Cocooned in Harmony: Songs of Ghanaian artisinal fishers

Filming Photo: Eric Debrah Otchere

This blog post provides an insight into one of One Ocean Hub’s Deep Fund project in Ghana entitled Cocooned in Harmony: Power, Agency and Multiple Realities in the Songs of Indigenous Ghanaian Seine Fisherfolk” or “Cocooned in Harmony” for short.  The resulting documentary shows how Ghanaian artisanal fishers’ songs illuminate their identity, power/inequality and gender issues, as well as emotional connections to the ocean, creating space for their (often side-lined) voice.

Under the One Ocean Hub’s Deep Fund initiative to further understand the various ways in which people connect emotionally to the Ocean, cocooned in harmony is a documentary about how Ghanaian artisanal fishers use music to create mental, artistic and emotional spaces, and pace themselves within these spaces to achieve the highest levels of productivity in relation to their work. Specifically, the documentary sheds light on how the music of Ghanaian artisanal fishers serve purposes beyond ‘merely’ providing accompaniments to their difficult fishing routines or how it specifies reference points for their coordinated activities. Among other things, it shows how the songs have pointers to issues of identity, power/inequality, agency, gender, and emotional connections to the ocean, as well as how through the music, the fishers create and inhabit spaces where they find their (often side-lined) voice.

Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony (Short)

The beginning of the documentary gives a brief oral historical narrative about the very beginnings of fishing along the Ghanaian coasts and provides some relevant contextual information which is useful for placing the rest of the narrative into perspective. This brief background is followed then by three main detailed parts that focuses each on the use to which the music is put (what the music does), distinctive characteristics of the music (what the music is), and the content of the lyrics (what the music says) respectively.  The documentary has been translated into local languages and screening sessions have been scheduled within specified fishing communities.  A few details on the topical issues discussed in the documentary are given below.

Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony

The multiple functions of music in the context of fishers’ work

Music serves many functions in the context of the work of Ghanaian artisanal fisheries. Key among the functions which are illustrated with specific songs in the documentary are the following:

  • Provision of reference points for coordinated activity which increases productivity;
  • Serving as a practical distraction from potential setbacks such as tedium and lack of focus;
  • helping them shake off sand through the accompanying movements, as well as clapping-off water from the ropes to minimise the occurrence of blistering and reduce pain; 
  • Drawing potential help and buyers to their camps;
  • Helping them to vent bottled-up emotions;
  • Establishing traditional peace-building mechanisms for settling disputes and repairing relationships;
  • Expressing their belief systems and general worldviews. These include beliefs: in the omnipotence of God, the existence of other (smaller) gods, the preternatural, the certainty of death, life after death, reincarnation and the possibility of being harmed spiritually by others;
  • Giving them room to critically reflect on their sometimes erratic work and to fantasize about other possibilities or alternative realities;
  • Serving as grounds for learning real-life lessons through the sharing of experiences which help them to keep their spirits together, to cope with hardship and hope for better times;
  • Encoding the histories of the people for education. Several songs contain didactic messages for inter-generational knowledge exchange and for reinforcing value systems;
  • Singing the praises of heroes;
  • Aiding in the enactment of community codes on: gender and masculinities, power, marriage and divorce, inheritance, belief system, religion;
  • airing views on sensitive issues (a critical tool for resistance), and encouraging each other, reprimanding wrong behaviour and lifting each other’s spirit;
  • nurturing spontaneous creativity which manifests through sporadic dances, converted musical frames, text/lyric substitution, semantic conversion, code switching or language alternation, adaption of popular musical forms, rhythmic variations melodic alterations and so on; and
  • reflecting a deep-seated emotional connection to the ocean.
Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony

Emotional Connections to the Ocean

The different shades and attributes of the ocean such as its winds and tides, waves and sands, breadth and depth, power and grandeur, flow and ebbs, histories and narratives, tranquillity and hostility, colours and vistas, vagaries, and a host of other attributes, provides the perfect example of the lived realities of the people, the different phases of their lives. The ocean reflects and mirrors what they go through daily.  It is a widely held belief, that the ocean can carry messages from one shore to their relatives and loved ones at another shore. Beyond the physical world too, the ocean can carry their messages to departed relatives in the yonder world. 

