DJ Katapila “Trotro”
$9.00 – $23.00
Double LP of the insanely addictive 1998 Ghanaian electronic dance music recording by Accra’s DJ Katapila. Promise you’ve never heard anything like this. Pressed in 45rpm for a loud, club-worthy sound.
“My music is dynamic, my music is for the whole world. Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you can dance to it.”—DJ Katapila
DJ Katapila makes Ga traditional music using electronic sounds instead of live percussion to create his own kind of what he calls house music.
Ishmael Abbey was born in the dense and historic seaside neighborhood Jamestown in Accra, Ghana in 1973. Growing up at ground zero of Ga ethnic tradition and culture during a lively period, his childhood was spent playing football on the beach, rolling down hills on makeshift sleds and attending school. Ishmael was active in drama and participated in school gyama groups (chanting, drumming and dancing ensembles, often performing at sporting events).
At age 16 Ishmael began DJing, finding his way into the mobile spinning scene. He was tireless, which later earned him the nickname based on the construction machinery company Caterpillar. “They called me “Music Caterpillar” because I can play music non-stop for three days. I can play all night and then pack up in the morning and drive to the next place and do it again.”
Each mobile spinning company would bring to the gigs powerful sound systems capable of jamming music of all kinds. Funerals in Ghana are big parties with huge dance floors, requiring a proper DJ. Every Saturday the towns and cities are packed with funerals, most with a significant sound system of its own.
Up until 1996, DJs were spinning records and cassettes. (As it happens, Ishmael’s mobile DJ company manager was a pilot and he was bringing home LPs for their Mec Soundz outfit; they also rented out the records to other DJs.) But by 1998, DJs in Accra started using CDs—until around 2002 when laptops and thumb drives really took over.
DJ Katapila didn’t start producing music until he was 39 years old. By 1998, he had begun spontaneously inserting Ga- and Twi-language chants and raps into instrumental breaks of the well-trodden international house and techno radio hits he’d been playing. Performing on his Yamaha DD11 electronic drum pads during instrumental breaks, he also added his own percussion. He combined the microphone toasting and his rhythms with a sampler and invented new creations on the fly. His DJ sets began to approach full-on performances.
He was in love with the dance classics that had filtered into local pop music consciousness following the advent of commercial radio in the ’90’s. Especially when he played street jams, there would be tracks including “Big Fun” by Inner City; “Gonna Make You Sweat” by C&C Music Factory; “Sexy Eyes” by Dr Hook; “Pump Up The Jam” by Technotronic; “Fascinated” by Company B; “Gypsy Woman” by Crystal Waters; “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon; Rick Astley hits; and, Caribbean soca and calypso. He mixed international tunes with highlife—J.A. City Boys and AB Crentsil—as well as hiplife, Ghanaian gospel, Jamaican dancehall and regional Francophone hits.
A friend had given Ishmael a disc of music to load onto his Compaq Pentium 3. Fruity Loops, a popular music sequencing program, ended up on his hard drive as well. At a party someone came up and asked if he was a musician. He was just a DJ, he said, but he eventually decided to try producing music. 20-plus years of DJing funerals, weddings, outdoorings and parties across Ghana helped guide his process—he knew what works on the dance floor, what brings people together in social and ceremonial settings.
So he tried making beats of his own, and found the interface easy to use. For Ishmael it made sense to take the Ga drum ensemble rhythms he had been surrounded by since his childhood and translate them into the 10 lines of programming his trial version of the software provided. This distinct limitation elicited the minimalist sonic scope of his DJ Katapila productions. Programming rhythms became an obsession, so much so that he often couldn’t sleep.
The first song he released publicly was “Cocoawra” in 2007. He released a maxi-single containing “Zoomlion,” “Lalokat,” and “Nkran Dokunu” in 2009. Trotro, the culmination of Katapila’s early works, was originally released in 2009. From the beginning he would test out tracks during sound check at gigs and, eventually, during the party.
In the context of Ghana’s pop music landscape, Katapila’s music is singular. The uptempo, bass-heavy, Roland 808-rooted sounds echo early 1990’s Detroit techno and Chicago acid house more than the contemporary hiplife productions blasting across Ghanaian airwaves currently. However, Katapila was affected by growing interest in the vibrant club music styles of Ghana’s neighbors—Ivory Coast and Togo to the west and east, as well as places further afield like DR Congo. Some radio and club DJs have the music in heavy rotation; major brands are using songs in TV advertisements. Soukous, mapouka and coupé-décalé can be heard on dance floors nationwide and wield significant influence stylistically among some young producers in Ghana.
