Reviews May 16, 2024
Ghana Special 2: Electronic Highlife & Afro Sounds in the Diaspora: 1980-93

This set of 18 funky tracks is a welcome follow-up to Soundway’s essential compilation Ghana Special: Modern Highlife Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues, 1968-81. In the late 70s, economic stresses and curfews imposed by the military regime of Jerry Rawlings all but decimated Accra’s once-vibrant live music scene. Young and old highlife musicians with ambitions went into exile, many to Germany where a new sound was being birthed. Dubbed burger highlife—“Burger” being a term for citizens of Hamburg—the new music incorporated current trends in Black pop: disco, funk, R&B and some Caribbean sounds. Many of these artists specifically aimed their work at an international audience, a new frontier. This inevitably meant Ghanaian artists working with European musicians and engineers, and as burger highlife stalwart Charles Amoah notes in Sarah Osei’s informative sleeve notes to this collection, “To be able to play highlife, the structure of the song had to relate to what they already knew.”

In addition to the new rhythms, arrangements and techy aesthetics, the old highlife lyrics rich in proverbs and philosophy gave way to simpler, more universal themes. These changes had the potential to alienate audiences back in Ghana where the biggest existing audience lay, and for a while they did. Success did not come right away, and some artists found sideline jobs or abandoned the effort altogether for other professions. Those who pressed on, seeing the potential for international African music, became the vanguards of a new wave that Ghanaians everywhere, and others, ultimately embraced.

This movement helped to project the Afro-funk and Afrobeat riveting West Africa to a bigger diasporic public. It was also a precursor to the hiplife and Afrobeats movements that came decades later. It was a rich and revealing period of experimentation, well worth revisiting.

It’s worth noting that key artists in this collection, Pat Thomas, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley and Charles Amoah are still recording and performing today. In fact, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley will be performing with his highlife-jazz band in the U.S. this summer, a historic tour not to be missed. Tour dates here.

Pat Thomas’s track on the album, “Gwe Yani,” is funky and driving, with a keyboard hammering out the clavé-like highlife timeline, and jazzy brass breaks arranged by the great Ebo Taylor. Thomas’s piercing tenor is full-strength on this 1979 track. Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s track, “Apple,” is muscular funk, opening with a unison vocal and trumpet melody setting up for Ambolley’s deep, authoritative vocal. Ambolley has called this 1986 album recorded in Switzerland “experimental,” perhaps because it veers away from his beloved highlife, but the title track here is powerful just the same.

Some of the artists in this collection, like Thomas and Ambolley, already had deep histories in pre-1980 Ghanaian music. Others would make their names as pioneers of the new sound. There are too many stand-out tracks here to mention. George Darko’s “Kaakyire Nua” is a burger highlife landmark, with the harmony and vocal style of Kumasi palm wine music—á la Koo Nimo—adapted to a disco beat. Darko’s clear tenor is strong with characteristic palm wine mannerisms, notes dropping off subtly at the end of words. “Anoma Koro” by Starlight has a seductive, slinky groove with a hint of the highlife timeline. The band intersperses harmonized vocal segments with groovy instrumental vamps.

Among the tracks that go for full-on, four-on-the-floor funk, rather than highlife rhythm, we have Jon K “Asafo” Super. Jon K is a veteran of C.C. Mann’s influential Funky Highlife album and here we get a slick, remake from that album with a searing rock guitar solo. Rex Ghamfi “Obiara Bewu” unfolds with a heavy beat, big brass, and chippy-chop guitars backing Ghamfi’s strong vocal. The musicians here are not Ghanaian, but they’re sharp. There’s a keyboard break with a trombone patch and a breakdown with synth drums and pulsing organ break. Fun stuff!

Pepper, Onion, Ginger & Salt weigh in with “M.C. Mambo,” opening with a bass-and guitar-vamp intro feels like Afrobeat but settles into a much straighter four-on the floor charge. Then there are dark Afrobeat brass blasts, and rapping. This is a true German-Ghanaian hybrid, the essence of the new style. The album this track comes from was named for the Bubuashie district of Accra, and it caught on big time there, further opening the way for the burger highlife invasion of the 1980s.

Afropop Weigh in on Afropop's digital future and download an exclusive concert from the archives—free!