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!

And buy the album here…

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.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



June 2008

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