A Fine Vintage

Today marks the start of a three part series of posts on Highlife, specifically Ghanaian Highlife. I do not intend to produce an academic style history of the genre; I am not qualified nor do I have the knowledge and inclination. I want to present you with three different tracks and hopefully convey to you why I love them and fingers crossed evoke similar feelings in you.

Highlife in Ghana, has it’s roots in Palm-wine, in both the fermented drink and the music that evolved as guitarists gathered under the palm, singing their songs where the sap was gathered and drank. Palm wine music originally came from Sierra Leone and Liberia, but spread throughout West Africa. The songs were often topical, political, moral or humourous, providing entertainment for the drinkers. 

With the arrival of sailors from Europe and the military of the British in Ghana and with them the musical styles of the West, the music developed and took on the flavours of Jazz and Latin music and evolved into Highlife. The sounds spread throughout Anglophone West Africa. E.T. Mensah was one of the first musicians to incorporate brass into the traditional guitar music.

The genre changed a lot as music evolved and Funk and Rock reared their heads, having a profound influence on the style of the music, making it faster, grittier, with more complex arrangements. Highlife also spread from Ghana to Nigeria, with a lot of the Nigerian bands starting to record their own Highlife and Ghanaian bands moved across the border to record in Nigeria.

Opambuo International Band of Ghana were one such outfit, led by Leo Nana Agyeman. The band recorded several albums in the early 1980’s, and to my knowledge the song for today is from the first, Odo Yewu, which roughly translated from the Twi is “Love till Death” or “My Everlasting Love”.

I have chosen my favourite track from the album. It has great drums, a Rhodes and beautiful vocal harmonies. Great Ghanaian Highlife!

[audio http://k002.kiwi6.com/hotlink/nd470l4s2y/you_de_find_me_trouble.mp3]You De Find Me Trouble

Record Details:
Opambuo International Band of Ghana – Odo Yewu (1981) – Bonne Records/Niger Bridge (NRLP 004)

Opambuo1 Opambuo2 Opambuo3 Opambuo4

Priceless Love

Staying in Mali and Ivory Coast today. Leon Keita released two LPs, both untitled. The first record, showing Keita sitting cross-legged and bordered in turquoise, came out in 1978 and featured vocals of Salif Keita on a couple of tracks. A year or two later, so we are looking at late 70’s, his second and arguably stronger album was released, showing Leon framed in purple standing, flashing a peace sign. Both records were released on Leon Keita’s own Ivory Coast based, Disco-Papa label, which also released records by Pierre Antoine and Kambou Clement.

The selection from today, L’amour Ne S’achete Pas, “Love Cannot be Bought”, starts as typical Madingo music, in the Griot traditional of this region, but then descends into pure Afro Funk with trumpets, and an amazing organ solo. The effect is jaw dropping and a total departure from how the song started.

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/zwr9j816vv/leon.mp3]L’amour Ne S’achete Pas

Record Details:
Leon Keïta – Untitled (197?) – Papa-Disco (Disco 018)

Leon1 leon2leon3leon4

A Little Bit of Sunshine

Mali has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. The internal conflict is tearing the country apart, with approximately half a million people displaced according to the latest United Nations estimates. With elections set for a couple of months times hopefully relative stability will be restored or at least an end to fighting and reported human rights abuses, but things do not look great.

In these troubled times it is important to focus on what makes Mali great; namely the music, which is some of the best in the world. Today’s selection is a slice of Malian disco from the early 1980’s by the International Soleil Band. The great guitarist Sarati Diabaté “dit Vieux” is credited as being the band leader and the organ is played by Ivory Coast musician Houon Pierre, who also produced and was responsible for the sound engineering on several Badmos releases.

Houon Pierre

His organ solo on today’s track Ta Lassa, is spiritual, and I urge you all to get to your knees if you can stop dancing! Diabaté’s beautiful guitar is just incredible and with the deep vocals the song explodes, not letting go, sending waves of shivers down the spine.

Help me God!

Ta Lassa

Record Details:
International Soleil Band – International Soleil Band (1983) – West Africa Music (WAM) (793.016)
soliel1 Soleil2 Soleil3 Soleil4

Returning Home

It’s Sunday. Day of rest and recuperation, after the excesses of the previous night. So I feel it fitting we should continue our gentle exploration of Cape Verdean music.

Frank Mimita moved away from the islands in 1966, to look for a better life in Lisbon, Portugal. He became a professional musician recording with several bands under Luis Rendall stewardship. He then moved onto the Netherlands where he permanently settled and recorded several albums exploring his Cape Verdean heritage, including an album of Mornas and Coladeiras. After his return home to the islands in 1979 he died less than a year later in January 1980.

Today’s selection is from what seems to be a late 70’s album. It is one of my favourite Cape Verdean tracks. It appears to have been co-written with Angolan guitarist Carlos Viera Dias. The organ on the title track is so sorrowful and is matched by the trumpets.

It brings tears to the eyes.

 Forti trabadja palguem

Record Details:
Frank Mimita – Já Nõ Tem Traboi Nã Nõs Terra (197?) – La Do Si Discos (774009)
2013-05-10 15.36.40
2013-05-10 15.36.55Frank1Frank2

You’re Who?

Sometimes music can be confusing*. Especially when bands release versions of songs that are not strict covers and rename the song!

In 1971 Fela Kuti released Who’re You? a raw early Afrobeat track, with subtle horns and driving percussion. It is actually one of the early releases of Africa 70, Fela’s band initially named as Nigeria 70, and it sowed the seeds that were to later blossom into the fully fledged, intricately arranged compositions that made up the classic Fela cuts of the mid to late 1970’s.

Afro National, a band from Freetown, Sierra Leone, released an incredible version of this song two years later as Mr Who You Be; playfully renaming the track and confusing me in the process, as I was sure it was a Fela track I had heard before. I love their version, which strips back the horns, speeds up the drums and injects a breath of fresh air into the song. Mr. Who You Be

The band released several LP’s and singles, mainly of Highlife and Calypso songs and only a few Afrobeat tracks, some with the voice of Patricia Koroma.

Record Details:
Afro National – Dem Kick / Mr. Who You Be (1973) – Afro National (Record No. 2)

*Music and record collecting can also be magical, as digger extraordinaire, Duncan Brooker, demonstrates in this interview, where he discusses his efforts to track down the band.

The plot thickens….
There appears to be a rare early Fela Kuti & Koola Lobitos single “Mr. Who Are You” that could have been the song that Afro National were referencing. This song was supposedly very popular in the whole of West Africa and could explain why it was released by Afro National in Sierra Leone.

Another theory is that “Mr. Who Are You” is an early version of “Who’re You?”, the song Fela recorded with African 70 in 1971. The problem is I have not heard this early version and nor would it appear have many others! Afro National’s “Mr. Who Be You” does bear some similarities to “Who’re You?” but it is definitely not a straight cover.

It therefore appears that both these theories have weight and that there is a lost Fela single that was popular in West Africa, which may have evolved into the later “Who’re You?”

Watch this space!

Thanks to Uchenna Ikonne for this further information.

In it for the Long Run

Gondar sits in the foothills of the Simien Mountains in Northern Ethiopia. It is a beautiful city that was once the capital where Emperor Fasilides resided in the 15th Century. Today Fasilidies castle looks town upon this bustling but friendly city that is a major stopping point on tours of Ethiopia due to its wealth of attractions and proximity to the Simien mountains.



Musically the town is important. Even today there are countless traditional music bars where all are welcome to listen to improvised music and dance late into the night. Aster Aweke, Ethiopia’s most famous female musician, was born in Gondar in 1959 and aged 13 she started her singing career in the capital, Addis Ababa, performing the numerous nightclubs that were springing up in the 1970’s. She sang in some of the biggest bands of the time such as the Shebele Band and the Ibex Band, named after the now endangered animal of the Simiens.

Walia Ibex

Walia Ibex

Aweke moved to America in the early 1980’s, following the death of Haile Selassie and the increased difficulty of performing in such an oppressive environment, and continued to play in Washington D.C. to the large Ethiopian community and subsequently landed a record deal with Sony/Colombia where she came to the world’s attention. She has now released over 20 albums and shows no sign of slowing down.

Today’s selections are from both sides of one of the early singles she recorded. Anteye is really haunting with Aweke’s ghostly vocals and the distintive Ethiopian production, which puts the band right at the back of the mix. The B side, Lomiye, is fast and crazy with falsetto vocals and jumping organ. It could not be further in style from the other side.

This is an incredibly beautiful record and showcases the musical talent that Ethiopia was producing during this golden era.

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/y9s45o52x1/ethio.mp3] Anteye

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/36l17634k1/ethio2.mp3] Lomiye

Record Details:
Aster Aweke – Anteye / Lomiye (1977) – Kaifa Records (AE 43)


Hip to be Square


Gyedu-Blay Ambolley

Musical styles evolve and change, and out of the rubble a new music is often born. Highlife was big in Ghana from the late 1940’s right up until the late 80’s. During this period the sound developed as new electronic instruments came to the fore and the sound moved away from early Palm-Wine style of E.T. Mensah towards a more modern sound, that made use of electric guitars and synthesizers.The influence of America music moved the genre further away from its traditional roots and more toward Funk, Jazz and Soul.

Ghanaian musician Gyedu-Blay Ambolley is often named as an early pioneer of the most popular music in Ghana today, Hiplifewhich mixes R’n’B, Jamaican Dancehall and Hip-Hop with Highlife. His 1973 track Simigwado, contains arguably the earliest recorded Rap, that was to later become so popular in Hiplife.

The track was even sampled by Hiplife artist Replay and Ambolley was invited to perform in the video. Music has a habit of coming full circle with artists, who usually look to America, coming back to home grown sounds:

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Ambolley started playing with legendary guitarist Ebo Taylor in The Uhuru Dance Band, a more traditional Highlife band, and The Apagya Show Band, which explored the Funk sounds of James Brown. His voice is well suited to this style as he is able to produce smooth soulful lines as well as gruff and high-pitched call and response vocals. Both Taylor and Ambolley eventually went their separate paths to to record individually, and both are still active today, with Taylor bringing out his latest album in 2012 and Ambolley about to release an album collaborating with the biggest names in Hiplife.

Today’s selections are from Ambolley’s rare 1985 LP Cut Your Coat. The track Highlife is pure disco and demonstrates his vocal range. Walking Down the Street is a great smooth funk track that gently simmers.

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/0d609f4kp2/highlife.mp3]Highlife – Gyedu Blay Ambolley

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/s3o00vdbu9/ghan2.mp3%5DWalking Down the Street – Gyedu Blay Ambolley

For a wonderful interview with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, where he talks about Ghanaian music and his career have a look here.

Record Details:

Gyedu Blay Ambolley – Cut Your Coat (1985) – Ambolley Production (66.23836)


In 1960 Senegal gained independence from its colonial master France. To celebrate this event a band was formed to play at the Miami Club in Dakar. The band was known as The Star Band of Dakar, and such was its legacy that several other bands were born out of the comings and goings of its members.

Arguably, Africa’s most famous singer, Youssou N’Dour, started his career in the band before forming, Étoile de Dakar with some of Star Band’s members. He went on to become a huge star after his move to Paris and commercial success came with the hit 7 Seconds, with Nenah Cherry, in 1994.


Another one of the bands that came out of the Star Band family was Orchestre Laye Thiam, named after one of the vocalists and arrangers of the songs. Today’s selection, Kokorico, the sound of the cockerel (Cock-a doodle-do), is a classic Afro-Latin track.

The organ dances, horns sing, vocals soar and screech, and the song changes direction several times, like a cockerel strutting around a yard. It is wonderful stuff.

For a detailed discography of Star Band of Dakar and all their variations please see here.

[audio http://k003.kiwi6.com/hotlink/g036j9az16/thiam.mp3%5D 

Record Details:
Orchestre Laye Thiam – S/T (197?) – Soumbouya Musique (IK 3024)


The Lion Roars

thomas_mapfumo1 Jonah-brick
Thomas Mapfumo              Jonah Sithoe

Ocasionally events conspire to produce the ideal breeding ground for music. In this case there is a local culture struggling against a Western Imperialist regime, and music like Rock n’ Roll and Soul competing against African traditions. Perhaps this could be simply summed up as the West versus Africa, where the clear winner is the music.

Thomas Mapfumo was born in 1945 in a town South-East of Harare, Zimbabwe, formally Salisbury, Rhodisia. He started to hear the music of Otis Redding and Elvis Presley whilst in high school. In 1973 he formed the incredibly named Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, who played as a morale booster for copper miners in Mhangura.

Mapfumo first met with up-and-coming guitarist Jonah Sithole in 1975 and formed the Blacks International. Sithole was very much into preserving the essence of Shona culture, the music of which centred upon the Mbira, thumb piano and so started to transpose the sound of the instrument onto the guitar, bringing the sound into the present. Coupled with Mapfumo’s highly political lyrics, describing the erosion of Shona culture by imperial rulers, they produced a highly popular style of music in Zimbabawe that became known as Chimurenga music (revolutionary music in the Shona language).

In the 1980’s, Mapfumo showed no sign of let up with his anti-deference tendencies and was forced to flee from Zimbabawe after critising the policies of the new prime minister, Robert Mugabe. The legacy of Mapfumo cannot be questioned and he is still the most well known musician that has come out of Zimbabwe.

In today’s track Nyamutamba Ne Mombe you can hear everything that makes up Chimurenga music – the Mbira like guitar and Mapfumo’s distintive voice. The sound preserves and updates this powerful Shona culture of Zimbabwe. Mapfumo’s nickname was “the lion of Zimbabwe”, which in my mind is still apt today.

Record Details:
Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks International – Nyamutamba Ne Mombe / Tongosienda (198?) – Chimurenga Music (AS 1125)

Mp1 Mp2