If Romanian and Western African musical traditions were blended together, what sorts of new sounds and aesthetics might it generate? The answer to this question is offered by Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu, known by his stage name Wanlov the Kubolor, primarily in his 2011 album Brown Card—African Gypsy, but also in the rest of his work. Beyond the novelty of sampling two traditions that at first glance seem to have little in common, Wanlov’s work poses questions about forgotten meeting points and histories as well as a commentary on cultures on the peripheries of contemporary circuits of neoliberal capitalism. Through a practice of cultural translation, Owusu-Bonsu’s mix of Ghanaian and Romanian music speaks about Cold War legacies and points of convergence for audiences from both countries and elsewhere, in a world in which music from the peripheries and semi-peripheries had to follow certain formulas in order to be marketable in the West. Owusu-Bonsu refused to play by these rules.
I first encountered Wanlov the Kubolor’s work among the online articles and interviews published in 2016 by the Calvert Gallery in London, on the occasion of their “Red Africa” exhibition. The show and accompanying online dossier surveyed traces left by Cold War collaborations between African states and their Eastern Bloc counterparts: it explored the lives of Africans living in Russia, socialist realist statuary groups on a grandiose scale erected across the African continent, as well as smaller artifacts that spoke to that shared past. At the beginning, Wanlov’s work appeared to be the result of a contextual accident: a young man born of a Romanian mother and a Ghanaian father, raised in both countries and fluent in several languages, the Kubolor’s music addresses his bicultural heritage. Yet, having listened to his albums as well as his coauthored musical “Coz ov Moni” [Because of Money], the first pidgin musical, as Wanlov and his partner M3NSA advertise it, I have come to see his work as a concerted effort to build on earlier traditions of internationalism—while also criticizing problematic aspects of those relations—and drawing on fundamental writings of African intellectuals like Kwame Nkrumah.
His subversive engine runs on irony, puns and a healthy dose of irreverence: even the acronym for the duo’s name—FOKN Bois—allegedly stands for both Friends of Kwame Nkrumah and Foes of Kwame Nkrumah, reflecting the fraught legacy of Ghana’s first president turned authoritarian leader, as well as the complex narratives of the Cold War period.1 As a result of this amalgam, Wanlov uncovers new forms of expression for artists from peripheral and semi-peripheral cultures, and the critique of capitalism as a totalizing system is at the heart of Wanlov the Kubolor’s work as activist-artist.
The personal aesthetics Wanlov promotes signal his refusal to bow to the social norms and the sartorial dictates of contemporary society: he travels barefoot and, instead of pants, he wears a knee-length wrap. In 2017 he celebrated ten years of walking barefoot, by stating on Instagram that being shoeless has allowed him to connect with the various places where he travelled: “The contact I have with earth energises me, rough terrain stimulates me, dirt soothes me, wetness refreshes me…I remember how places I have been to felt under my feet…how hot or cold it was…textures & consistencies… #barefoot.”
A close look at his work makes it obvious that his sartorial choices are much more than an advertising gimmick: they represent a comment on contemporary society, a criticism of consumerism and the devastation we bring to the planet through overconsumption. “Our soles,” he punned on Facebook, “are connected to our souls.” Even his adopted stage name “Kubolor” is a Ga term meaning “wanderer,” signaling his peripatetic and exploratory spirit.2
This trimming down of accoutrements (he frequently appears dressed in a wrap, t-shirt, and construction work helmet) is a reminder that we purchase an inordinate number of goods that are not necessary as well as a rebuke that gendered clothing imposes artificial boundaries. A few months ago his twitter name was “Descultul,” which, spelled without the clarifying “ț” diacritic, could be interpreted either as desculțul (the barefoot man) or as descultul (a non-existent word yet a negative construction that jibes on the idea of being uncultured). The latter term evokes a pun with literary history pedigree in Romania, as it refers to Zaharia Stancu, the author of the socialist realist novel Desculț [Barefoot]. According to the joke, people in communist Romania divided into “culți” (cultivated people) and “desculți” (literally barefoot people but, due to the negative prefix, also uncultivated ones). The Kubolor’s lyrics make it clear that the stakes of being cultivated, in the sense of being well read, are very high. Those who neglect their minds and education end up under exploitative rules, whether it is communist regimes or neocolonial domination.
Following in the tradition of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s call to “decolonize the mind,” Wanlov proposes a “colony cleanse,” a sort of educational enema for the “constipated,” colonized mind:
c d mind make constipated
Plus d shit dey miseducated
So d time mek ripe right now
4 colonial cleanse
(“Colony Cleanse,” Orange Card, 2017)
In this song, the aesthetic tension between the call to read prolific Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah—Wanlov’s favorite, whose book titles feature in the lyrics of another song—and Kurt Vonnegut and the pidgin English further pared down by abbreviations and shortcuts specific to texting and social media interactions suggests that traditional forms of learning fall short of the task of educating a new generation to be aware of the pitfalls of global neoliberal capitalism.
