African music specialists and revellers Mogadisco collect the continent’s finest sounds from afrobeat to soukous, Nigerian jùjú to Ethiopian jazz and everything in between. We invited them to share their top 10 highlife tracks and the elusive records that hide them. Have a read and listen over the next few pages and then fill out our poll to tell us about your favourite highlife record.
The majority of stuff we collect and play is from the ‘Golden Era’ of African music: the ’60s and ’70s. One of our favourite genres is highlife which originated in Ghana and spread to other West African countries. Highlife is itself a diverse genre made up of many sub-categories and influences that range from coastal sea-shanties of seaman, to colonial brass bands and indigenous dance and drum music. It is a guitar and vocal dominated music with a variety of percussive elements and often a fluttering of electric organ or sometimes brass. Famous artists include the African Brothers Band, City Boys Band, King Bruce & the Black beats, E.T Mensah and Alex Konadu to name a few. The genre was also interpreted in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Have a read through our top 10 highlife tracks and records:
‘Akokoa Aye Bi Agu ’
from I’ve Found My Love: 1960s Guitar Band Highlife
(Original Music, 1993)
Before Soundway and Analog Africa were repressing African classics, the label Original Music had put together a number African music compilation. I’ve Found My Love: 1960s Guitar Band Highlife exhibits guitar band highlife tunes with the sovereign of ‘Guitar-band’ music King Onyina appearing on a number of tracks. ‘Akokoa Aye Bi Agu’ is an extremely beautiful track and much more chilled than some of the up-tempo, dancey music that appeared later in Ghana’s highlife scene. Just under 3 minutes, it finishes way too early and we are left wanting more sweet Onyina vocals.
‘Nzema Kotoko’ from The Power House
We’d rate this album purely for the artwork! Presumably the building is exploding because F Kenya is such a ‘power house’ in the Highlife scene. His songs are unique in that they are sung in Nzema (Kenya’s own language) rather than the dominant Asante Twi (generally the language of highlife). Choice track ‘Nzema Kotoko’ starts really quietly with some simple conga hits, then, after a bit of talking in Nzema, it explodes into a beating of the organ and drums. The rest of the track follows in a similar explosive fashion.
Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Maestroes
‘Joromo’ from Sir Victor Uwaifo Big Sound
(Philips-West African-Records, 1969)
Victor Uwaifo is one of a handful of musicians who popularised highlife music in his native Nigeria. Hailing from Benin City this song tells the folklore story of ‘Joromi’, the warrior who fought in the underworld and never returned. Uwaifo remade this song with added synths and changed the backing vocal from male to female voices. Up until I‘d found the original 45 version I had no idea! Both versions do however retain the same charm that rightly places Victor Uwaifo as one of the premiere artists of highlife and this one of his most famous and revered tracks.
K. Frimpong And His Cubano Fiestas
‘Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu’ from K. Frimpong And His Cubano Fiestas
(Ofo Bros, 1976)
You can really hear the funk, rock and afrobeat influences on this track. It’s a far cry from the sweet melodies of I’ve Found My Love: 1960s Guitar Band Highlife. K Frimpong was supported by his Cubano Fiestas on this track but he also played with the band and a few other musicians under the moniker Vis-à-Vis. Everything on this song is stunning; the intro invites the listener in with a blend of twangy guitar riffs and snare hits, afrobeat-style horns then build the track further before Frimpong’s abrasive voice enters some two minutes later. It’s a definite dance-floor filler.
‘I Don’t Care’ from Highlife Safari
Eric Agyeman rose to prominence as the lead guitarist for Sweet Talks after the departure of original lead Smart Nkansah. ‘I Don’t Care’ is from his solo album Highlife Safari released in 1978. The album is jam-packed with highlife gold and is absolutely essential listening; it was deservedly re-released by Sterns Music in 1992. The concerned track builds with upbeat drums and a deep bassline before Latin-style horns complete the composition. The percussion on this track is infectious and exhibits a principal highlife music that is the combination of both a western drum-kit and hand percussion.
‘Only Your Voice, Juliana’ from Hollywood Highlife Party
Sweet Talks deserve a mention in any highlife list. They are one of the most popular bands to come out of Ghana during the Golden Age. Formed by A.B. Crenstil, Smart Nkansah and Pope Flynn the band started out playing at the Talk of the Town Hotel in Tema and quickly gained considerable fame with their albums the Kusum Beat and Spiritual Ghana. The track ‘Juliana’ is from the Hollywood Highlife Party LP which was recorded in Los Angeles at the height of the bands fame. Undoubtedly one of the highlights, the sweet guitar licks on ‘Juliana’ combine with love- inspired melodies to make for an emotional but catchy number. Sadly, the band broke up shortly after making the album.
African Brothers Band
‘Kofi Nkrabea’ from Enyimba Di N’aba
African Brothers Band were, without doubt, top of the league of the electric guitar-bands. Formed in the early 1960’s by lead singer Nana Ampadu in the hilly Kwahu region of Ghana. Over the course of their career the band released over sixty albums. During this period Ampadu still had time to be General Secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Ghana! ‘Kofi Nkrabea’ is quite slow-tempo and exhibits both the full breadth of the bands rhythm section; trap-drums, congas, maracas and clips and also the four guitars that blend to create a deep network of sound.
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & His Nigeria Sound Makers International
‘Egwu Ogolo’ from Makojo
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe was one Nigeria’s biggest and most successful Highlife musicians. However, his road to fame was not traditional by any means. His parents pushed him to study in the Soviet Union and it was not until he returned to Nigeria, at 23, that he began to properly pursue his musical calling. He had several supporting roles playing in bands in various hotels around Lagos and other Nigerian cities and eventually formed his own band the Nigeria Sound Makers International in 1964. Chief Stephen’s musical talent was undeniable and he went on to record over 500 records. The biggest ‘Osondi Owendi’, which translates as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, has sold millions of copies. Chief Stephen’s lyrics are sung in the Igbo language so the meaning of his songs is sadly lost on the majority of his listeners beyond South-Eastern Nigeria. Nonetheless, his powerful voice has still found admiration across Africa, Europe and America. The concerned track is an excellent example of his outstanding vocal delivery.
The Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt
‘Afro Baby’ from The Professional Seagulls Dance Band Port Harcourt
(Philips-West African-Records, 1971)
Despite the fantastic name, not that much is known of the Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt. Another Nigerian highlife band, they originally started as Rex Lawson’s backing group the River Men. The unfortunate early death of Rex Lawson, who died in a car accident aged 36, led them to form their own band. The group enjoyed several hits as The Seagulls, one of which is the track below, ‘Afro Baby’. Undeniably catchy, I’ve found the chorus stuck in my head days after listening to it. It’s also a wonderful example of the more bluesy melancholic highlife with its sombre horns replacing what I imagine is normally the guitar section.
Okukuseku International Band of Ghana
‘Wiase Ne Obra’ from Band Of Ghana
(Rogers All Stars 1981)
Formed in Accra in 1969 by Kofi Sammy and Water Proof, the band moved to Nigeria during economic downtimes and introduced songs in Pidgen and Ibo to appeal to their Nigerian audience. Okukuseku International’s artwork is perhaps one of the duller of LPs from the Highlife era, but don’t judge an album by its cover, this is a great piece of work. There is even a drum break on the track ‘Ode ama ne mm’! You don’t often hear the lead guitarist launching into their own solo right from the off, yet, that’s what happens on the concerned track Wiase Ne Obra. Not often mentioned Okukuseku International are definitely a band to explore.
Bron: The Vinyl Factory - 24-10-2014