The Men With the Horns
Like Aaron Naparstek, I don’t much like car horns. Particularly in New York, where they seem to be used — almost always inappropriately — at a higher frequency than comparatively honkless cities like Los Angeles.
But lately there’s one place I’ve been enjoying the cacophony of automobile horns: My stereo. I missed this when it came out last year, but now Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana, by The La Drivers Union Por Por Group, has been on heavy rotation. As recorded and documented by noted ethno-musicographer Steven Feld, and published by Smithsonian’s Folkways, the album documents an obscure musical form borne from the daily rhythms of Ghanaian traffic life, as experienced by drivers of the vehicles known as “tro-tros.” It’s exuberant, infectious, and unlike the guy behind you as the light turns to green, surprisingly pleasant to the ears.
As Feld notes in the fascinating liner notes, a city like Accra, like other places in the developing world, is marked by the constant drone of horns: “On main roads vehicles speed along, honking frequently and demonstratively as they go. Pedestrians and bicycles have no right of way and are always rhythmically honked over to the sides of roads… [and] passing taxis continuously honk in rhythmic bursts to signal availability and attract clients.” In Delhi, to use another example, I found those moments strange when I did not hear horns — as if that had become the signal that something was amiss. Drivers changing lanes, rather than looking, seemed to rely on those around them to honk if the move was unsafe.
Por-Por music, Feld notes, appeared in the first half of the twentieth century from the squeeze-bulb brass horns (the por-pors) that timber trucks used if they broke down on dark rural roads, while finger bells and the like were used to ward off dangerous animals. Out of this, Feld notes, a music emerged — there was even a dance, which evoked the up-and-down motion of pumping up a flat tire (another form of storytelling emerged, as Feld notes, with phrases and slogans painted on the front and rear-ends of the vehicles, as the photo below shows). The main context for the music became the funerals of union tro-tro drivers, a motif supposedly picked up from the buoyant New Orleans jazz festival.
The songs on the album seem to range across a variety of styles, with a cappella snippets of the Ghanaian national anthem, regional motifs like kpanlogo, slow highlife, etc. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Konono No. 1 in the sort of jury-rigged collection of instruments taken from everyday life (as well as the hypnotic intensity of some of the songs).
My favorite work on the album is “Trotro Drivers, We Love You So,” which, according to Feld contains a series of vignettes about the lives of drivers. There’s a bit about how drivers are looked down upon despite their valuable service, while another rap chronicles how the Austin truck, introduced by the British, lacked a sufficient horn — so drivers had to supplement their own por-por horns. As I write in the book about the link between corruption and traffic mayhem, the bit that most caught my interest was a lament about how where once one had to show driving skills to get a license, the licensing bureau is now beset by corruption and the best way to get a license is to pay a “dash,” or a bribe. The rap includes a call for reform, to curtail the avoidable crashes brought on by unskilled drivers.
Honk if you love por-por!
This entry was posted on Friday, June 27th, 2008 at 8:17 am and is filed under Cities, Congestion, Drivers, Etc., Traffic Signals, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.