An Enviable Post Office in Ghana

This is music made by four postal workers as they cancel postage! When I listen carefully, I think I can actually hear the spring mechanisms as the stamps hit the ink. I love it as an example of music turning what is normally seen as a boring, repetitive task into something this joyful.

The song was originally recorded in 1975 at the University of Ghana by James Koetting and appeared on a cd accompanying the book Worlds of Music, but you can download the whole clip here. Thanks to Bernie Krause and Anthropologist Steven Feld for helping me track this one down.


  1. Holy Crap! I first encountered this when I took a class on Ethnomusicology. The text for the class was ‘Worlds of Music’ by Jeff Todd Titon, which was accompanied by a three-cd set. This piece has always been one of my favorites of the lot.

  2. In the past, when I was typing in copy from paper press releases, I always typed to the rhythm of a song. It made what is usually an agonizing and boring task into something less unpleasant and it went much quicker. Listening to this, I can only say that their production is increased by a remarkable amount because I have experience with doing exactly that. Instead of listlessly stamping letters as they come through, they get a system going so that they can pass them off fast in order to keep the beat going.

  3. I’ve loved the clarity of this recording since I first heard it many years ago. We still have the Worlds of Music set, and this is easily the most interesting and memorable piece on the collection. that said, the whole set is interesting. Thanks for bringing attention to this work.

  4. There is something profound to be learned in this. Hearing this music, I don’t think we’re coming out ahead having machines do the work for us.

    1. Yeah, sitting on the porch, drinking a Mint Julep and listening to the songs of the cotton pickers was so relaxing. Why did we ever give that up?

      1. It’s not an either/or scenario. Polomj is right- every invention in the name of efficiency inadvertently loses something precious that we don’t realize at the time. 50 years ago, farming was seen as the ultimate horrible job- long hours, hard physical labor… all the modern techniques to speed up farming and production seemed like a no-brainer. Now here we are with exactly what we wanted, and it sucks- a system that is about to collapse under its own “efficiency”, a messed-up environment, an unhealthy, overweight population… and what’s more, there’s more and more people quitting their dumb jobs and becoming small organic farmers, because they’re realizing hard work with a goal is way better than surfing the web all day in a cubicle. We don’t need to go back to slavery to regain some of our forgotten ways of life.

        1. I was a little crass, but I generally detest this “lets keep this backbreaking kind of work so we can look at the quaint customs.” These guys sing, because that’s one way to cope with the mind-breaking boredom that comes with during rote work. Take that away and they can still sing.

          Your organic farmers: I’ll point out that modern technolgy stripped the back-breaking aspect of that work away. I do not not envy them for getting out of the rat-race, but if they can order an DVD online to watch after feeding the pigs, call up the weather forecast for the next three weeks and call their mentor about the best way to shear sheps, they can do so because „we“ sit in cubicles (well, we actually don’t cubicles seem to be mostly an American thing) and the like.

          In fact, lots of these cubicles workers pack up after work, get their instruments and play in band or sing in a pub – by their own free will, not because they have to do something while cancelling stamps, picking cotton or treading wine.

  5. I also had the “Worlds of Music” book / CDs for a university course about 10 years ago. I’m sure I have the CDs somewhere, but I ripped this song years ago and it comes up on regular rotation.

    I don’t know how you can listen to it and *not* want to whistle along!

  6. That would be ‘fun/joy’ for about 2 hours. Then it would drive you insane, day after day, week after week, year after year.

  7. Does anyone know whether or not Ghanaian postal workers continued this practice beyond ’75? I’m curious to know if they’ve since switched to an automated system; if not, was the musical element ever part of an argument favouring the preservation of manual sorting?

    1. I’m curious to know if they’ve since switched to an automated system

      Yeah, they have it all sequenced via MIDI now.

  8. Yeah this is nice. It is part of the Norton Anthology of Music or some such. The first time I heard this recording was in 1999. This marks the very first time I have beaten Boing Boing to anything.

  9. I learned to play this song in college when I took a Ghanaian drumming class. We started out mimicking the sounds of this recording by tapping on tables and whistling, then built it up with drums and a trumpet. So great to hear it again!

