MUSIC OF GHANA, part 2


VIS-A-VIS
DI WO HO NI (We Are Busy Bodies)
THE BEST OF VIS-A-VIS IN CONGO STYLE (We Are Busy Bodies)

This Toronto-based label (We Are Busy Bodies) has been finding some lost gems of African music, such as an early Philip Tabane LP on Gallo, another by Kippie Moketsi, plus several albums from Ghana's Vis-a-Vis band. Vis-a-Vis was the band of singer Isaac Yeboah and his guitarist Sammy Cropper (I assume it's a pseudonym riffing off Steve Cropper, guitarist of the great Booker T & the MGs). Slim Yaw Manu played bass, "Kung Fu" Kwaku the drums, and Abee Mensah was on keyboard, along with Yaw Asante, congas and percussionists. They also backed Alhaji K. Frimpong. Their 1976 album ƆdƆ Gu AhoroƆ was reissued in Canada in January 2021, soon after their 1977 album Obi Agye Me Dofo. Their 1978 High Life Time was reissued in the USA by Makossa as Papa Akwasi by Sammy Cropper and his Wire Connections, which is where I first encountered them. That one added sax, trumpet and synth and featured Yaw Amoako (of Nana Ampadu's African Brothers) on vocals. Now two more of their classic albums have returned. Di Wo Ho Ni kicks off in a familiar relaxed style, with maracas and laid-back guitar and organ over rickety traps, then sweet harmony vocals come in. This is exactly in the sweet spot for Ghanaian highlife. The album is only 32 minutes in length but goes off into a pleasant dreamspace for that half hour. Their other reissue inna Congo style, from 1976, shows their chops on some classic tunes penned by Docteur Nico, Verckys, and even an early fifties tune, "Chérie Bondowe" penned by Manuel D'Oliveira and first performed by his group San Salvador in the early fifties, and later covered by Mayaula Mayoni and OK Jazz. My friend Jerome tells me it's about a "Twilight girl" in the port city of Matadi. It's appealing and this highlife version (I am sure like me they didn't know the meaning of the song) stretches out and the guitarist shows off his Franco chops. He is less effective at imitating Docteur Nico on "Asalam Aleikum," but then no one should even try to play guitar like Nico. "Nsenkeka Adooso" is a spirited take on Verckys with melodic rather than raucous sax.

ESSIEBONS SPECIAL 1973-84
GHANA MUSIC POWER HOUSE (Analog Africa No 33)

Dick Essilfie-Bondzie, founder of the Ghanaian Essibons label, produced many hits over the years and was surprised that songs he considered rejects had become "the foundation stones" of his revival thanks to Analog Africa's Afrobeat Airways album. The subsequent reissue of Funky Rob Way led to a falling-out with Samy ben Redjeb, but they had patched things up and were working on this Ghana Powerhouse album when Mr E passed away in July 2020 at the age of 90. After studying accounting in London in the 1950s, Essilfie-Bondzie opened a pressing plant in Accra to speed up and reduce the cost of pressing albums in Ghana. His label soon attracted talents like Gyedu Blay Ambolley, Ernest Honny, Ebo Taylor & C. K. Mann. Mann & his Black Masters are in top form here, well actually they are the Carousel 7, with Kofi Yankson on vocals, performing "Yeaba." Mann's Big Band, with Ebo Taylor, also deliver "Fa W'akoma Ma Me" from 1976, another highlight. Before his death Mr Essiebons was going over his master tapes again, digitizing them, and Samy was able to get together half a dozen previously unreleased songs for this album to make it truly "special." Ambolley is credited with introducing the synthesizer to Ghana and I genuinely wish he hadn't, or that it had come with instructions on how to actually play it, instead of making it fart constantly, as it does on All Stars Band's "Ahwenepa Nkasa," here credited to Joe Meah. Afrobeat fans wont notice, or care, however. Seaboy is on here with "Africa" which has a great groove but is very poorly recorded. The same group (as Nyame Bekyere) give us a long medley from their Broken Heart LP, which sells for $500 on discogs when available. Ernest Honny pops in and out with four pleasant little organ instrumentals (described as "interludes.") The highlife rarities on here are worth the price of admission and, as expected, it is handsomely packaged.

DAGAR GYIL ENSEMBLE OF LAWRA
DAGARA (Sublime Frequencies LP SF 118LP)

This is a field recording of traditional xylophone (gyil) music of the Lobi people of Ghana's Upper West region. That's it. Two sides of long trance-like jams featuring Aaron Bebe Sukura, considered a master musician on this instrument. He is so good he sounds like a whole band and though there are no gimmicks, no Cut Chemist interruptions, no disco dub echoes, no white rockers throwing down, it's a very satisfying trip. In fact the liner notes suggest if you are into techno you might get a kick out of this: it has a similar ability to take you out of your space into your mind. The purpose of the music is to talk to the spirit world and engage dancers and audience in this dialogue. I've never heard of anyone playing techno at a funeral but I suppose there's a first for everything. The rich resonance of the struck wooden bars reverberates via the gourds which are filled with spider web resonators to make the buzzing sound and heighten the unearthly quality of the sonic experience.

