With all the sophistication that accompanied highlife's ascendancy as the popular music of West Africa, its roots remain somewhat obscured. Highlife, born in Ghana, incorporates rhythmic styles and instruments from Cuba and the Caribbean, jazz styles from America, and traditional music from West Africa. In the '50s, it was a revolutionary mix. By the '60s, highlife was rapidly becoming an institution.
This record offers an unusual snapshot of highlife in its rawest form. Saka Acquaye, a multi-instrumentalist who formed his African Ensemble in the '50s, leads the group of eleven musicians featured on this reissue from 1969. Up to five players are busy at the drums at any given time, which imbues the music with an assertive polyrhythmic texture. "Drum Festival," a percussion-only piece, showcases the ways this group can assemble a vehicle from moving parts.
While the styles and approaches vary from piece to piece, the common theme is elaboration of images, moods, and morals through song. The opening track, "Sugar Soup," digs deep into West African folk music to tell the story of a girl who goes overboard preparing a soup for her lover. The vocals here betray their West African roots, with distinctive call-and-response units based around a simple repeated theme. "Saturday Night" opens with a horn fanfare, bringing Cuban drums and the unusual voice of the vibraphone to the fore. A popular tune at the time, it has a very catchy swing feel.
"Concomba" highlights the cultural collisions that resulted in highlife: basically a calypso tune, the piece features chord changes and a nice vibraphone solo, plus (of course) a richly textured rhythmic foundation. As a reflection of highlife's origins, it also points toward the direction the music would subsequently head.
Saka Acquaye's ensemble does a nice job of tying things together. This music has a raw feel, unlike a lot of the highlife that was coming out of Nigeria at the time. It's simpler, more organic, andsignificantlymore African. Its back-to-roots approach might make it difficult for Western ears to appreciate, but if you're open to raw culture this record is a fun ride.
Track Listing: 1. Sugar Soup
2. Down the Congo
3. Saturday Night
4. Drum Festival
6. Beyond Africa
7. Congo Beat
8. Echoes of the African Forest
9. Bus Conductor
11. Kenya Sunset
Personnel: Saka Acquaye: drums, flute, and tenor saxophone; Garvine Masseaux:
vibes & drums; George Brooks: double-bass; Edward Cooper: trumpet
and mellophone; Wilfred Letman: trumpet; Charles Earland: tenor
saxophone; Walter Miller: guitar; Robert Crowder, Joseph Acquaye, Benny
Parkes, Sunny Morgan: drums.
I was first exposed to jazz while working overseas in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I would listen to the Voice of America on the radio and they had a nightly jazz program on at 10:00pm. I learned a lot about jazz listening to this program. I also had a friend who listened to real jazz by artists like Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. On my way home from Africa I landed in New York and had the opportunity to see the George Adams/Don Pullen quartet at the Village Vanguard as well as Kenny Barron and Ron Carter at another club, and was in heaven.