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)

Grandfather of Benga

misianiDaniel Owino Misiani, known as the “grandfather of Benga“, came from Tanzania, moved to Kenya in the 60s to become a musician, where he pioneered this new music. He started recording with the Victoria Boys, later becoming Shirati Jazz, who gained popularity as Benga took off in the late 70s.

Misiani seemed to always be surrounded by controversy. In the 60’s, when he started playing his songs in local villages, he was popular with the school girls and young women, drawn to his early love longs, so much so, that fights broke out amongst the men of the villages keen to impress the large female gatherings that followed him around. On several occasions he was forced to flee the villages after guitars were smashed by angry men and village elders. Later on in his career, being part of the Luo people, a large tribal group in Kenya that felt excluded from the government, many of his songs commented on politics and current affairs. Therefore, he was always keenly followed by those in power, who wanted to be certain he wasn’t being critical of their policies. He was jailed a couple of times as a result.

The classic Benga sound in the late 70’s, as heard in Kiseru, was built around a catchy guitar riff and two part harmonies that gradually progress before the song descends into pure unadulterated fast dance music. In the 80’s the boom passed, as other styles gained in popularity, problems with cassette piracy, and lack of airplay meant that Benga suffered.

Sadly, as it seems with so many of these artists, Misiani died in 2006 in a car crash. He left behind 14 children* and two wives.


A lot of the information in this post came from the great compilation “D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz – The King Of History – Classic 1970s Benga Beats From Kenya”

Record Details:

Mwalimu D.O. Misiani & Orch. D. 07 Shirati Jazz – Kiseru 1 & 2 (1978) – Maikano Records (MAI 002)

Kenya1 Kenya2

* One of Misiani’s children, Robert aka Gun B. Robert, followed in his father’s footsteps into music, became a Hip Hop artist and recorded the hit Nampenda (“Love” in Swahili) – I believe it his him rapping on the chorus. In the video Pilipili (?) appears to impress a female shopper, showing her what particular tea to buy in the supermarket.