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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

If you're in traffic right now, don't be alarmed.

(Soundbite of Por Por horn)

BLOCK: Those horns you're hearing come from West Africa, from Ghana. They're por por horns.

(Soundbite of Por Por horn)

Professor STEVEN FELD (Anthropology, University of New Mexico): Por-por, por- por-por-por. And it's the sound of the horn.

(Soundbite of Por Por horn)

BLOCK: Steven Feld calls himself an anthropologist of sound. He teaches in the fall at the University of New Mexico, travels the world and makes field recordings the rest of the year. For the last three years, he's been in Ghana and he's grown obsessed with the sound of these horns.

(Soundbite of Por Por horns)

BLOCK: The honked horns have a rubber squeeze bulb at one end. The brass horn might be straight or loop around. They're antiques from the 1930s and 1940s. Drivers used to hang them off their side mirrors. Now they've become musical instruments, unique to a driver's union in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

Steven Feld has produced a CD of honk horn music to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence. He says the music started out in a practical way.

Prof. FELD: The way drivers tell their story, they would be, in the old days, they would have timber vehicles and that they would go through forests at night. And when they would break down with a tire puncture, they would be very scared of all the animals that could be in the forest. So they wanted to protect themselves while they were pumping up punctured tires. So they would bang on the tire rims with wrenches and they would just pump like crazy on the car horns and make as much noise as possible.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Prof. FELD: And then somebody got the idea to start taking bell rhythms and horn rhythms from different kinds of music in the country and transposing them on to the horns and the tire rims. And that was the birth of the music.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Prof. FELD: What came along with this was a unique dance, which is, when this music is played, everybody stands around and makes the gesture of pumping up tires. So just imagine that you've got a bicycle pump in front of you and you're just bending down and swaying with it and pumping and pumping and you get right in the group.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Where would songs like this be performed in Ghana?

Prof. FELD: Well, this is one of the interesting parts of the story. This music has been going on for 60 years and it's been totally under the radar, and that's because it's only performed at the funerals of truck drivers. So this is a music played by drivers to honor other distinguished drivers.

And the ideas kind of like in New Orleans jazz funeral, a real rejoice-when- you-die kind of party where you are sent up by a honking of horns. The drivers' rode to heaven paved with car horns and a whole lot of honking.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Tell me about the song that you call the tro-tro(ph) tour of Ghana.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Now, what are we hearing here, Steven?

Prof. FELD: You're hearing a clip basically from the national anthem of Ghana. the Zimamawe(ph) - God Bless Our Homeland Ghana - is the national anthem. And that was a little brilliant piece of stagecraft by the drivers to open this song with their national anthem.

(Soundbite of Ghanaian national anthem)

Unidentified Group: Ghana is a great motherland, black and beauty, freedom and justice for Africa.

BLOCK: A little bit of English there.

Prof. FELD: Yeah. Freedom and justice for Africa, black and beautiful.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. FELD: And here we've got the bells, the hand percussion and the por por horns. And the drivers begin to sing a song about linking all their roots and places on the country.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. FELD: There's an English refrain in it. On our way home, we touched so many places. On our way home, we reach so many towns. And then they name all of these places.

So this is, the song is literally a map. And they call it the tro-tro tour of Ghana because it's their way of saying, you know, we are the map of this country's history. We've been to all these places. We link them up. We go from one to the other and in doing that, you know, we are the story of how this country became a nation.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: If someone were listening to this and hearing sort of a wonderful mishmash of sound but not necessarily music. What is it that you're hearing in there?

Prof. FELD: I'm hearing all kinds of things. You know, because the drivers are pulling from all kinds of sources - all different, you know, many different languages, many different ethnic dance and musical traditions from Ghana, many different kinds of songs. There's rapping that's going on here. There's fragments and bits and pieces of jazz. These guys have listened to bebop, they'd, you know, they mimic the swinging sax section of the swing band era. They do - you know, each guy has his own choreography. One of the musicians walked up to me when I first met him and he said, you know, my name is (unintelligible) you know, my friends call me Charlie Parker.

This was because he can play the car horn so fast. He can eighth note runs, another guy is called Lester Young. I mean, so I hear jazz. I hear the whole black Atlantic. I hear all kinds of things that range all the way from animals to music to the history of roads and honking. It's really quite wonderful that way. I think the inventiveness of this is all the things that it takes you, leads you to imagine not just the local history of Accra and driving there, but the way these guys are really connected to a cosmopolitan world of music.

BLOCK: The last song on the CD is "Por Por Horn-To-Horn Fireworks" and you hear not just the squeeze bulb horns, but you hear all sorts of other horns from cars going by it sounds like.

Prof. FELD: Yeah. This was really funny. This was my last day there. And we had completed the recording and I was at the union office just saying my goodbyes and hanging out with the drivers. And then one of the guys said, you know, we should really do something special for the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence. We should really, really surprise people with this recording. And they began talking and they got all animated and excited and they took their por por horns and they went down to the end of the road to the taxi ranks. And there must have been about 50 or 60 taxis and minibuses down there.

And they told the drivers, they said, you know, we're going to start honking on the horns and we want you to join us and we're going to make some fireworks and that's what we're going to send out to the nation on the 50th anniversary to tell them that we're here. And we just real quickly set up all of our recording gear and it was just the perfect, perfect ending for the recording.

BLOCK: Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of song, "Por Por Horn-To-Horn Fireworks")

Prof. FELD: So this is really like I'm literally in the middle of the road with traffic going by me in both directions, down in the center of (unintelligible) across from the taxi ranks.

BLOCK: So when the taxis and the trucks are going by seeing the other drivers with their instruments, they're responding. They're...

Prof. FELD: Yeah, everybody just got all excited and, you know, started really getting into it and waving their hands and, you know, putting their thumbs up and honking or banging on anything they could find.

(Soundbite of song, "Por Por Horn-To-Horn Fireworks")

BLOCK: Well, Steven Feld, thanks a lot.

Prof. FELD: Thank you.

BLOCK: And thanks for introducing us to the por por horn.

Prof. FELD: You're very welcome.

(Soundbite of song, "Por Por Horn-To-Horn Fireworks")

BLOCK: Anthropologist Steven Feld produced the CD "Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana." At npr.org you can hear more music and see video of the drivers performing. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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