Monday, November 12, 2007

A little highlife-soul from Ghana

I neglected to mention in yesterday's Flash Domincii post that Owuro Lojo--the Supersonics' 1970 followup to the massive success of The Great & Expensive Sound--was a flop. To explain the album's poor reception, commentators offered everything from Domincii's overreaching sonic ambition alienating the audience to the relatively bland cover graphics. All of these might be valid factors, but I don't think we can discount the fact that highlife in general was suffering a mild malaise at the time, thanks largely to the rising popularity of soul music, its supreme messiah James Brown and his African avatar, Geraldo Pino.

In Carlos Moore's Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti recounts being forced to pack up his highlife band Koola Lobitos and flee Lagos in 1967 when the Sierra Leonean Pino arrived in town and singlehandly demolished the highlife market with his heavy James Brown sound. Fela took refuge in Ghana, but was dismayed to find that even the heartland of highlife was not safe from Pino's sweaty, funky influence. In fact, Ghanaians took to soul even more enthusiastically than Nigerians and by 1968, the Accra Daily Graphic was reporting that "The soul craze ... now dominates the West African pop music nightclub scene (with highlife coming a poor second best)."

In order to survive, highlife orchestras had to start incorporating soul numbers into their repertoires, often "copyrights" (ie cover versions of popular hits). But it's not like they completely capitulated:

Reliable old standbys like the Ramblers and the Tempos (led by the venerable E.T. Mensah) interplayed their swinging clave with incessant soul backbeats and snuck full-on highlife sections into songs like Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" and Aretha's "Save Me."

The younger generation of players proved even more adept at this kind of musical code-switching, as illustrated by George Danquah's "Hot and Jumpy," which almost seamlessly oscillates between sweet-and-sour highlife and hard-edged funk.

But by far, the most organic fusion of highlife and soul during this era is C.K. Mann's "Asafo Beson" (a.k.a. "Funky Hi-Life"), a deconstructive funk track that layers "native" elements like handclaps, foot stomps, choral vocals and small percussion instruments, gradually building the the groove until it reaches a jubilant explosion of ribcage-rattling bass and chirpy organ stabs. "Asafo Beson" originally appeared as just the intro of an album-long concert party LP (which is kinda like the Jamaican "one-riddim" albums, with several different songs being played in a continuous stream over the same groove) but hearing it on its own, "Funky Hi-Life" fades out just in time to get your jollies off and still leave you wanting more.

None of the abovementioned tracks are particularly rare, of course. In fact, all of them have been compiled at various points over the past five years, so many of your probably already have them in your iPods or your Last.fms or whatever the heck y'all be listening to. But that's what I'm grooving to today as I had to work on Veterans Day, so groove with me, won't you?

The Ramblers Dance Band - "Knock on Wood"
from The Hit Sound of the Ramblers Dance Band, Decca, 1968

E.T. Mensah & his Tempos Band - "Save Me"
from E.T. Mensah's African Rhythms, Decca, 1969

George Danquah - "Hot and Jumpy"
from Hot and Jumpy - New Dimensions in African Hustle! Reggae! Native! Soul! Quami, 1970

C.K. Mann & his Carousel 7 - "Funky Hi-Life"
from Funky Highlife, Essiebons, 1975


thisistomorrow said...

hi there... just discovered your blog today... i added your link on my page, would be cool if you could do the same... keep up the good work... mike

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for commenting, Mike!

i'm always checking for new blogs, so i'd love to see yours... but what is it called? your profile's disabled, mate...

Comb & Razor said...

ahhhh... don't worry; i found it!

okay, consider yourself added!

Africainement said...

hey brota' stoppin by to say hey:)

Comb & Razor said...

Eyeee Wayeee, sistren! :-)

thanks for stopping by!

memomachine said...



Last night I watched a show on the Travel Channel here in the USA that features a New York City chef named Anthony Bourdain. He travels around and partakes in local cuisine. Very interesting show usually.

Last night's show was particularly interesting in that it featured Ghana, lots of palm wine (lol) and quite a bit about the local people and foods. I wish I could travel more because it really looked like a place to have a lot of fun in.

Man those commercial fishing trawlers have totally destroyed the local fish stocks. They had a short section on people fishing from shore using large nets. They couldn't have caught more than a single basket of fish, and most of those were on the small side.

Oh and they showed a little bit of Highlife music.

Comb & Razor said...

what's up, memomachine!

you know i've been meaning to catch "No Reservations" myself since everybody i know seems to swear by it... i never know when it's on, though!

(oh btw, i'm in the US myself!)

but yeah, i'm particularly interested in catching some of the episodes where Bourdain visits Africa and tries out some of the more relatively "regular" cuisine, because all the clips i see tend to be extreme stuff like eating a warthog's faeces-filled rectum with the Bushmen and the like!

memomachine said...


Heh! Actually I think there is a scene where he eats a dish made with rat meat or some such thing. His opinion? "Not bad.". :)

Hey you can catch some clips of Bourdain in Africa, and other places, at:

Trave Channel

Frankly, as I was born in South Korea, one of the things that interest me is the impact of tonalities on the acceptance of music. It's kinda strange but Western music is very popular in the East, but Far Eastern music will never be popular here in the West.

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for the link... i'll check that out!

the tonality thing is an interesting issue. i've often heard arguments that the tonalities inherent to Anglo-American popular music are "universal" in some way... they just have a fundamental human appeal that cuts across all cultures.

i don't know how one can calculate such a thing, but there's got to be a reason why Western pop has managed to penetrate just about every corner of the earth...

memomachine said...


*shrug* I think you're right. Plus the African rhythms and drum beats seem to be able to get anybody moving, which is essential if you want people to "fall into" the music.

Comb & Razor said...

Anglo/Celtic-deried melody + African-derived rhythms = a combination that can't be beat!

ain't America grand?

Capt. Planet said...

been loving your site for a while now. just wanted to say thanks yet again for great music. not sure how you have the time to digitize all this stuff, but I definitely appreciate it.

PEACE from Brooklyn.

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for commenting, Cap... i've been a fan of the Crate for a long time myself!

and yes, you have the coolest name ever.