Eric Otchere

This blog post reflects on the local, national and international screenings and other developments related to the documentary ‘Cocooned in Harmony’, and reflections on some of the questions that have often come up after the documentary screenings.

The Journey of ‘Cocooned in Harmony’ so far

Since the ‘Cocooned in Harmony’ documentary was premiered on 31 August 2022, it has had a lot of positive impacts on people; judging from how engaged audiences are, the nature of questions and comments that usually follow the screenings, and the growing number of prospective projects that it has inspired.  The documentary demonstrates how the songs of Ghanaian artisanal fishers point to issues of identity, power/inequality, agency, gender, and emotional connections to the ocean among others. It has aired twice on Ghanaian national television and translations of it into Fante and Ewe have been screened in local fishing communities who contributed to the documentary (see here).

The documentary was also screened at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark as part of the 2022 Global Music network of higher education institutions camp. It has received over 2,500 views on YouTube so far, and had over 600 viewers as part of the undercurrents exhibition at the Glasgow School of Arts (see here). Still in Glasgow, there was a separate screening of the documentary at the Centre for Contemporary Arts. At Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen (Germany), the documentary was the basis of a panel discussion themed: identity and alterity meet musicality and performance. This was part of a DAAD-funded workshop focusing on co-creating avenues for culture and sustainable development (read more). 

The documentary was further screened on 25 July within the international conference of the Pan-African Society for Musical Arts Education at the University of Cape Coast; and within the Chale Wote arts festival in Accra from 22-25 August,  and on 30 August as part of the Bayimba Festival of the Arts on the Lunkulu Island in Uganda. In the City of Bonn, Germany the documentary has been adopted by the adult education center as part of their program series on SDG 4 (education) and as part of the local SDG days in the coming semester.  Based on the documentary, the famous Fringe Ensemble has been inspired to produce a stage play which will expand on some of the themes and which will involve the local fishers on stage, side-by-side with professional actors.  The documentary has inspired a student project work at Zeppelin University, in Germany, and a proposal for a PhD thesis at the University of Cape Coast  around the questions of embodiment and entrainment in the fishing songs of Ghanaian artisanal fishers by one of the research assistants who was involved in its production.

What motivated the documentary

My relationship with the artisanal fishers did not start with the start of the documentary, but since 2004 when I was still studying for my bachelor’s degree.  At the time, there was more land space available to the local fishers for their activities and their singing was more vibrant than it is today.  I would join them from time to time to haul the nets ashore, and the perk of getting some free fresh fish was always rewarding.  I lived close to Duakor, a fishing community in Cape Coast and have over the period of about 19 years, seen firsthand some of the major changes affecting their work.  I have seen for example, the washing away of shorelines and the acquisition of shoreline spaces by rich people who have used it for beach resorts and restaurants. There is also the government’s move of building sea-defense walls along the shores.  Put together, these factors have reduced the available and possible fishing spaces of the local artisanal fishers, particularly those who practice the dragnet fishing, drastically.  I have also seen the paradox of increased fleet and decreased fish stock.  This decline in pelagic fish stock may be attributable to a number of factors including overfishing, climate change, sea pollution, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and so on.  Furthermore, I have seen lapses in ocean governance; occasional clashes between customary traditional laws/institutions and government legislation(s) which have undermined local artisanal fishers.

It is important to note that the style of artisanal fishing which involves the music as captured in the documentary is one that may not be considered ‘merely’ as a job or occupation. It is a complete cultural practice that embodies different ontologies and knowledge epistemologies. Its decline therefore, is a decline in its attendant wealth of Indigenous knowledge systems which are largely intangible and which stands the vulnerability of being lost in the sands of time.  Such Indigenous knowledge systems include those around religion and belief systems, identity, performance of gender, creative practice, hierarchies of power and modes of inter/trans-generational knowledge transmission among others.