Music is the means through which they talk to the ocean about their situation, their fears, anxieties, aspirations and hopes. Through music, they create and inhabit various spaces: mental, physical, creative, and expressive among others. They believe in the ocean as a source of life; it holds aquatic life which is the principal source of their livelihood. The rough and calm aspects of the ocean give them an inspiration to forge on, knowing that no matter how much it rages, there is always a calm.  Furthermore, important beings with the power to help or harm them dwell in the sea. This explains the prayer they say along with the pouring of libation and other rituals they perform to the ocean.  The ocean is seen as boundless and bountiful – it inspires endless possibilities for creativity and imagination. The fishers do not just work along the shores of the ocean; they also live there. The shorelines are their primary turf.  They use the water from the sea for many different purposes (e.g. medicinal, absolution, cleansing and spiritual).  The ocean offers them a means of transport from one community to another, sometimes beyond the boundaries of Ghana and even beyond the boundaries of the physical world. The ocean is simply a symbol of peace and tranquillity in a rather chaotic and uncertain world.

Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony

Fascinating features of the songs

While the structure of the songs appears to be largely simple, there are a few features that make it rather fascinating. The simple structure of the songs encourages as much participation as possible without any prior rehearsals.  Each day’s performance, therefore, may be considered a rehearsal to the performance on a subsequent day. Because the songs are deployed in the context of collective, coordinated activity, timing and rhythm are key features of the music. This explains why it is common to find people whose designated role is to provide rhythmic timelines while others pull on the ropes. It is commonplace to find the use of castanets, banana bells, double-bells, or just improvised metal pipes for rhythmic accompaniments. On other occasions, a slab of bamboo or other wooden clappers may be used. In rare instances too, specific high-pitched drums may be used, or the rhythms may be played on the side of a canoe.  In the absence of these regular or makeshift instruments, intermittent handclapping may suffice.

Another prominent way in which steady rhythmic points for coordinated activity are provided is using short, repetitive, non-lexical vocalizations; that is words which do not have any specific dictionary meanings. Others have often referred to such sounds as nonsense syllables.

Click here to see examples.

Perhaps the most apparent and ubiquitous style of the fishing songs, like other work songs, is their tendency to be antiphonal, employing both call-and-response as well as cantor-and-chorus styles.  They often create multi-vocalic texts in the songs; ones which can have possible different interpretations so that in the rare case that they are taken on for something they said, they can repudiate or deny any meanings that might cause inconvenience, embarrassment, or even serious political complications.  This is a very important resistance strategy.  In the general societal set-up, these fisherfolk occupy rather ambiguous, anomalous, marginal societies that nestle in the interstices between ‘normal’ societies and ‘ethnicities’ (Kopytoff 1989, 4).

The structure and organisation as it appears in the song texts are very rich and poetic. The analogies, the metaphors, the proverbs, the ambiguities are all features that make the music exciting and fascinating.

Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony

Recurring themes in fishing songs

The recurring broad themes in the songs of the fishers include, but are not in any ways limited to, the following:

• Poverty and hardship resulting from injustice, corruption, and unfair distribution of resources;

• Love, marriage, childbirth, divorce, inheritance, and family systems;

• Belief in God, gods, witchcraft, and alternative worlds;

• The power of forgiveness and peaceful co-existence;

• The value of indigenous products, life lessons and knowledge systems;

• The hypocrisy of imported religions and state institutions;

The fleeting nature of life, vanity, death, and life after death;

• The value of life, contentment, entertainment, ridicule, and recognition of heroes;

• Perspectives on gender, power, sexuality, and sexual orientations;

• Mystery and beauty in nature; and

• The need for cleanliness, decency, and healthy lifestyle.

Video Screenshot: Cocooned in Harmony


Music is, without a doubt, an important portal that leads us straight into the lives of the fishers and their understanding of global concerns as well as discussions around the ocean.  They demonstrate their awareness of such pertinent topics as climate change, unhealthy customary laws/practices, ocean degradation, and how these have consequences on their work and livelihood.  Considering the importance of the music in the lives of the artisanal fishers, the Hub Ghana team will now be involved, across different areas of research, into the analysis of the songs of the fishers and their contributions to illuminate the actions and capacity needed to address the threats to ocean and negative impacts on small-scale fishing communities.