Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's Highlife Time

I've been on a Ghana kick lately, digging out a lot of semi-forgotten vinyl in my collection that I haven't listened to in years. I know you won't mind if I share it with you!

Other than falling under the general rubric "Ghana Highlife," the tunes in this post don't follow any particular theme - I more or less pulled them out at random. There's the classic danceband sound and the more stripped-down guitar highlife style, and even an example of the controversial "Burgher" highlife genre. I've left for future posts some of the big names - the African Brothers, Alex Konadu, A.B. Crentsil and Jewel Ackah - as well as the multitude of Ghanaian artists who made careers in Nigeria during the '70s and '80s.

Yamoah's Guitar Band, based in Kumasi and led by Peter Kwabena Yamoah (right), emerged from the Ghana concert party scene in the 1950s and has been one of the most influential Ghanaian music outfits ever since, which makes its lack of recognition outside Ghana all the more unjust. Nana Ampadu of African Brothers fame got his start there, as did guitarist Smart Nkansah and the sublime vocalist Agyaaku, who later formed the Sunsum Band (more about which later). I'm not sure when Yamoah's Special (Motorway MTL 3001) was released, nor does it feature any credits, but I suspect it came out in the early '70s and does feature Nkansah and Agyaaku. "Saa Na Odo Te/Otan Gu Ahorow" is a killer track, and "Suro Nea Obesee Wo" is almost as good:

Yamoah's Band -
Saa Na Odo Te/Otan Gu Ahorow

Yamoah's Band -
Suro Nea Obesee Wo

Pat Thomas served as a vocalist with the Broadway Dance Band, the Stargazers and the Uhurus before False Lover (Gapophone GAPO LP 02, 1974) introduced him to the world fronting the Sweet Beans, official band of the government Cocoa Marketing Board. He went on to became one of Ghana's most popular vocalists, and while his star has dimmed somewhat since, his sweet voice and sparkling arrangements are hard to forget. Not content to dip his toes in the reggae sound then sweeping Africa, Thomas jumps in head-first in the first four songs on False Lover, notably this one:

Pat Thomas & the Sweet Beans - Revolution

The rest of the album, billed as an attempt to revive the danceband sound, succeeds admirably:

Pat Thomas & the Sweet Beans - Don't Beat the Time

Pat Thomas & the Sweet Beans - Merebre

Pat Thomas & the Sweet Beans - Wabe Aso

I mentioned in my last post The Guitar and Gun (Sterns Earthworks STEW 50CD, 2003), which collects tracks from The Guitar and the Gun Vol. 1 (Africagram A DRY 1, 1983) and The Guitar and the Gun Vol. 2 (Africagram A DRY 6, 1985) John Collins' groundbreaking collections of Ghana highlife. Inexplicable to me is the exclusion of the African Internatonals' "Noko Nya M'akire" from Vol. 1, probably the best track on either record. To correct this oversight, I make it available here:

African Internationals - Noko Nya M'akire

Smart Nkansah and Agyaaku became friends when they were part of Yamoah's Band in the late '60s. A few years later Nkansah went his own way, eventually forming the immortal Sweet Talks Band with A.B. Crentsil in 1975, which recorded such classics as Adam and Eve and Hollywood Highlife Party before falling apart.

Nkansah & Agyaaku later reunited to form the Black Hustlers before founding the Sunsum Band in 1981. Their album Odo (Love) (ASA Records ASA 1001, 1984) features an exciting blend of guitar highlife, the classic danceband sound and the vocal stylings of Becky B, Smart Nkansah's sister-in-law. The title track was included in my compilation African Divas Vol. 1. "Mensee Madwen" is a medley from Side 2 of the LP:

The Sunsum Band - Mensee Madwen

Over the years thriving Ghanaian communities have developed in the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S. Interestingly, because of relatively liberal immigration laws at the time, a sizable Ghanaian population emerged in Germany during the 1970s, and this community gave birth to the so-called "Burgher" highlife phenomenon.

Excoriated and loathed by purists, Burgher highlife, along with Hiplife, has come to define the modern-day highlife sound in Ghana. George Darko's "Akoo Te Brofo," released in 1983 with its funkified beat and heavy reliance on electronic instrumentation, is generally considered the first Burgher highlife hit. Musicians like Kantata, Rex Gyamfi and McGod were quick to follow in Darko's footsteps.