VIS-A-VIS
ODO GU AHOROO (We are Busy Bodies WABB-075)

Here's another welcome reissue of a lost Highlife gem from 1976. Isaac Yeboah was leader and chief vocalist of the Vis-à-Vis band, his brother sang harmony. The equally legendary Sammy Cropper plays lead guitar and Slim Manu is on bass; there's rollicking organ by Abee Mensah and 13 years of practice behind this album. Two conga players, trap drummer and another percussionist complete the lineup. Busy Bodies is a Toronto-based label and this is the second album from Vis-à-Vis from them. The group released a total of 13 albums between 1975 and 1982 and while Busy Bodies already reissued their most sought-after disc Obi Agye Me Dofo, this one is choice and not to be ignored. In their heyday, they backed K. Frimpong and also overlapped with his other band the Cubano Fiestas. You'll hear it described as afro-funk, but no, it's pure highlife. It just launches forth onto the dance floor in a joyous groove that wont quit. The guitar dances about, the organ pumps and the boat full of percussionists do their own thing as the vocals float by. This is a classic, almost timeless though definitely from the seventies, but one thing is sure, when you put it on, time stands still.

ALOSTMEN
KOLOGO (STRUT 234)

The basis of this Ghanaian band's sound is a type of two-stringed lute, called a kologo by the Frafra. This ancient stringed instrument is not traditional looking as it appears to be made from a jerry can. There are two percussionists, one with djembe/talking drum (Aminu Amadu), the other (Sowah) sitting on a gome box, also known in the Caribbean as cajon or rumba box. The kologo is played by leader Stevo Atambire; a second lute, the goje fiddle, and vocals are handled by Jo Ajusiwine. The music is simple, insistently rhythmical, and compelling. The lyrics which are often in pidgin English are easy to follow: "Everybody bring your dancing shoes/come let's party/I wanna see you move" or "Teach me how to catch fish it is better than you do teach me how to chew fish. Teach me how to hunt meat is better than you do teach me how to chop meat," etc. A truly international fable. The band's leader admits to being into rap, reggae and Malian music as well as his own traditions. The album was recorded on the road, during a tour and various guests dropped in, including highlife legend Gyedu-Blay Ambolley who adds sax and vocals to "Minus me." Wonderfully refreshing.

PAT THOMAS & KWASHIBU AREA BAND
OBIAA! (strut)

While not the last exponent of dance band Highlife, Pat Thomas at 72 is one of the most engaging performers of the classic guitar sound that energized Ghana half a century ago. Although he left Accra years ago he has kept the music alive, in Germany and Canada and, with a group of expatriate musicians, he continues to explore the roots: they innovate within the tradition, remaining alive to creative possibilities going forward. Organ, trumpet and sax, guitars and of course fabulous polyrhythmic drumming and percussion keep the mood upbeat. Thomas worked with Tony Allen and Ebo Taylor in the past but here he is the frontman. We are immediately reminded of the golden sound of Accra, the sounds of Sweet Talks and the Ramblers. Those are huge shoes to fill but the Kwashibu Area Band are up to the challenge. Even the gentler ballads have complex rhythms animating them from trap drums, a local conga called kpanlogo, bells, cowbell, maracas and the mysterious frenchua.

DYTOMITE STARLITE BAND OF GHANA (BBE Music; Tabansi TRL227)

It's encouraging that more and more classic African albums from the past are being reissued. This one is a good find, and promises to be first of a whole series of reissues from Onitsha's small Tabansi label coming from BBE Records. This album was recorded in Nigeria in the early 80s and was a one-off from this particular group. Other acts on the Tabansi label included Ebo Taylor who is still going strong, and an unreleased set by him is next up along with promised treasures from Victor Chukwu, trumpeter King Zeal Onyia as well as juju and funk discs. A curiosity for fans of African Fiesta is a disc by the group's bassist Lumingu Puati (a.k.a.Zorro) "Thina Dekula." Overall Tabansi was a pretty small and obscure label, so it's an odd seam to mine. The recent Stephen Osita Osadebe reissue from Hive Mind leads one to hope more of his albums will be coming out again, not to mention other classic Nigerian acts like Oriental Brothers (on Afrodisia), Celestine Ukwu (Philips), Victor Uwaifo (Polydor), Rex Lawson (Akpola) & Victor Olaiya (Polydor/Philips). From Ghana we can also wish for more Sweet Talks (Philips), African Brothers (Aduana, etc), and Ramblers (Decca) albums. I listed their primary labels to show that they were not all controlled by big companies, and there is reason to hope for more reissues, though Philips (which also controls Polygram and Decca) is probably not interested in something that is only going to sell 500 copies. While obscure, the Dytomite Starlite Band are a class act: they have the right highlife propulsion, trumpets and keyboards over traps and congas, with a heavy bass and sweet vocals in pidgin. There is a dab of electronic keyboard, but none of the awful synth that ruined the recordings of Alex Konadu & other late 70s artists. The liner notes suggest the singers used the Tabansi studio band as backing, which makes sense given the sheen and the fact it is as much Nigerian highlife as Accran.

GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY
THE MESSAGE (Analog Africa)

It's well-known that if you want to sell records on EBay you should say they are African funk, regardless of what is on them. A friend commented he even saw Perez Prado labelled as such. Let's be clear, it's not limited to Fela, but I would say there is a time frame for Afro-funk, which centres around James Brown's appearance at the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974 and a location, mostly Anglophone West Africa, with obvious bleed-through to neighboring countries and one or two examples from central Africa. The impact of James Brown on African popular music was manifest in attempts to incorporate his fractured rhythms and bass lines, plus a lot of singers trying to do the "hit me one time, hit me two times" bit. Fela and O.J. Ekemodé both traveled to the USA and both were recording Afro-beat and funk tracks from 1972. They had a much more sophisticated approach to the whole of the sound, using guitar as a rhythm instrument, bringing in keyboards and beefing up the drum sounds. Sonny Okosun, Segun Bucknor and many other artists recorded in this style and there has been a widening vortex of available Afro-funk music as record labels have delved back in time to find overlooked examples that can be marketed as such. One obvious problem is that music is never static and when a band tries to replicate the James Brown sound ad nauseam it becomes stale; in the USA the music rapidly evolved so by the 80s we had a completely different Funk sound, leaping from Parliament into psychedelic funk with Sly Stone, N'Orlins funk with the Meters, then to more electronic experiments with bass synthesizers in the Gap, Dazz and Zapp Bands. But the Africans themselves did not settle on the sound past the 70s. Many who emigrated from Ghana to Germany added disco touches and created Burgher Highlife in the late 70s. This newly released album on the redoubtable Analog Africa label, has a definite disco flair, with its drum patterns and synth touches, but is still rooted in what is basically an American funk sound. This I am sure will delight fans of the genre. It veers progressively more towards the disco side which means it may stir the dancefloor, but again I am not equipped to judge this, since I have not deejayed a dance since the 80s (though i did do a guest shot at a wedding in Oakland about 20 years ago where I brought the house down with some Brasilian music I had just brought back from there). This is a handsomely packaged album, on colored vinyl, and as such is a lovely artifact. I presume the tracks were rare singles or maybe even unreleased tapes that Samy has found. You can hear the title cut for yourself on bandcamp.

PAA KOW
COOKPOT (self-published)

Paa Kow is a drummer from Ghana. (At first i read it as KaaPow.) He grew up beating on cans in the street until he finally convinced his elders that he was good enough to be in a band. He played with George Darko among others and toured Europe, establishing himself as a talented percussionist in the traditional highlife mode. After ten weeks in residence at the University of Colorado he put together this album with a horn quintet called By All Means (saxes, tuba, trumpets, trombone). The drum kit is to the fore with occasional bursts of melody. The liner notes are too small to read, even with a magnifying glass, but I think this was recorded in Colorado and overdubbed in Accra, Ghana. Apart from the overemphasis on drum solos there is a pleasant familiar highlife groove to many of the tracks but no real lyric focus, the emphasis instead being on bringing the funk. There's some fine alto sax on "I made a mistake." A live feel permeates the recording, and the various members of the group, guitar, organ and horns get to stretch out.

PAT THOMAS
COMING HOME (Original Ghanaian Highlife & Afrobeat Classics 1967-1981) (STRUT 147CD)

This 2-CD retrospective covers a decade and more in the career of one of Ghana's shining stars, Pat Thomas, starting in 1967 when he was a member of the Broadway Dance Band. There are rare tracks from The Big 7, the Sweet Beans, and his band Marijata, as well as collaborations with his long-time partner Ebo Taylor (two of them previously unreleased tracks), who has also recently re-emerged as a "forgotten" great of the Highlife scene. Thomas was surrounded by music from childhood and particularly aspired to sing with the nationally renowned Broadway Dance Band, led by Ebo Taylor from 1967 on. As a youth Pat was singing cover songs by Stevie Wonder, Nat "King" Cole and Miriam Makeba, but Taylor would give him a title and ask him to improvise lyrics to go along with the music he was writing. They took the traditional Kwa music of Kumasi and modernized it. He and Taylor were lured away to form another band, The Blue Monks, and were on the verge of going to Europe when the Cocoa Marketing Board asked Pat to form a band called the Sweet Beans. From there he created Marijata and they were riding high in the late 70s, but the coup that overthrew General Fred Akuffo and installed Jerry Rawlings led to a curfew and the end of the live music scene. Thomas moved to Berlin where there was a thriving Ghanaian music scene known as Burger-Highlife, centred around George Darko who had embraced techno beats and synthesizers. After a spell in London he settled in Toronto for a decade, finally returning to Ghana where he performs with Kwashibu Area Band. There is a wide range of material here, including the sublime 14-minute workout "Mewo Akoma," the B-side from his Pat Thomas in action vol 2 LP (You will have to look on discogs.com for musician credits on these albums), recorded in Ivory Coast.