harmonies are employed.  Other times, such as during the strenuous period closing the bottom of the net, the fishermen sing songs that require less breath and less energy for harmonies.  These are the songs that are more trance-like, driving rhythmic numbers that may emphasize unison to the point where all of the men are singing one rhythmically driving but harmonically and melodically simple chant.            

Music and the Sea

One morning I noticed the boatswain, a calm and focused middle-aged man, putting his ear down to the rail of the canoe. At first I thought he was just tired: it was four in the morning and most of the crew was wearily stretched out on the canoe's benches and piles of net.  But he wasn’t tired.  He was checking for fish.

"Some of the fish shout as they swim past the boat," Bortey explained. "We put our ear on the canoe and can hear them as they go by." It was the fisherman's equivalent of a hobo putting his ear to a railroad track to listen for a coming freight train. "Does it work with steel boats?" I asked. "No, only wood. You can also use the wooden boat hook or a wooden paddle. And if you crouch in the bottom of the canoe you can hear them, too."

Of the 20 or more types of fish the fishermen catch, only six of them shout. Listening through the handle of a wooden paddle I heard the high whistle of one type, moi. Two other varieties also whistle, another two make low grunting noises, and one makes a soft "kwa kwa, kwa kwa." That fish is named after its shout—kwa kwa.

It occurred to me that perhaps the fish use a type of sonar to navigate. Or maybe the fish, like their fishermen, are singing. Any way you imagine it, listening for fish through the hull of the canoe is an extraordinary concept: the canoe becomes not just a staging ground for musical fishing, but also an enormous 90-foot amplifier that, when used properly, helps the fishermen locate their quarry- singing fish

The boat serves as an amplifier in another way. The men stand or sit on the benches and sing, and as they sing the sound moves down into the hull of the boat, which—empty of net—becomes a long echo chamber in which the sound resonates. A cross-section of the hull reveals a big U, about four feet deep and six feet wide. The sound goes in, bounces around and fires back out at the workers seemingly louder than when first sung. You can duplicate this effect at home by facing the corner of the room about two feet away from either wall. Then sing or shout directly at the corner in front of you. The sound will bounce back loud and clear in both ears, almost as if you're wearing headphones. That's what it's like working on the benches of a musical canoe.

Furthermore, if you crouch down in the hold as the work goes on you can literally feel the vibrations from the noise of the fishermen’s songs.  The wood of the canoe, some 4 inches thick and held together with iron nails made from old automobile shock absorbers, vibrates with the energy from rousing bursts of noise from the crew

At the same time the boat vibrates from the ropes coming in over the rail. The rope is about the thickness of a man's thumb, and its corrugated strands rub a groove in the wood where they come in from the sea.  In these places the rope is stretched very tight against the wood and the resulting fiction causes the whole boat to shudder.  When the men pull in time with the music, certain beats get an added bass "thrum" from the taught lines.  In general these thrums come on the first and third beat in a song with a feeling of four, i.e. beats one and three in a four-beat measure. 

Ocean as Stage

This link between action, sound and song opened my ears to other sonic phenomena out on the water, like the voices of other fishing teams floating over to our boat as we do our work. On an average morning there are between 50 and 150 canoes out on the stretch of coast around Nungua.  When the giant schools of fish move right in next to the coast, every seaworthy canoe that can be manned heads out to bring in the catch. Other days, when the fish have moved elsewhere, fewer canoes can be seen on the gulf.

Since the fish move in schools, it is common to see a handful of canoes in a clump around a school of fish. Sometimes one canoe will set its net and begin hauling it in, and if it is full of fish, another fishing team will come along and set their net in a giant circle around the first. They catch any fish that made it out of the first net. So it's common to be near other canoes, and as a result you can often hear them singing. At times you can hear two or three teams singing in addition to your own. Some are far off and faint, others only half a football field away. The songs cross and collide with each other like ripples in a puddle.

Other sounds inform the musical experience on these fishing canoes: the metal rings attached to the net rattle and clang as they go over the side during the casting, and then rattle and clang again as they are brought aboard during the hauling. The water sloshes around in the open bilge and occasionally someone will hop down in to bail. These actions contain a rhythm of their own.

And when the net has mostly been hauled on board, the terns circle and dive into swirling pools of fish at the side of the canoe. They add their own shouts to those of the fish and the men.  The fishermen are tuned into all of these noises, and they use them as clues to finding fish. They also use their eyes to watch for birds and for the fish as they dart through the water. They use the sky, checking weather patterns throughout the day and the seasons, as well as the flight patterns of the terns and seagulls. They also look for clues in the water, like the color and the currents. When the breeze is off the land it causes the water from the deep to churn up to the surface and this causes the fish to scatter.

The nuances of sight and sound on the water are well understood by the fishermen, who use them to find their fish.  That knowledge, combined with the uplifting pulse of their songs, it is enough to keep them successfully working for six hours or more. As morning moves toward mid-day, they haul in the net hand over hand while standing on the slippery, rocking planks that doubles as a deck. They feed the net into the hold as barking, black-capped terns gather in a cloud and dive-bomb the panicked anchovies.

After a time most of the net is piled in the bottom of the canoe and the sea churns white as the fish are corralled alongside the canoe.  The singing stops and the men grab the edges of the net and with one last heave bring the wild catch on board. Bushels of writhing, slippery creatures slide over the gunwales, fish that will in a few short hours be sold directly from the boat on the beach, to be cooked by townspeople for lunch.                 


The words work and performance  are often linked in discussions of labor and productivity.  Factory managers constantly monitor the workplace performance of their employees, looking at efficiency, output, profit and other metrics that describe just how well everyone is performing.

It is not much different in Ga canoes, but in this case the fishermen are concerned not only with their workplace performance- how many fish they catch and how quickly they catch them- but also the performance of their music.  The energy and quality of the singing, the choice of repertoire, the movements of the workers- all are important because they affect the efficiency of the group.

Work as performance is key concept in understanding the nature of Ga musical fishing communities.  With its joyful shouts and flashy movements, catching fish becomes a performance on multiple levels, whose benchmarks include both the quality of the singing and the quantity of the fish.

Thus work and play are intertwined in the canoe.  The act of singing transforms mornings on the Gulf of Guinea into an activity that is something between work and play.   Because of this transformation, the fishermen are able to overcome the extreme physical hardship of pulling ropes and nets for hours at a time as cold wet night turns to hot equatorial day.