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Fra Fra
Funeral Songs Noel Gardner , May 6th, 2020 07:50

An album of ceremonial music from the north of Ghana sounds gloriously raw, finds Noel Gardner

Repping their ends with the least fuss possible, remarkable death-folk trio Fra Fra hail from the north of Ghana and have named themselves after their people. Most commonly written as Frafra, the population is mainly rural, and speak an eponymous language, as heard on Funeral Songs, the group’s debut recording. You could interpret the choice of name either as hubris or modesty, or one masquerading as the other. A useful contextual detail, as noted in producer Ian Brennan’s sleevenotes, is that while Fra Fra acknowledge the colonialist connotations of Frafra (it was a name given to them by early 20th century missionaries who didn’t understand the language but kept hearing that word) they’d rather embrace and reclaim it than edit their argot a century on.

Apropos the album title, Fra Fra’s main gig until now has been as live soundtrackers of such ceremonies – which is the correct term: celebration before sorrow, sparing no effort to give the fallen a send-off. They’ve been performing together for decades, says Brennan, and bandleader Small (so named because… he is) is now in his early seventies. Small steers Fra Fra’s songs via grizzled vocals whose lyrics apparently emerge off the dome, and plays kologo, a two-string lute-type instrument. Generally assembled DIY style from household materials, the kologo is tonally indelicate by nature, but Small’s plucks and whacks are bracingly brusque even by the standards of the best kologo primer I know, Makkum Records’ 2016 comp This Is Kologo Power!. His two bandmates, who prefer not to be named for whatever reason, keep up the pace with a mixture of shaker percussion, tin whistle and call-and-response backing vox.

The latter element, when paired with the frontman’s insistent musings, lend a James Brown or Fela Kuti-type air to ‘You Can’t Escape Death’, one of two especially long numbers here (in relation to the album format, at least – given Frafra funerals can carry on for days, Funeral Songs’ 31 minutes is doubtless a drop in the ocean). The song titles are all in English, which the lyrics are not, so I can’t confirm how closely they correspond to each other, but the sentiment of the jagged, frenzied ‘Naked (You Enter And Leave This World With Nothing)’ is one which gets discussed in Lament From Epirus, a very enjoyable book by Christopher C. King about an obscure folk music style from the Greek-Albanian Epirotic region. King, a renowned 78s collector, becomes increasingly obsessed with this sorrowful music, finding multiple parallels with the early Delta blues he’s devoted much of his life to unearthing. Both styles, he writes, take the view that death is the great leveller, and that you can’t take your fortune with you. Brennan calls Fra Fra’s homeland “a wellspring of the blues,” too.

‘Helpless (Death Has Taken Everyone)’ is like a blues song title rejected for being too on the nose, and takes twelve minutes to say its piece. It seems to be pretty much a Small solo joint with some background hollers picked up on the mic – emblematic of the recording approach by Brennan, who chanced upon Fra Fra in 2018 when searching for the next volume of the Hidden Musics series of recordings he curates for the Glitterbeat label. Aiming to be as unobtrusive as possible, he arranged some mics in Small’s yard, hit record and let the trio do their thing. He also observes that they were still pissed from the previous night’s drinking. That being the case, Funeral Songs is neither the first nor last gloriously raw album to be laid down in such a state.