How does Wanlov blend the two sides of his cultural identity and what is the point of this cultural convergence? The album Brown Card is an exercise in cultural translation that aims to bring to the foreground the Cold War episodes that Ghana and Romania shared as well as the dissimilarities between their situations in order to make a statement about the role of peripheral and semi-peripheral cultures in today’s globalized world. In the album Brown Card this happens through sampling and musical quotations from both Romanian and Ghanaian traditions. According to the artist, this convergence initially happened by chance:
In 2007 I was working on the Green Card album and I had this beat playing that was a Ga Kpanlogo rhythm from Bukom. And on a different laptop I was watching something separate, a film about Romania. And at a certain point the two synced. That’s when I had the idea of a half-African, half-gypsy orchestra. I worked on it while I was finishing Green Card, finding samples that I could somehow fit together. So at first it was based on samples; then later I got a band together and recorded a live session of the band.
Indeed, the album merges Romanian and Ghanaian folk music, ballads and taraf music, highlife, hip hop and rap, sung in a mix of English, Ghanaian pidgin English, and Romanian. Code-switching happens mid-sentence: “I be cold da' nu-s lazy/In the skirts apar crazy” [I might be cold but I’m not lazy/In the skirts I look crazy], Wanlov comments on a self-defining track. Such nimble back and forth is bound to leave the audience either puzzled or struggling to keep up with the fast development of the topic of the song, its ironic twists (and there are plenty of those), and deliberate gaps. As listeners wrestle with partial understanding they come to inhabit the tenuous position of someone who straddles cultural lines and is never perfectly at home. Furthermore, Wanlov has an amazing ear for accents and registers: within a song he combines the Romanian that you hear in taxis (some of his songs feature what could be accidentally overheard conversations), the language of “pițipoance și barosani” [bimbos and honchos], the pidgin spoken in the marketplace in Ghana, as well as the pretenses of high-cultured speakers of Romanian and English.
Numerous studies have been written about the role of cultural translation, as a process that goes beyond the fetishization of an original text and a perfectly transposed matching text in the target language. Cultural translation can reveal hidden histories, forms of mirroring but also of misalignment, similarities that are also destabilized by unexpected cultural hierarchizing. The opening song of “Brown Card” is “Nkrumah Pikin,” a self-defining, introductory track which, after the opening lines that set up the historical premise that led to the encounter between his Ghanaian father and Romanian mother—namely Kwame Nkrumah’s visits to Romania—consists entirely of a list of cultural equivalents in the two cultures, inviting the listener to meditate on the role of cultural translation:
African Gypsy, Țigan African
Agyegyewa and toba
Xylophone și țambal
Atenteben and ocarină
Goje și vioară
Harmonica and acordeon
The list opens with musical instruments—most of them traditional instruments that do not feature in commercial Western music—suggesting the artist’s exploration of two cultural lores for similar sounds and relatively similar social functions. The second part of the list bridges into traditional food and drink items “Palm wine and pălincă/Apio și țuică/Fufu and mămăligă.” However, what appears to be the perfectly balanced symmetry of Romanian and Ghanaian equivalents, is destabilized in the line heading the list: “African Gypsy,” with its evocation of a romanticized wandering lifestyle (evoked also in the name Kubolor), is not the equivalent of “Țigan African,” which in Romanian is a collocation with derogatory, racial undertones.
These racialized hierarchies, according to which Romanians place themselves above their African counterparts, are reprised in the song “Chewing Stick:” the lyrics open with a racist conversation in Romanian between a woman and a man, who make fun of the singer for his use of a chewing stick instead of a toothbrush.
The album Brown Card draws on Cold War-era official discourse in socialist Romania and technically Non-Aligned but actually left-leaning Ghana, which promoted an idea of a “brotherhood of nations,” effectively making it possible for the parents of Wanlov the Kubolor to meet. Yet the artist is equally attentive to the undercurrents that subverted internationalist claims, namely the latent racism in Eastern European cultures.
Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu is the artist who animates the Cold war ghosts while wrestling with the present. His work is the meeting point of the supposedly fraternal socialist Romanian and Ghanaian cultures and their continued similarities in the contemporary era of neoliberal capitalism, as well as the hidden dissimilarities, histories of subtle or overt forms of exploitation that can be challenged through commitment to cultural dialogue.
Monica Popescu is Associate Professor is William Dawson Scholar of African Literature at McGill University and author of South African Literature Beyond the Cold War.
1. Jesse Weaver Shipley “Parody after Identity: Digital Music and the Politics of Uncertainty in West Africa” American Ethnologist 44.2 (2017), 3.
2. “Wanlov the Kubolor: Românul din Ploiești devenit cel mai faimos artist din Ghana și povestea lui.” Noizz < https://noizz.ro/big-stories/wanlov-the-kubolor-romanul-din-ploiesti-dev...