Remember those stellar studio bands of the late sixties/early seventies – The Meters, The Section, The Wrecking Crew, Muscle Shoals – defining the sound of where a record was made and fuelling the hit factories. Switch over to West Africa and you find the same thing, the tightest groups of session players at the source of so many exceptional records. In Nigeria, the studio band at Tabansi, powered that label’s first releases on the way to pop dominance and in Ghana Vis-A-Vis provided K. Frimpong with the bridge to highlife super-stardom.
But Vis-A-Vis were so much more than a backing band; they had their own things to say and their own way of saying them. Their extensive catalogue of thirteen vibrant releases from 1975 to ‘82 is a testament to their significance and one that those excellent curators at We Are Busy Bodies have thankfully chosen to celebrate. Earlier this year the Toronto based label kicked off the sequence with the twin re-issue of two seminal LPs ‘Obi Agye Mi Dofo’ plus ‘Odo Gu Ahorow’ and now comes the unveiling of a couple more, ‘Di Wo Ho Ni’ and this particular treasure ‘The Best of Vis-A-Vis In Congo Style‘ (available from 10th December).
It’s a record that highlights the deep musicality and natural versatility of the band. They may have revolved around a tight core of vocalist Isaac “Superstar” Yeboah, Sammy Cropper on guitar, Slim Manu on bass and Gybson “Shaolin Kung-Fu” Papra on drums, but Vis-A-Vis were a group that could effortlessly mix it up. Here on ‘In Congo Style’ it’s their son cubano leanings that get the most air and yes it’s breath-taking.
Opener ‘Medofo Pa’ packs together all the essential elements of swing and pazazz in a tidy six minute calling card: the riffing sixties garage keyboards; the trill and thrill of the guitar; the solid bass bump and flutter; the ecstatic percussion charge; and the joyous unison vocals. A sensationally pacey rumba tune, ‘Medofo Pa’ highlights the ‘oneness’ of the band where the playing gyrates intuitively as the momentum builds. By the time the fade cools things down you really do need that rest.
Not everything on ‘In Congo Style’ is so uproarious. Another highlight that beams through the whole album is the inherent song-craft that Vis-A-Vis had at their fingertips. Take ‘Asalam Alekum’, a lilting mid-tempo ballad that hits its stride with a warm keyboard wash and agile percussion. It’s a song which just rolls along, starring Isaac and Anthony Yeboah’s vocals that are so quintessentially ‘on it’ in terms of their intonation and timing, you just have to smile. Then there’s ‘Vic Sanbra’ where the weave of swooning harmonies, spoken word and winning hooks mingle seamlessly with the prime highlife backing.
Elsewhere the dynamism and invention of the musicians is the frequent attention grabber although not in the sense of swaggering solos or spotlight argy bargy. Vis-A-Vis were a band that focused on the power of a collective sound and making that happen. On their cover of Freddy Mayoni’s flighty uptempo rumba ‘Cherie Bondowe’ the song blossoms with the band’s devotion to their chugging syncopation. Slim Manu’s subtle basslines, the accents he brings and the precision of his pauses gives the track the funkiest of anchors, allowing the others to bob and weave freely. ‘Efre Adofo’ uses a different foundation, reggae-toned organ chords that simmer soothingly around the off-beat. As the son cubano style skank heats up Sammy Cropper’s extraordinary guitar picks up the rhythm with a series of the sharpest high neck chops -it’s glorious stuff that would make Nile Rodgers weep.
All too soon the final track ‘Nsenkeka Adooso’ sashays its way across the turntable. The most brass flavoured track on the album it perhaps misses the extra vocal lift but still serves as a soothing footnote to all the previous action. ‘The Best Of Vis-A-Vis In Congo Style’ captures yet another exciting dimension to a group whose importance is once again getting noticed, thanks to We Are Busy Bodies inspired reissue campaign and the customary respectful re-mastering from Noah Mintz at Lacquer Channel. Exceptionally inventive and flawlessly executed you are left in no doubt that Vis-A-Vis made music of a rare quality that deserves to be always out-there, making those floorboards jump.
Get your copy from your local record shop or direct from We Are Busy Bodies at: