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West African Highlife Band: Salute to the Highlife Pioneers

AAJ Staff By

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Highlife—a music born in West Africa following the collision of New World styles like jazz, calypso, and Cuban music—integrated these approaches with traditional drumming, vocals, and strings. Ghanaian bandleader E.T. Mensah, who is credited with the first real exposition of highlife, took a distinctly jazz-oriented approach with The Tempos. As the music evolved, it tended to move away into guitar-flavored pop.

While the '60s were a nostalgic time for highlife, very few modern groups have managed to get the sound right. The West African Highlife band does this quite convincingly on their 1998 record Salute to the Highlife Pioneers. The group marries the fundamentally celebratory spirit of highlife with sophisticated instrumental and vocal approaches. The music never loses its festivity; it retains an upbeat pulse and punchy vocals. Most importantly, it aims for wide accessibility, urging listeners to rise and dance. No extended or complicated improvisations interfere.

Part of the solution lies in the fact that these players are long-term veterans of the music: Ken Okulolo, who produced the record, played bass guitar with highlife giants Sunny Ade and Victor Olaiya. Nigerian native Adesoji Odukogbe, who was Fela Kuti's lead guitarist for five years, brings a touch of afro-beat to the music. Pope Flyne served as the lead vocalist for Ghana's Sweet Talks. And so on.

The thirteen tunes on Salute to the Highlife Pioneers, drawing from Nigerian and Ghanaian roots, include ten classics and three originals by Pope Flyne and Ken Okulolo. The opener, Rex Lawson's '60s piece "Mama Dey for Kumba," accrues energy in its introduction: light interlocked percussion leads into vocals (which harmonize), then short, criss-crossing guitar riffs. By the time the tune gets up to speed, it has snowballed into a full-on romp. "Tamuno Bo Ibroma," with its dancing bass line, incorporates a strong calypso flavor, something that appeared very early in the development of highlife.

Lawson's "So Ala Temen" really embodies the spirit of the music more than any other piece on the record. It's a gentle piece, moving lightly through cyclical harmonies with a Cuban rhythmic element. The Calibari lyrics speak honestly: "God created all humans equal, both rich and poor."

Some of the inventions of this band are a bit questionable: Flyne's keyboard playing, meant to convey the sound of horns, comes across a bit flat. The slower pieces lag a bit. But the group deserves massive praise for bringing their collective spirit to highlife. Even at their weaker moments, they still keep this vibrant music alive.


Track Listing: Mama Dey for Kumba; Bere Bote; Maame; Olomi Jowo; Tamumo Bo Ibroma; Omo Pupa; Taxi Driver; Hoana Nom A; So Ala Temen; Esi; Adunni; It's Time For Highlife; Kajo.

Personnel: Ken Okulolo: lead and background vocals, bass guitar, talking drum, clave, shekere, guitar; Adesoji Odukogbe: lead and background vocals, clave, lead and rhythm guitars, acoustic guitar; Pope Flyne: lead and background vocals, keyboard, shekere; Nii Armah Hammond: congas, background vocals; Lemi Barrow: lead and background vocals, trap drums, shekere. Guests: Manas Itiene, Chisa Tayari: background vocals.

Title: Salute to the Highlife Pioneers | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Inner Spirit Records

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