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Rhian Benson's global soul sound

From Tom Bouchier Hayes, CNN
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One of Ghana's hottest musical exports
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Singer Rhian Benson is one of Ghana's hottest musical exports
  • Her mixture of soul and jazz has made her a star in her country and abroad
  • Her new album, "Hands Clean," fuses traditional jazz and soul with an electronic undertone

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Ghanaian singer Rhian Benson.

(CNN) -- Ghanaian singer Rhian Benson is not your typical music superstar.

A graduate of the London School of Economics, she spent a stint working on the trading floor of an investment bank in London and was pursuing graduate studies at Harvard Business School before turning to music as a career.

It was while she was at Harvard that her mother was diagnosed with cancer and Benson decided to relocate to London to care for her -- a move that ended her studies but inadvertently kick-started her musical career.

Up until then, she had only pursued "music as a hobby," says Benson, who today is one of Ghana's hottest musical exports. Songwriting was just something she did on the side, for her own pleasure, she says.

Singer Rhian Benson's universal appeal
Rhian Benson's intimate London gig

But it was while she was looking after her mother that Benson's musical talent and passion for singing began to flourish.

"I found myself doing a lot more writing," she says. "All of the sudden, more than ever, I wanted to put these words to music," she says.

The elegant singer started performing regularly in small venues across London, before being discovered by DKG Music, a U.S.-based record label that released her first album.

That 2003 debut album, "Gold Coast," paid tribute to the country in which she was born and raised and won over critics and fans worldwide.

"Gold Coast was Ghana's old name pre-independence," Benson says. "I just wanted to pay respect to my Ghanaian family and the musicians there who influenced me so much and the wonderful, rich culture experiences I had as a child growing up."

Born in Accra to a Ghanaian father and a Welsh mother, Benson grew up surrounded by music. Her mother was a gifted singer and her father an accomplished guitar player.

She began playing the piano at a young age and wrote her first song at the age of 9.

It's an exciting time for young Ghanaians. They have access to things that their parents and generations never did.
--Rhian Benson
RELATED TOPICS
  • Ghana
  • Africa
  • Soul Music

"I can remember as a kid rushing home from school, literally having lunch and speeding to do my homework, just to have the rest of the afternoon to go through my dad's album collections, to sing along and create harmonies," she says.

Benson's unique mixture of soul and jazz in "Gold Coast" proved a success, and now with a new album under her belt, the talented singer is aiming to capture audiences' imaginations once again with her dusky voice and soulful sound.

In "Hands Clean," released last month, Benson daringly fuses traditional jazz and soul with a modern electronic undertone. She says the sound is an evolution of her previous work, which had more of a percussive and organic feel to it.

"The new album, 'Hands Clean,' being electronic, deliberately does not include that but it's still very rhythmic -- that's a very big part of African music," Benson says.

Heavily influenced by the sounds of Africa, Benson is part of a growing generation of talented musicians from the continent who are determined to overcome any difficulties in order to communicate their art.

"A lot of African artists, they are very much making things happen for themselves, which I really respect," she says.

Already an acclaimed and popular performer, Benson urges younger African to adopt a positive attitude to fulfill their dreams.

"You know what, just follow your dream. It's an exciting time for young Ghanaians. They have access to things that their parents and generations never did," she says.

"They have access to internet and the same information like kids in Stockholm have. It's great. The future is great."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.