Norient spoke to Joy Frempong in the context of the project Sonic Traces: From Switzerland.
- Posted on Mar 15th 2010 8:00AM by Chris Opfer
For her debut effort, Swiss-Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Joy Frempong looked to the past to create a fuzzy, alternative present. In 2006, the songstress decided to make an album based on childhood memories and began asking friends for off-the-wall stories and remembrances from their formative years. The result is 'First Box, Then Walk,' a dreamy mix of avant-garde pop four years in the making that was released under Frempong's stage name--Oy--in February. Oy's first U.S. tour takes the dream weaver to Austin for three SXSW shows starting on Wednesday, Marcy 17 at Baby Blue Studio. Frempong spoke with Spinner following a stop in Seattle.
How did you come up with your stage name? Well, I'd never used an alter ego before and wanted to have one before I set up a Myspace page. I just dropped the first letters of my name which I thought sounded kind of funny: Oy Rempong. Then I decided to use just my first name. I didn't think about practical things though--Oy is hard to be found in internet search machines but it's nice and compact. Describe your sound in your own words. It's hard to label my music. There's some acoustic stuff, but mostly it's playful electronic music and, as it's a concept album, it's very narrative. Also it's very much based on soulful vocals. Plus there's a lot of weirdness in it. What influences that sound? I totally adore Nina Simone, she's my number one hero, and then when I discovered Moloko at the time it was mind blowing to me and has certainly been a major influence. Anyway, I listened to a lot of other electronica at the time. I was educated as a jazz singer and composer and played classical piano for a long while too. I grew up with African and European gospel music, so there's some of all that stuck in my head. Perhaps I practiced handstands for too long. It seems like all the influences have been shaken up in my head and they come out as some indefinable cocktail. How did growing up in Ghana affect your sound and interests, musically? I'm pretty sure it did affect me, although I've never dug into the polyrhythmic concept too much and wouldn't be able to play along with Ghanaians. I'd miss all the cues. And then there's the whole choir/call-and-response thing, which I also know from American music on records, but in Ghana I got the live experience of that whole energy. When did you start making music as Oy? I started working on this project about four years ago. I was playing with several bands, I still am, and had the urge to do a thing of my own. There were so many possibilities as I'm interested in different styles and was also considering writing out music for a bigger band, including strings or horns. I finally decided to stick to what I could do completely on my own and started jamming around on the piano, harmonium and toys. What's the concept behind the album? One part of what I was interested in was a poetic world of innocent melodies that I associated with childhood and, as it's easier for me to work with a topic, I decided to make a concept album based on childhood memories. Is the album based completely on your memories? [It's] derived from my own stories and others my friends had mailed me. I started out with little vocal loops and went on sampling all sorts of instruments, toys and objects in order to create the music. The little sketches grew over time and finally I got some friends to add drums and bass to certain tracks that I wanted to sound fuller. Frederik Knop from Berlin pimped up the rather trashy sounds and did a whole lot to round up the mix. What is it about childhood that interests you artistically? I guess it's the fact that everyone can relate to it and you're thrown back into this whole different state of being as a child, so you trigger memories of people, each unique and at the same time sharing a general feel of the time when imagination and games were a major part of one's existence. What's it like touring in the U.S. for the first time? So far people have been amazingly hospitable and willing to help out and make it happen. I guess one difference in organizing tours is that the U.S. seems to be a bit more flexible in terms of setting up short notice gigs. And it seems it's normal in the U.S. to have a lineup of many bands whereas I'm used to having only one band per night plus their support act, and often at small venues there's none. What do you know about SXSW? Everyone I know knew about the festival. I didn't, but I've found out by now what an amazing event it is. It's not the kind of gig you don't do if you can, I guess. Have you played many festivals in the past? What's in your festival survival kit? I have played quite some festivals, but I've never needed a survival kit. What's your musical guilty pleasure? Playing classical piano pieces too fast and too bad and only halfway through and thinking about the poor composers turning in their graves. And your biggest vice? 'Miami Vice.'
Chris Opfer is a contributor from Seed.com. Learn how you can contribute here.
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Ghanaian Electronica From Oy
Ghanaian/Swiss singer Joy Frempong aka Oy constructs infectious, left-of-center African inflected electronica, lavished with stories, proverbs and a basketful of samples from everyday life in the continent. We spoke to her about her influences, her recently released album Kokokyinaka, out via Creaked Records, and got two exclusive downloads of singles “Akwaba” and “Market Place.”
