Night Sounds

Night Sounds

If New York City is the “city that never sleeps,” then Ghana is the country that never sleeps. The sounds in NYC are almost all made by humans and their machines. Here in the Ghana, whether you are in the city or the rural areas, the night is filled with sounds from both humans and nature. Music, trucks, birds, children, blaring radios make up a mosaic of sounds that never stops here.

Last weekend I stayed in a small hotel in the northern part of Ghana called, “Nyame Nnae” which translates to “God never sleeps.” In addition to the 24 hour soundtrack of the country, the owner apologized that the mattresses were rock hard. They were newly imported from China. Evidently, as long as God doesn’t sleep, neither should we.

Though I normally sleep better here in Ghana than home, I felt restless in the last couple of nights. It is not the stress-induced insomnia that I sometimes get back home. Here, the hot temperatures and the fatigue of breathing tropical air combine with a wild array of night sounds to keep me awake. Two nights ago, the darkness was filled with the sounds of drumming and singing at some celebration about a mile away. In between my guesthouse and the party was a full-blown nature orchestra. Some large insect community was grinding out a sustained ratchet-like sound. Birds, big and small entered and exited the performance like guest soloists. Some soloed with delicate chirps and warbles, others with a repetitive pitch pattern, and then there was the audacious African crows that dominated the musical arrangement with a caustic, scratchy shout.

Last night, the local dogs erupted in a ferocious barking chorus around 2AM. There must have been some unwanted beasty wandering through the neighborhood. Judging by the sound alone, I could tell that the intruder leisurely strolled by with little regard for the warning of the local canines. Their barking burst into the night with deafening urgency. They kept barking, each with a different pitch, rhythm and cadence. Like some 20th century minimalist composition, the random barking molded itself into a thick, consistent texture of high-energy sound. After about 5 minutes of this, one dog shifted from a bark to a lone howl. This singular, sustained note cut through the percussive drone of the barking. But like good jazz musicians that follow a new musical idea from one player, the other dogs, one by one, joined in the howl until the drumming of barks gave way to layers of sustained pitches. Sometimes they howled in unison and other moments they bent their notes into passing dissonances and harmonies. This lasted another 5 minutes until the dog chorus returned to their original barking theme. After a tasteful recap, they faded away into the background of the night. No big flashy finale. The beasty and all the faithful guardians of the neighborhood quietly exited the night stage.

No matter what random sounds show up each night, I can always depend on my daily, musical wake up call sometime between 4:30 and 5AM from the local mosque. The call to prayer starts each day with a reminder of the sacredness of the upcoming day. The call goes out to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation. Sacredness, like God, is celebrated in many ways here in Ghana, but you rarely hear anyone speak as if they “own” God. Islam arrived here in the 9th century with missionaries from the Mediterranean Sea that crossed the Sahara. Christianity arrived in the mid 15th century with Portuguese sailors. Both of these religions found traditional faith systems that were largely monotheistic. While there were minor gods of various kinds, they all answered to “Nyame,” the creator. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of criticisms between varying interpretations of Christianity, Islam and traditional faiths. Just that here, no matter what faith you hail from, God seems to be available to all, 24 hours a day because God never sleeps.

Though I usually remain in bed a little longer, the daily Muslim call to prayer is a gentle reminder of home. The monks of the Abby of the Genesee rise in the night to pray for a new day. This monastery is situated a couple country blocks away from my home. Though I never chose the monastic life, I have always admired those men and women in monasteries around the world that start and end their days in singing. As a musician, punctuating the hours of each day with song always made a lot of sense to me. Monastic vows require you to stop whatever you are doing to go sing the divine office several times each day. Even though I make much of my living as a musician and composer, there are all too many days that pass without any music making. Phone calls, emails, bills, meetings and contracts grab a hold of my day, and before I know it, I am exhausted and ready to sleep, never having added some beautiful sound to that day’s concerto.

The heat totally beat me up a couple days ago. I needed a late afternoon nap. In the midst of sleep, my dream was filled with the sound of a lawn mower. Some part of my subconscious thought that dreaming about lawn mowers was pretty strange, so I started to crawl my way out of the deep sleep. Eventually, upon shaking the slumber from my eyes, I realized that the mower was not in my dream-it was right outside my guesthouse window. I had never before heard that all too familiar sound of the gas-powered push mower in this country. Men and women with exceptionally long machetes cut most of the lawns here. They bend over and swing a 3 foot knife with just the right motion that bends the flexible blade and makes a clean, even shave of grass. The Industrial Revolution in the US was based on the assumption that human labor can and should be replaced by machines. The Digital Revolution has made the next logical step in replacing people with computers. Here in Ghana, human labor tends to trump machines because of the fragile power grid and the need to import most technologies. Machete mowing requires much more human power than the gas-powered mower but it often proves to be cheaper and more efficient. Furthermore, the soft whoosh of the machete allows me and everyone else to hear the birds, the insects, and the occasional musical celebration about a mile away. The gas mower drowns out all of these beautiful sounds.

I’ll see how tonight goes. Hopefully, I will get some sleep in this country that never sleeps. Maybe God might even take the night off too.