Charles Amoah's Eyε Odo Asεm (Cage Records 01-18957, 1987) is pretty much your archetypal Burgher highlife record, recorded in Dusseldorf and featuring mainly German musicians, German producers, even a German art director! Amoah himself started out playing straight-ahead highlife music in the '70s with the likes of the Happy Boys led by Kwabena Akwaboah and Alex Konadu's Band. He ended up in Germany in the late '70s where he bounced around various bands before releasing Sweet Vibration in 1984, the first of his many hit records.

Amoah has since returned to Ghana, where he has a prosperous career touring and recording. Here's a tune from Eyε Odo Asεm:

Charles Amoah - Di Ahurusi

If you'd like to hear some more contemprary examples of Burgher highlife, go here. Many thanks to Akwaboa of Highlife Haven, who provided useful information.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Exploring Ga Cultural Highlife

I often tell Priscilla that if I leave this mortal coil before her and she's hard up for cash, she can raffle off my record collection on Ebay. Some of the prices people are getting for their old African vinyl are astronomical and mind-boggling. $300 for a scratchy old disco record by Christy Essien-Igbokwe? Come on, people!

Some of you may remember the old usegroup back when the internet was first catching on big-time (and is it still around?). I used to be a pretty active participant back around 1998. At one point a record dealer in North Carolina or some place posted a list of some records he wanted to unload. This guy didn't specialize in African music but he had come across about twenty or so primo West African pressings that he was auctioning off to the highest bidder. There were a few Fela records, a couple of Sonny Okosuns, and most intriguingly, a number of LPs labeled "tribal vinyl from Ghana." I hadn't heard of any of the artists mentioned, but the minimum bid was $5, so what did I have to lose?

As the auction proceeded over the next week, it became apparent that while there was a healthy interest in the Fela and Okosun records, I was the only person who wanted the Ghanaian LPs, so I obtained these mint-condition pressings for five dollars each!

On first listen it was obvious that I had come into possession of some rare gems. These records were in a style about which I had heretofore known very little, "Ga Cultural Highlife," a mainly acoustic, perscussion-based genre described by musicologist John Collins as originating in the early '70s among the Ga people around Ghana's capital city Accra.

A record reviewer I read once made a derisive reference to Ghanaian "Jug Band Music." I think she was referring to those Makossa Records pressings that came out in the late '70s (and if you've been collecting for a while, you know what I'm talking about), but the label could more accurately describe these wonderful recordings.

Take the Suku Troupe, whose home-made instrumentation and heartfelt enthusiasm blow some of the more professional highlife combos out of the water! The group was founded in 1976 by Nene Acquah and featured vocalist Maa Amanua (above left), quickly achieving fame throughout Ghana and other parts of West Africa. Here are two tracks from their second album, Ye Wanno Komm (Donno WADLP 002, 1978):

Suku Troupe - Awonye Lee

Suku Troupe - Hwe Wo Ho Yie

I've been unable to find out anything about the Ashiedu Keteke Cultural Group led by Nii France, but here's some wonderful music from their 1978 album Gbo Ofo Mino (Polydor 2940 015):

Ashiedu Keteke Cultural Group - Ake Me Aya

Ashiedu Keteke Cultural Group - Edo Mi

Likewise the background and history of the Adzo Troupe, led by Amartei B.C., are a mystery to me, but listen to these tunes from their 1979 LP Siolele (Essiebons 1277938). Interestingly, the group was managed by Stan Plange, who also led the popular Uhuru Dance Band back in the day:

Adzo Troupe - Siolele

Ado Troupe - Kerodze

Akwwetey Wallas had a peripatetic musical career before founding the Gaamashiebii Cultural Troupe in the mid '70s, starting out in the band led by his brother Oko Jack Bay. He went on to join the Obadzen Cultural Troupe led by Renaissance man Saka Acquaye. His musical itch then led him to found the Blemabii and Obuabedii Cultural Troupes in quick succession.

The liner notes of Gamashiebii's debut LP Ebaa Gbeee (Obuoba JNA 10) state,". . . For its twelve months of existence the Gamashibii Cultural Troupe has established itself as one of the best exponents of traditional music and has therefore earned it a participating place in most social activities in the Gamashi area. . . It cannot be gain said that this musical masterpiece will for some time come to liven up many homes." Hear for yourself!

Gamashiebii Cultural Troupe - Wuobi (Akroma)

Gamashiebii Cultural Troupe - Faale Ke Mi Ya (Pt. 2)

Of all of the groups featured in this posts, Wulomei, led by Nii Tei Ashitey, is the only one that has achieved a measure of fame outside of Ghana. Indeed, the name in practically synonymous with Ga Cultural Highlife. Under the name Sensational Wulomei, the group is still in existence and still perforforming in the Accra area after 36 years.

Here's some music from Wulomei's 1978 album Kunta Kinte (Philips 6354 022):

Wulomei - Aplanke

Wulomei - Kwani Kwani

By the way, if you like the music in this post, I can't recommend enough The Guitar and Gun (Sterns Earthworks STEW 50CD), which puts back into circulation John Collins' seminal highlife recordings from the early 80s. It's not all Ga Cultural Highlife, but it's all wonderful.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Forty Years of Xalam

Remember back in the early '80s when King Sunny Adé hit the scene in America? Not only was he said to be the next Bob Marley, the record companies were falling all over themselves to find the next "Big Thing" out of Africa. In short order Sonny Okosun and Tabu Ley Rochereau were launched on US tours, and there was a sprinkling of record releases by various artists. None of this had much impact - the "African Music Explosion" of the early '80s turned out to be a bit of a dud, although it paved the way for World Music™ a few years later. Whoopdy-doo!

One group that had more of an impact than most during this time was Touré Kunda, a Paris-based combo founded by a group of brothers from the Casamance region of southern Senegal. Touré Kunda didn't get a lot of respect from the more hard-core African music fans. A friend of mine came back from one of their concerts in Madison sneering at their "African bubble-gum music."

I've always thought Touré Kunda got a bum rap. Behind the slick production values their sound was always true to the music of their native region, which has never been as "angular" as that of Senegal's North.

Popular around the same time, although not so much in the US, was the Paris-based "Afro-Jazz" group Xalam, which if I am not mistaken, also has its roots in the Casamance. The group was founded in 1969 by percussionist Abdoulaye Prosper Niang. Xalam achieved a level of "mainstream" success that most African musicians can only dream of: recording with the Rolling Stones, opening for Crosby, Stills & Nash and Robert Plant, soundtrack gigs and innumerable world tours over the years. After a few rough years following the death of Niang in 1988 and the replacement of most of the original members, Xalam is this year celebrating its fortieth anniversary!

I've always loved Xalam's LP Gorée, released in 1983 by the French label Celluloid (CEL 6656). The album updates Senegalese folkloric themes to great effect, highlighted by spot-on percussion and the brilliant trombone work of Yoro Gueye. If you like this one, be sure to check out some of Xalam's other recordings, some of which are newly available after many years out of print.

Here's the music, along with song descriptions from the liner notes:

Derived from Mandingo folklore, "Sidy Yella" was also a hit for Touré Kunda. "A Mandingo son, a brave humanitarian warrior, defended his people against the invader with dignity, and died on the battleground":

Xalam - Sidy Yella

"A song about motherly love. A child sings for her mother at the first rooster call. 'When the rooster announces the start of the day, when the girls sing and the boys dance. . . ,' the child sings to her mother. Serere song. N'diouf rhythm":

Xalam - Ade 2

"Gorée is an island located 3 kms from Dakar. An important place, it was made a Portuguese, Dutch, English and French trading post. Thousands of Africans were 'exported' to the USA, the West Indies, Brazil, Haiti & Cuba, transporting a whole culture and civilization. Diola rhythm (Saw Ruba)":

Xalam - Gorée

"Song of the struggle. An old champion recounts his feats and speaks of struggle, of the life which demands sacrifice, courage, patience, willpower and faith: 'There where we pass, the one that passes collects mud.' Life is an eternal struggle. Wolof song. Saban rhythm":

Xalam - Kanu 2

"The story of a woman who prays to the god Djisalbero for a child. Her prayers go unanswered and she sees that around her the other women who have children hardly spend their time caring for them or simply abandon them. Diola song. Boncarabon rhythm":

Xalam - Djisalbero

"The struggle for the liberation of oppressed black people and of man in his home and birthplace. The struggle for the unification of African people. the struggle against racism and apartheid":

Xalam - Soweto

Many thanks to my daughter Aku for translating these liner notes. Click on the pictures at the top of the post and below to reveal the album sleeve in full. Download Gorée as a zipped file here, and thanks to reader/listener Soulsalaam for making the Xalam LP "Ade" Live at Festival Horizonte Berlin available here.