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Talking Drums, Talking Fonts

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A strange confluence of the personal and the professional:

During my high school years I would often visit my older brother at his university, sometimes hitchhiking across the mountains of southern Vermont to the town where I could catch the Friday evening bus south to reach him in Connecticut. Dave has been driven by music since he was a little boy, so it was typical for me to do my homework in a corner while he practiced his saxophone or rehearsed with a band.

The musical experience that stands out from this period, the mid-1980s, came when Dave joined a group called Talking Drums. Talking Drums brought together an extremely talented bunch of Ghanaian and American musicians. They created unique music that brought together traditional African rhythms, contemporary African Highlife, and American jazz influences. The music was energetic, beautiful, and exciting, and the band began to ignite. They played at big festivals and famous jazz clubs, and recorded two albums, "Talking Drums" and "Some Day Catch Some Day Down." It was a treat to sit in while the group rehearsed – and I don't think I got much homework done.

Some Day Catch Some Day Down was a particularly inspired album, and I don't say that for family reasons – it got great reviews, and good radio time on stations that played African music. Unfortunately, Talking Drums disbanded several years after the album's release, and the album was released on vinyl just as record stores were beginning the irreversible switch to CDs. The group and the album both faded from view.

Fast forward a quarter of a century, during which I had coincidentally ended up deeply involved in African languages and technology, by chance worked for years in the African Studies program at Yale alongside former Talking Drums member Maxwell Amoh, and for six years was a member of the African Studies faculty at Wesleyan, the university where Talking Drums was born. Talking Drums producer and guitarist Rob Lancefield took the initiative to finally get the album re-released last year as a CD. The CD version is a masterpiece. It was digitally remastered, packaged with both the original and new cover art, and distributed with the original "Talking Drums" album as bonus MP3 files. (You can also buy an MP3 version of Some Day Catch Some Day Down, but that does not include the bonus tracks.) I ordered a copy as soon as it was available on Amazon, and it has been a tremendous pleasure to once again hear the haunting, captivating melodies. Even better, I can play the album for my little toddler, who dances to it and says "Dave" with a big smile when she hears her uncle playing.

I was telling my brother about our enjoyment of the CD recently, and he told me that there was a problem with the music's distribution through electronic channels. Some of the song titles are written in Twi or Ewe (Twi is a dialect of the Akan language group and uses the Akan alphabet, while Ewe belongs to a language family that uses the Ewe-Gbe alphabet), which use special characters for sounds that do not occur in English. These look somewhat similar to others found in Latin-based character sets, but the differences are quite important to reading and writing the languages of Ghana. Kamusi Project's programming partners in Ghana, kasahorow.org, have been instrumental in producing keyboards to enable typing in those languages, and our other partners in the African Network for Localization have worked on additional tools such as fonts, spellcheckers, and localization of software such as Firefox in Akan. I've been involved personally in producing locales (language parameters for computers) for several Ghanaian languages. So my ears spiked up when Dave said that some of the song titles were rendered incorrectly on download sites like iTunes.

Rob had gone to great lengths to make sure that the CD graphics had the correct characters, and to supply alternate versions of the titles for use online without special characters (Amazon uses the correct best-fit substitutes), but things still went awry downstream in online distribution. Basically, systems are not in place for many non-Latin fonts to be integrated correctly on standard websites, at least without superhuman vigilance. The worst is that after these problems occur, getting them corrected can be difficult. Despite all efforts to have the incorrect titles in iTunes replaced with their web-safe substitutes, that hasn't yet happened. Few people may notice the errors, and most who do will likely be forgiving, but the members of the band continue to hope that the perfection that went into re-releasing the album may yet end up surviving its online distribution.

For me, this is a case study in the challenges faced when working toward linguistic equity in Africa. When something as simple as distributing an album in your language is hindered by technology, you are not playing on a level field. Fortunately, the music in Some Day Catch Some Day Down far transcends such mundane concerns – so, as the Kamusi Project keeps working toward building African language resources that the iTunes of the world can't ignore, I'm spinning the album again, and my daughter is dancing.

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