The structure of Katapila’s generation- and continent-spanning sound directly descends from Ga musical lineage found around the Greater Accra Region. His music contains component parts of gome, kpanlogo and gyama—Ga neo-traditional dance music forms that coalesced in the middle of last century and remain popular country-wide, especially around Accra.
Katapila developed his own style of toasting and call-and-response lyrics about the world around him. His young daughter’s voice, treated with effects, chimes in at the start of many songs. She was four when he began recording her voice. He tells her the lines and hands her a mic, thereby turning his sessions into family productions.
He made 100 copies of the first CD single “Cocoawra” and distributed them to mobile disc jockeys around Accra, as well as whichever radio hosts he could manage to reach. DJs began spinning it regularly and the public caught on, requesting some of the songs at parties. “Cocoawra” made it onto the radio thanks to strong support from DJ Lalo at Obuno FM in Tema. Other important stations followed. The songs could be heard across the country eventually, thanks to Katapila’s schedule of gigs and the other mobile DJs’ persistence.
Katapila was only beginning to gain some recognition for his productions when his music became emblematic of gbe ohe, a dance craze that was featured most famously by the Ghana Black Stars National team during their last World Cup run. Not as popular as azonto or alkayida, other recent meme-friendly dances, gbe ohe nonetheless entered the Ghanaian dance floor vernacular. Meaning literally, “loosen up yourself” in Ga, the dance and music that accompanies it set Katapila apart and led to imitations. Despite their Ghanaian nexus Katapila’s instrumentals can be found on Francophone dance music mixtapes. These bootleg tapes sold in markets around West Africa contain his songs, often mislabeled or not credited at all. At parties, people would come up and request gbe ohe not knowing Katapila is the very one who made the tracks.
He doesn’t use keyboards or guitars or any other instruments. The bell, crucial to kpanlogo is ever-present, marking out a rhythm similar to the son clave pattern heard in dozens of Latin American genres that is also echoed by the snare drum in many of the Francophone hits played in Ghanaian clubs. The harmonic and melodic content—expressed on squelchy keyboards and subdued tones—occasionally fades into focus only to evaporate back into the tumbling drums, calling to mind acid-era house music. This is intentional, Katapila wanted to make his music multi-layered. He also wanted to make it inviting for anyone to dance. The tempo reaches around 146 beats per minute—in other words, rather fast compared to the average 120 BPM of international house music.
The repeating lyrics in Ga and Twi focus on daily life and the lessons Katapila observes around town. His views on the world shine through. He paints a vivid picture of Accra life refracted through his own distinctive lens:
“Sakawa” refers to Ghana’s current youth trend of internet scammers who use witchcraft to gain special criminal powers.
“Trotro” is about the privately-owned buses that circle Accra. If you want to make money you need to use these to get from place to place, and it’s often uncomfortable and time-consuming. His daughter shouts out the familiar destinations, “Makola, UTC, Kaneshie” normally the voice of young male bus drivers’ assistants. That’s life, Katapila concludes.
“Cocoawra” refers to the local Ghanaian porridge made from fermented corn, which is ubiquitous on the streets of Accra each morning. Katapila mimics the typical sales call of the people who sell it. Loud and often shrill, you can hear coco sellers in markets and bus stations over the din of street side hustle and bustle.
“Nkran Dokunu” (Accra kenkey) critiques people in debt who go out and enjoy themselves anyway, eating Accra’s famous and delicious kenkey (fermented corn-based staple).
“Lalokat” is an intro for DJ Lalo, an early supporter via airplay. Lalo gave gbe ohe and other dance styles a lot of love and he got Katapila some performances.
“Ice-Inc” was inspired by trips to Ghana’s Volta Region, where the population is predominantly Ewe-speaking. Influenced by the less-familiar rhythms of that locale, Katapila put together this track to reflect what he heard on trips to the region bordering Togo.
“Zoomlion” is a loving tribute to his tough and hardworking mother who was a street cleaner with Accra Metropolitan Assembly for years starting in the 1970’s. Known as diligent and aggressive in keeping the area clean, her notoriety led to comparisons to Zoomlion, the Chinese construction and sanitation machinery that began operating in Ghana in 2007. “She is more Zoomlion than the company itself,” he says. (Zoomlion reps even got in touch with Katapila after hearing his song.) It can’t be a coincidence that Katapila and his mother both have nicknames based on construction machinery.
DJ Katapila’s late start at producing his own music (and his reputation for tireless effort) indicates he has only just begun. Trotro is just his first full-length album. Considering the producer’s single-minded focus—he is dealing with music in one way or another day and night—there is certainly more to come.
2xLP – $23, CD – $9