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