This fantastic second entry in the Afrobeat Airways series documents the fertile intersection of Ghanaian highlife and American soul. An extraordinarily capacious art form, early 1960s highlife already incorporated “fusion of blustery brass band marching songs, folksy palm wine guitar repertoire, and a plethora of celebratory ‘proto-highlife’ percussion and vocal styles (osibisaaba, ashiko, konkoma),” as the disc’s liner notes explain.
During the prosperous, relatively settled 1960s, Ghanaian artists encountered American funk and soul artists like James Brown, reggae stars like Jimmy Cliff, even French Elvis Johnny Halladay and added them to the mix. Fela Kuti, who first visited Ghana in 1967, began to mix funk into his own sound as a result of his travels; he was one of many Nigerian artists who travelled east to Ghana to escape the turmoil of the Biafran war in the late 1960s, and he developed his distinctive afrobeat sound only after visiting Accra.
The music on this disc runs from smoking, spare funk to lavish, horn-embellished jazz-y soul. “Children Don’t Cry” by Ebo Taylor Jr., is lush and close-to-Latin with its shuffling, hand-drum beats, its flowery sax improvisations, its swells and surges of organ. Taylor, who learned to play in a succession of army bands, touched on rock, funk and reggae, as well as highlife, in his music. K. Frimpong’s “Abrabo” centers more in traditional African traditions with its warm, lucid guitar lines, its sinuous rhythms, its cheery blasts of horn music. Frimpong’s guitar player Samuel Cropper, describes the band’s signature as “a mixed style of highlife and Francophone African music.”
Other artists are more directly influenced by American funk and soul. “I Beg,” the track from Tony Sarfo & the Funky Afrosibi, is as twitchily propulsive as “Theme from Shaft” with its flares and hiccups of wah wah, its subterranean bass, its wandering trills of organ. And “Waiting for My Baby” by De Frank and his Professionals proves, if nothing else, that recordings of “Louie Louie” made a transatlantic crossing to Ghana.
This is a wonderful survey of a fascinating era when Ghanaian highlife opened up to incorporate a wide range of new influences, funk, soul, reggae, the desert blues of Nigeria. Later, the liner notes say, Ghanaian bands began using more electronics and synthesizers, a development that subtracted and watered down the music, rather than adding to it. But here, pan-global curiosity pays off in complex celebrations of syncopated groove, as raw as they are brave, as emotionally resonant as they are adventurous.
DOWNLOAD: “I Beg” by Tony Sarfo the Funky Afrosibi, “Abrabo” by K. Frimpong