Album Review : Ghana Special Volume 2 : a thrilling ‘burger-highlife’ compilation charting the roots of today’s afro-beats and so much more…

The Breakdown

A massive undertaking which warrants a mammoth compilation of eighteen tracks running over 100-plus minutes but the real beauty of it is that the energy and interest never flags.
Soundway Records 8.9

So, what makes a great compilation album? It so much more than flinging a gaggle of tracks together which have got a loose connection to a time or place or label or genre….and let’s not get started on the ‘Greatest Hits’ collection. No, outstanding compilation albums are assembled by people who know and care about the music they are highlighting. These are releases with a story to tell, artefacts which preserve and enlighten, educational documents with the most fabulous soundtrack.

Soundway Records have been leaders when it comes to bringing out the finest compilations for well over two decades now. Eighties Argentinian electro-synth, Indonesian pop from the fifties, sixties jazz and Luk Thung from Thailand are among the treasures that Soundway have unearthed. Two seminal compilations of Ghanaian music launched the label’s boss Miles Cleret on this long-term crate digging obsession and it’s to that country that the team returns as the focus of their latest release.

Ghana Special Volume 2: Electronic Highlife & Afro Sounds in the Diaspora 1980-1993’ moves on from the much loved ‘Volume 1’, to cover a time of sweeping change for the West-African country and its musicians. In the late seventies Saturday Night Fever stoked the disco boom in Accra and beyond, young people’s thirst for this new thing driving the traditional highlife bands into decline. At the same time as the DJs were taking charge of the dancefloor, the military regime closed in on power and the economy began to dive. Many, musicians included, decided to leave the country to seek out better prospects in Europe, Canada and the US with a large number of people drawn to Germany, particularly Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt.

Musicians being musicians, new connections and friendships were made with German players, producers, clubs and studios as well as fellow Ghanaian artists who had moved to these cities. Soon there was a ‘scene’, a sonic movement known as ‘burger-highlife’ (derived from Bürger, the German word for citizen) which represented the vibrant sound of Ghana’s growing diaspora. It’s this period and its soundscape that ‘Ghana Special Volume 2’ celebrates.

It’s a massive undertaking which warrants a mammoth compilation of eighteen tracks running over 100-plus minutes but the real beauty of it is that the energy and interest never flags. That’s because the core of the highlife music remains, its melodic soul and mesmeric repetition but additionally layers of other, less expected influences come into play. Take the ripping, pinch tight R n B strut of M.C. Mambo by Pepper, Onion, Ginger & Salt, a band formed by Frieberg musician and afrobeat fanatic Annette Lorenz which readily blended Ghanaian and German players to make their effortless groove music. Then there’s the air-punching stomp of Nana Muyen’s Mumude, where the glam pop chant’s, snaking synth horns and an eighties’ snare-smack nudge close to hair-rock meets disco territory. Released in ’89 and featuring high profile ‘burger’ musicians Lee Doudou and Bob Fiscian, it represents a genre reaching its eclectic peak. Alternatively try the giddy melange of Jigi Jigi by DaDaDi with its mix of Soca, swinging Latin rhumba and shimmering disco guitar chops. The timbales rattle, the horns rasp, the backing singers coo and vocalist Delips Apo praises the universal power of dancing, from New York to Accra.

Recorded in Sweden, Apo’s new home on leaving Ghana, Jigi Jigi demonstrates how far new highlife extended beyond from the more traditional forms of previous decades. It also underlines the lyrical shift that permeated through the music of the new Ghanaian diaspora, away from the proverb driven stories of old and onto the more day to day stuff of relationships and inevitably getting down at the party. This all seems a long way from the album’s opening track Ebe Ye Yie Ni by Apo’s previous band The Godfathers, recorded five years earlier in 1980, sung primarily in Twi and focusing on the importance striving to succeed in life to a sparky afro-funk, guitar fuelled locomotion.

The inclusion of established highlife stars on ‘Ghana Special Volume 2‘ underlines not only the significant impact of ‘bürger’ music but also the extent to which migration was such a common experience. Pat Thomas, one of the best known and successful Ghanaian singers, shuttled between London, Berlin and Accra from 1983 onwards, and such multi-cultural fluidity brings new energy to his featured track, Gye Wani. Sure his soaring agile voice is still in control but the beat motors to a fresh Cuban-heeled shuffle with bass slaps and tune-focused horns. Perhaps more striking is Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s Apple from UK sessions recorded in 1986, a rakish soul funk workout which dovetails vocals and synth, Parliament style, as Ambolley MC’s majestically.

With an illuminating introduction from music journalist and writer Sarah Osei and compiler Jeremy Spellacey’s copious track by track bios, ‘Ghana Special 2‘ is a rewardingly comprehensive package. These sleeve notes deliver nuggets of information that are intriguing ,such as featured artists Abdul Raheem and Bessa Simmons’s Osibisa connections, and at times strikingly poignant. Reading about Kwasi Afari Minta’s determination to continue making music after being severely injured in 1987’s Kings Cross Station fire, then listening to his hypnotic electro-spiritual Barima Nsu brings added intensity to one of the collection’s highlights.

Crucially the compilation also ensures that bürger-highlife big hitters like George Darko and Charles Amoah are given space, Darko with the joyous, synth drenched Kaakyire Nua and Amoah with the sultry and sumptuous disco soul of Fre Me. By maintaining such a balance between the well-known and the obscure, ‘Ghana Special Volume 2‘ rarely loses momentum and keeps you on your toes. Crate Diggers, collectors, completists, turntablists and anyone who loves discovering unsung music will be thrilled with this sprawling effort. An album which captures the innovation that paved the way for those future leaning afro-beats of today and which sounds mighty fine any place, any time.

Get your copy ofGhana Special Volume 2: Electronic Highlife & Afro Sounds in the Diaspora 1980-1993from your local record store or direct from Soundway HERE

Also catch the electro-highlife vibes live this summer with the ‘Ghana Special’ Band, featuring Pat Thomas, Charles Amoah, K.O.G. and the Kwashibu Area Band, live at HKW, Berlin (11/07) and UK’s WOMAD Festival (27/07).

Previous Premiere: Brigitte Bardini has a 'Crush' - a gorgeous single expressed in a kaleidoscope of sonic colours that glitter and shine.
This is the most recent story.

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.