Album Review: Wiyaala Asserts Heritage on Sissala Goddess

Wiyaala’s eponymous debut album was a gust of fresh air that shook up the age old echo chambers in Ghanaian mainstream music. Till this day, I still get goose bumps anytime I remember her album release concert in 2014 at Alliance Francaise Accra, which was an onslaught of magical bliss disguised as music from a tireless dynamo announcing her artistry to the world. In the four years between then and now, her voice has taken her on pilgrimages to some of the hollowed grounds of music around the world, garnering  adoration and respect for her prodigious talent and enchanting stage presence. Wiyaala has evolved deeper into her distinct musical identity, characterized by the courage and bravery to be herself in an industry that demands women artist to exist within a very narrow sphere of influence.

 

In December 2018, Wiyaala released her much anticipated follow up project Sissala Goddess via Djimba World Music. At a little over an hour long, the 16-track album attempts a contemporary approach to folk music, where Wiyaala’s musical roots in Sissala are refracted through an Afro pop lens. The product of this is an LP loaded with magical moments of bliss where her domineering voice conducts an orchestra of euphoria, commanding attention and respect as she glides across various facets of her Sissala culture through song. The album is layered and textured offering nuanced takes on her reflections on love, heritage and her agency as a woman from Funsi in the Upper West Region of Ghana.

The album begins with Village Sex, the lead promotional single for the project where Wiyaala interpolates a traditional Sissala song sung at bachelorette parties satirizing the grooms desire for sex. Opened by oriental sounding atmospheric strings and Wiyaala’s sensual humming, the song blooms into an energizing pop folk jam. Singing in her mother tongue Sissala and English as well, the song sees Wiyaala assert her sexuality and agency as a woman in thinly-veiled verses about the pleasures of sex. These themes which are more apparent in the music video offer insight into aspect of Northern Ghanaian Culture that are often heavily filtered.

Valla is another standout cut on the tape with a much more temperate mood as Wiyaala croons over hollow xylophone and percussive loops as the song blossoms into a cheerfully somber reflection on existential angst. This song features some of her best vocal work as she delivers some truly startling moments, especially towards the final chorus where her vocals are stacked to engineer this rousing mood. Captain’s Lament also takes on a sobering country tone where she dives in the problems of mob justice in Ghanaian society, heightened by the brutal murder of Captain Maxwell Mahama in 2017.

Very cohesively, the album manages to hold a listener’s attention as its smoothly transitions between various moods all of which seeks to unpack Wiyaala’s perspectives. Even without understanding the lyrics, her emotions are clear and direct, hitting you on every song making it very easy to find the relational metaphor between the power of her voice and the size of her ambition, held in perfect balance by her maverick dexterity. The work also firm established her identity as a woman from northern Ghana, a leitmotif from her debut album.

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Image via Artists website

However, in some ways the album’s potential to be a thoroughly entertaining project is is hindering by the filler tracks that do very little to advance it, both sonically and thematically. Songs like Woyaye (We Are Going) a cover of the wildly popular Osibisa song from their 1971 album and other cuts, despite being great vocal performances bring little gratification, especially when juxtaposed with the much better cuts in the begin. These and a few other cuts towards the end of the tape appear as distracting embellishments to reinforce a universal pop identity which ultimately betrays Wiyaala ethos and her own identity as a Sissala goddess.

Regardless, Sissala Goddess becomes an assertion of heritage through the lens of a woman, bringing out the stories, knowledge systems, believes and aspirations that are deliberately side stepped in conversations about Ghanaian art. Village Sex for instance completely counteracts the objectification of women in music regarding sex. Rather she playfully discusses the desires of women as a norm in her culture, erasing the historical silencing of a woman’s feeling through contemporary Ghana. The project is a huge step forward for Wiyaala and northern Ghanaian music. It’s a much needed prompter to Ghanaian audiences to look beyond the skewed mainstream narrative and discover the musical diversity in Ghana as well as a sure way to having a great time!

Written by Hakeem Adam

Image credit: via artist’s website.

 

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