Interview: Alostmen – Lost and Found (October 2022)
Alostmen, a percussive four-piece from Ghana, made their UK debut at Womad this year following a 2021Songlines Newcomer of the Year award win. Stevo Atambire, charismatic band leader with a knot of hair coiled across his forehead, belts out the vocals and attacks his kologo. The skin-covered gourd with broom-handle neck is particular to his Northern Ghanaian Frafra people; his own petrol can version, reminiscent of 19th century cigar-box guitars, waits in the wings to emerge at the backstage concert later.
The instrument plays a significant role in Stevo’s story: it kept him afloat whilst living on the streets of Accra for six years; it caught the attention of champion-cum-musical partner Wanlov the Kubolor; and it represents the people and place he calls home, the love of which Stevo shares loudly and proudly on the album – originally recorded in 2017, then forgotten in a drawer until its discovery over three years later – that brought him here. The album is named after the instrumentand the first song is an anthem to it: “Kologo there before the banjo, kologo there before the oud; kologo there before the guitar, kologo there before the lute. Kologo there before Ghana, kologo there before my youth; kologo there before my mother, kologo music be the root.”
Or could it be route? For Stevo, it seems, there’s only music, only the kologo; and it’s definitely taking him places.
Alongside Wanlov on goje aka duruna, a one-string horse-hair fiddle, Stevo’s joined by two percussionists – Aminu on the talking drum and Sowah, a solid box player. Wanlov, skirt flowing and long plait snaking down his back, charges about the stage, celebrating the rhythms and broadcasting sheer joy at their collective creation.
The music is frenetic, driven by percussive syncopation, overlaid with repeated riffs to forge a textured sound. Stevo’s emphatic vocals, the call-and-response of short, driving phrases, conveys urgency. The band is powering perpetually forwards, onwards and upwards. And they intend to bring listeners along with them, demanding: “Everybody, bring your dancing shoes; come let’s party – I want to see you move!”
We caught up with Stevo after Alostmen’sperformance to a vast, receptive crowd at Womad festival ’22 and before they left for an extended tour of Europe, documented beautifully on theirsocial media.
Rhythm Passport: Are you enjoying Womad, have you seen some good music?
Stevo: Yes of course! I missed my favourite artist last night – Sona Jobarteh; I wanted to see her the time she came to Kumasi, Ghana, but I was too busy to go there.
Rhythm Passport: Sometimes it’s hard when you’re a musician yourself – you don’t get to see other music because you’re always busy with your own…
Stevo:Yeah, you’re always playing gigs or doing recordings or you have projects, you’re doing some work – this was the reason. So I was looking forward to seeing her yesterday but it’s just been too crazy!
Rhythm Passport: How have your gigs at Womad been?
Stevo:Yeah, cool, I like it. It’s my second time in England but not with my band, with a different band (Stevo toured Europe with Wanlov’s Afro-Gypsy band in 2017). But this is the first time I’ve come here with my band. I really appreciate it because we won the Songlines Newcomer of the Year, and it was too good for me to see how people were appreciating us. We had a good response to it, I was happy.
Rhythm Passport: You recorded the album 3 years ago. How did it feel being awarded the Newcomer of the Year?
Stevo:It’s so interesting, I don’t know how to express it. I’m too happy and I’m looking forward to doing more because it’s not enough, we are still on a journey. Womad is a stepping-stone for the Alostmen.
Rhythm Passport: Tell me about your music and the instruments
Stevo:I sing and play kologo, an instrument from the upper east of Ghana, made by the calabash (the hard shell of a gourd) with two nylon strings and a goatskin. I made my instrument myself, I think it’s the loudest acoustic string instrument you can ever find. And for my vocals, I got inspired by a serious singer who passed away, he was the one who inspired me to make music, and in the end he didn’t get a chance to move to these places like I do. But I respect him a lot:Sambo Adabire. I always believe the voice is the main thing to move in music. Without voice you don’t have music.
I’m still a learner, that’s why I sing ‘teach me to catch fish’. I don’t call myself an expert. In everything we do, we have to learn…
Rhythm Passport: What’s your music about, what stories are you telling?
Stevo:I’m like a journalist. Every journalist will tell a story of what they see here, and I’m telling the story of what I see in this world. What I see with my eyes is what I say. ‘Teach me how to catch fish’ is like – we have some people who will always pamper you with food, pamper you with clothes, pamper you with money but they will not show you how you make it yourself. Immediately you lose those people in life, you begin to struggle. That’s one of our songs.
And we haveKologo, this song of my instrument, and I love the instrument. I love telling where you find banjo, guitar, lute, oud – through kologo you find all those things. It’s the ancestor of all those things.
In lots of songs we havetanga – tanga is rock, which is where I come from. I live in a place which has rocks everywhere.
Rhythm Passport: Do you feel like you’re bringing your bit of Ghana to us here?
Stevo:Not really Ghana, but the whole world – we have rich people everywhere, who will pamper their children but not tell them how they can become rich themselves in the future. Our music says, ok fine, we take it from you, we give it back to you. We always study the sort of life you lead. If it’s good, we give it back to you good; if it’s bad, we give it to you bad. That’s how it goes.
Rhythm Passport: What’s next for Alostmen?
Stevo:Next we have some shows in Europe and then…to play here again. I’m looking forward to playing on a big stage! I really enjoyed it – Womad.
After a 3 year wait, and returning on its 40th anniversary, to say there was anticipation around Womad ’22 would be a vast understatement. The line-up played it safe in some respects, with old favourites looming large; but there were bright spots of new musical energy, hungrily met by pent-up…
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