Your songs live in a unique sonic landscape between Western electronica & pop and traditional Ghanaian/African music. How do you arrive at your sound?
For this album I chose to search for lyrical and musical content around African countries I had visited or was planning to visit, and to combine these influences with my experimental approach to writing music. I love a broad range of music, and probably just want a bit of everything in my own songs – so I’ve found a playful approach to juggle with styles and clichés. Using effects (electronic and natural) on my vocals helps me slip into different characters and the fact that I record my own samples makes the music never quite sound exactly like what it might remind you of. The acoustic drum set of Lleluja-Ha, who provided warm beats, is of major importance for this album as it’s almost the only ‘real’ instrument on the album. And when I got stuck with the field sample library I bought my first synth ever.
The album contains samples collected across the continent — in Mali, Ghana, Burkina Faso and SA. Can you tell us about those trips, how you came about some samples and how they were later used?
I spent the first 7 years of my life in Ghana and have visited the country many times ever since, but was curious to get to know some other African countries. I chose Mali because of my love for musicians I had discovered in Europe, hoping to find more when I was there — and I did. Luckily enough, we arrived exactly at the time of the biennale of music, dance and opera, and my ears received beautiful massages!
I was also hunting for local proverbs and traditional stories like I had been told as a kid. In Bobo-Dioulasso I found (young) story teller Ismael Sawodogo, who combines his two jobs of being a taxi driver and a story teller for the best: finding new stories by talking to passengers and entertaining passengers by telling them his own creations. This encounter was so rich that I invited Ismael to perform with us at La Cigale, Paris for festival Ile de France past October.
In South Africa, on a cultural residency and for shows, I started cutting up into snippets and samples all the material I had recorded while travelling Western Africa, and did a few collabs and jam sessions. The track “Chicken Beer” was born out of a jam session with João Orecchia and Mpumi Mcata of BLK JKS in Johannesburg. I later revisited it and combined it with lyrics inspired by a 75-year old Ghanaian farmer and watchman who I had asked for a message to my friends in Europe.
The bass sound in that track is a sample of my mother’s very noisy washing machine, recorded in northern Ghana. There’s a South African bird in there, the audience clapping at the biennale in Mali, and rhythmical elements include knives being sharpened at a market in Ouagadougou. Later the drumming of Lleluja-Ha and electronic beat of Christophe Calpini, as well as replayed samples of João’s and Mpumi’s guitar, took the track in another direction.
The melodic string-like instrument in the hook on the track ‘Bienvenue’ is actually the wooden door at the cottage house I was staying at in Johannesburg. It didn’t fit smoothly into the frame, and the sound of forcing it open served me well as a melodic sample. The squealing of Ismael the taxi-driver/storyteller’s brakes, did me a similar services. As a vegetarian I faced a dilemma when receiving a cock and two guinea fowls from old friends around Christmas. I didn’t save their lives, but made sure I’d keep their voices on the album (“Juju”).
So certain samples were actually used to create melodies or as rhythmic elements, while others, like the “Halleluja” sample recorded in a small village church, simply help telling the story of – praising the Lord for hair, even if it’s a wig made of some Indian lady’s natural crown that was meant to be sacrificed in a ritual. God here, God there – Halleluja everywhere!
What bands or musicians would you say influenced the album?
This is some of the music that accompanied me in the period of working on the album or doing research for it: older African musicians like King Sunny Adé, Ali Farka Touré, traditional Ghanaian songs and highlife music as well as modern artists like Wanlov The Kubolor / FOKN Bois or Amadou et Mariam. On the European side, some of my recent favorites are Little Dragon or James Blake. It’s hard to say who influenced me to what extent but I am certainly what I eat, so I try to chew the good stuff!
What’s the meaning behind the album title Kokokyinaka?
Kokokyinaka is the Akan (Ghanaian language) name for the bird ‘Great Blue Turaco or Giant Plantain Eater’ whose looks I love – blue with a punky crown. It’s also said to have taught man to drum, and so drummers would not kill or eat it. The reason I chose the title was because of this poem:
Kokokyinaka Asamoa, the clock-bird, how do we greet you?
We greet you with ”anyaado”
We hail you as the drummer’s child,
The drummer’s child sleeps and awakes with the dawn.
I am learning, let me succeed.