  10. I took this class in High School on my own, and this was always my favorite song on that CD! :)

  11. That was wonderful. First time I’ve heard it, and it won’t be the last.

    And it brings me back to my long-ago cooking days. We used to drum with our knives during some chopping while doing prep. (Kitchen full of frustrated musicians, really – not so unusual!)

    Music makes work better. Hell, it makes life better.

    1. I think if you ask Ladysmith Black Mambazo they’d be quite happy to tell you that the worldwide recognition they garnered as a result of Paul Simon’s “exploitation” was quite welcome.

      Very easy from a comfortable distance, isn’t it? It’s all an abstraction then.

  12. Having a functioning postal service, even one without automation is one of the most important functions in a civil society, it helps expand contact with the world at large, The postal service is usually one of the most progressive institution in a developing country.

    Anybody who ever had a job with hard physical labor can appreciate this, and this is a really beautiful beat.

    Thank you for this find.

  13. Would love this as an MP3.

    When I was in university, I got a job collating paper slips to stuff into a mailout. I did much what these guys are doing. Well, without the whistling, but working to the beat of printing machines.

    It was a mindbogglingly tedious job, too noisy for conversation, and the only way to entertain myself was to see just how far I could push myself, and refine the process.

    I found that by carefully arranging everything to be it was easy enough once the movements were natural, to “up the tempo”, fitting my movements to a higher harmonic of the printer’s thuds and clanks until I was at the limit of my dexterity and hand movement. Eventually, I had it down to: pick up four sheets; pick up four (turned to 90 degrees) in reverse order as my hands travelled back; drop the two collated groups on the “collated” pile with one hand as the other thomped its thumb on the wet sponge; and repeat. It took 2-3 seconds per cycle.

    Once I had it refined as much as I felt possible, and had refined even the peripheral operations (getting new stacks of paper, wetting the sponge again), the only thing left to entertain me was to try for endurance.

    I zoned out on the work. I’d been asked to do the job because with four people collating, and four stuffing the collated sheets into envelopes, the collators were falling behind. But when I turned around after a few hours work, I found I was the only one in the collating row: all the others had been put on envelope-stuffing duty, and others from around the print shop had been pulled in for that, too.

    When programming, when I’m really in the zone, I start typing to a rhythm: it is almost always unconscious, and almost always the Mario Bros theme, even though I’ve never played the game.

    Usually, that awkward rhythm breaks me out of the zone :(

  14. I’ve never had a class in ethno-musicolgy but I have heard that version of that song before. Was it used in a movie someplace?

    also, although its not what I am thinking of, it sounds a little like the song at the end of Buckaroo Banzai.

  15. Love the music!

    Music has had a long history of being used practically to co-ordinate labour between many people. Sailors used musicians to co-ordinate hauling lines and sails with many little ditties to help with specific actions. I discovered this when I went in search of pirate tunes, I was hoping for long sea shanties, but discovered that their music was being used in a practical manner. Athletes in the ancient olympics would rely on musicians to time their runs or throws etc.

    Its easy to use music to remember lyrics, and therefore songs have been used to impart knowlege for thousands of years. This still happens considering the tune for the alphabet as taught by Sesame Street.

    Its sad that music is often seen as a specialist job these days and many people just think that they can’t do it.

  16. I also find the history of decimilizatgion and inflation as told by the stamps from Ghana nee Gold Coast interesting.

  17. I’ve never had a class in ethno-musicolgy but I have heard that version of that song before. Was it used in a movie someplace?

    If you listened to Peter Schickele’s public-radio program “Schickele Mix” you might have heard it there; it was played on one of his very first shows (I believe the one about repetition in music).

  18. Very inspirational as I write my thesis. I’ll be working on using the keyboard as a percussive instrument, whistle words and punctuate with a slurp of a caffeinated beverage. I’m in favor of making all activities, mundane or not, an audio adventure. This clip is exemplary!

  19. What I want to know is why “world music” went from great stuff like this to the crap that’s peddled today… there is all kinds of amazing music from outside the western world but you wouldn’t know it if you browsed the “world music” section of anyplace that sells music.

Comments are closed.