Based on my interest and training, I took my first conscious steps to scientifically study the music of the artisanal fishers in 2015.  At the time, my primary goal was to safeguard the music which was increasingly dwindling and help preserve it for posterity.  To this end, I secured a grant through my postdoctoral fellowship and begun working with different fishing crews in various communities to record their music.  Through the recordings and my continued interaction with the fishers, I became even more aware of how the music served as a portal into every aspect of their lives and became even more fascinated to study it further.  My relationship with the fishers grew over time and this made it easier for me learn as much from them and their music as possible.  Consequently, I have addressed (and continue to do so), the following topics among others in relation to the fishing songs:

  1. Seashore harmonies: Songs of a dying fishing tradition  (2015) (see here)
  2. In a world of their own: Memory and identity in the fishing songs of a migrant Ewe community in Ghana (2017) (read more)
  3. Work and happiness: Songs of indigenous Ghanaian fishermen (2019) (read more)
  4. Pacing within sonic spaces: A psychology of music and work (2020) (watch here)

These examples speak to my level of engagement with the fishers and to my interest in the richness of their music. The idea to produce a documentary about the music, however, only came in response to the One Ocean Hub’s Emotional Connections to the Ocean (Deep Fund) Call in 2020. The documentary was conceived of as a unique way of telling the story of the fishers through their own voices and through their privileged artform of music. The depth of the analysis in the documentary, therefore, is the result of many years of research and engagement with fishers in the different communities along Ghana’s coast.

Research approaches and ethical concerns

The documentary largely employs the participatory video-story(ing) approach.  The content of the documentary was co-determined by the research team and fishers in the different communities. Footages that members did not endorse to be included in the documentary were taken out.  In some instances, the voices were permitted without pictures. In such cases, other images were put over the voices and so on. Songs of different fishing crews were video-recorded in the context of their usage at the shores, and were also audio-recorded at a professional recording studio in order to get ‘cleaner’ sounds devoid of the noise at the shores.

The meanings of songs described in the documentary were carefully sifted through a multi-level polyvocal ethnographic approach. To begin with, recorded songs were played back during pre-arranged times to cohorts of fishers who performed the songs. They first had to mention the specific words in each of the songs so that we could write the lyrics correctly in each case. This is because most of the songs employed the ‘fishers’ tongue’ which is quite difficult for people outside their clique to understand. Once the texts were written, we had individual Key Informant Interviews and Focus Group Discussions to discuss the meanings of different songs. There were multiple layers of meaning in the different songs ranging from embodied to designative, direct to implied/metaphorical, individualized/personal to communal, intra to inter group/community and so on.  To be able to address as much of these meanings as possible in the documentary, we adopted a model that provided a lens for constructing meaning from three main angles: a) what the music is (non-referential or aesthetic meaning), b) what the music says (referential and non-aesthetic), and what the music does (pragmatic and functional meaning).

After the initial cuts of the documentary, we did pockets of screenings to groups of fishers to get their endorsement before adding the location shooting of the narrators and other voices of non- fishers.  We then edited everything down to 45 minutes and added the other sound effects.

Ongoing and future research

The documentary has really triggered a number of ideas for the future; short, medium and long-term.  On an ongoing basis, we are continually looking for avenues to screen the documentary.  We are making applications to film festivals, looking for media outlets and opportunities to do more community screenings in order to carry the voices of the fishers as far as possible.  

Beyond the screenings, we are co-authoring a book chapter about the documentary in an upcoming book co-edited book with other researchers and artists that are part of the Hub’s Deep Fund.  This chapter addresses the transgressive pedagogies employed in the making of the documentary.  There are two other journal articles which are currently under preparation:

  1. Voices of men in the margins: A stylistic analysis of fishing songs in Cape Coast, Ghana (ongoing).  This paper uses selected song texts of artisanal fishers as a basis for rethinking marginality and explores the various commentaries that derive from the songs in relation to how they provoke a new politics of being.
  2. On subversion: A critical analysis of gender reversals and the utopia of hegemonic masculinities in fishing songs (ongoing).  This paper draws on Connell’s theorization of Hegemonic masculinities, Spivak’s notion of subalternity and uses a critical textual analysis, to examine the subversive narrative of gender inversion and a denial of normative masculine expectations that reinforces rigid social systems in the fishing song-tale. The paper argues that the experiences of the postcolonial (subaltern) male are not only enacted by their diminished economic freedom but also adversely shaped and affected by their status and rankings within the African community as well as the subversion of their dominant roles.

Apart from the screening and the publications, we have plans of producing some more documentaries. We have started work on Cocooned 2.0 (Nyansapo – Wisdom knot), which is a follow-up documentary in which fishers create songs from other hub researchers’ findings in scientific publications around best fishing practices and ocean management.  We also have very rich data from existing footage that has not been used yet and which we intend to explore in new documentaries about the effects of climate change, ocean pollution, customary law and ocean governance.

Photos: Eric Otchere