Accra, Ghana’s capital, is a city that thrives on amplification. On our first drive through the suburb of Abeka we passed a young boy, no older than seven or eight – dressed in a suit, clutching a microphone, and standing right next to a loudspeaker that went up to his shoulders. He was regaling all within earshot about their need to repent their sins. A pocket-sized preacher. As it happened, Matt and I were in search of charismatic evangelical Christian churches, of which there are hundreds nestled in among the jumbled mosaic of homes and stores in this part of town. We’d heard that in recent years several of these churches had got into trouble with the city authorities: their loud and expressive services and their preachers’ taste for amplified sermons had occasionally shattered whatever peace and quiet nearby residents might have enjoyed. Within a matter of minutes, and probably less than half a mile apart, we found two services in full flow. In each case, we were drawn into the simple shed-like house of worship by the sound of the preacher’s voice drifting through the air outside, clamouring for our attention. The number of these churches is growing dramatically, and so competition between them is growing too. In Accra, it’s currently conducted in the belief that the loudest voice will always secure the greatest number of congregants.
We left quickly, not least because the preachers’ were starting to ham it up a bit once they’d they noticed our recording equipment. In any case, it was almost time to record the call to prayer at a nearby mosque. In this case, the amplification was much gentler. But a few hundred metres away from the mosque, residents were starting to set-up a more powerful sonic assault. A young man had hauled an enormous loudspeaker into place, balanced precariously across an open sewer in front of his home. A friend started to test the system with a bit of American hip-hop. The evening’s secular entertainment was about to begin.
An early start the next day for a drive along the coast to Elmina. As it turned out, our taxi driver for the Elmina trip was a fan of 1970s and 1980s reggae bands – especially British ones. Over a lunch of grilled fish and rice we chatted enthusiastically about Steel Pulse, Aswad, Black Uhuru. This might have been our mistake. The driver decided that Matt and I would enjoy the long journey back to Accra all the more if we could hear his collection of reggae CDs at full blast. The windows were wound down, the sunroof opened. And I had just enough time to look behind me and spot car-stereo speakers bigger than I ever knew possible before I was hit with a wall of sound that made my hair stand on end. The music, of course, was brilliant. But when I got out of the car at the end of the journey, I was completely deaf – and remained so for 24 hours. Here we were, making a programme all about the sounds of Ghana. Yet for one panicky day I couldn’t any longer hear a thing.