Before Paul Simon broke out with Graceland in 1990, not many people outside of Ghana and Nigeria had heard of highlife music. Simon had been given a cassette of some highlife music, and mentioned it as an influence on that album. The highlife influence was more strongly felt on Simon’s next album, Rhythm of the Saints, but whatever you think of these musical stews, you have to admit he got people to listen to some new music! Rough Guides though, goes right to the source! The Rough Guide to Highlife will act as that mix cassette did to Paul Simon. It will get you moving and shaking, up and dancing. It will stir your heart and your soul. Just as the sub-title claims, “upfront and upbeat: West African guitars dance.”
The album begins with Celestine Ukwu’s “Igede.” Guitars noodle, drums find a rhythm, a sax twists and turns, Ukwu shouts and the listener is drawn into a strange mix of beat and melody. It’s a different world. Repetitive riffs on the guitar are reminiscent of the playing of Ray Phiri and Vincent Ngini (from Simon’s records), but this was the start of it all; Ukwu was recording in the ’70s. Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe has released over 200 albums! His band combines plenty of brass with the snaking guitar interplay which defines Highlife; subtle and hypnotic. Jerry Hansen and the Ramblers Dance Band are next. With a name like that they might be playing standard at a night club in Vegas, but they mix soul, Caribbean and Latin elements with the African base to create their own sound. The group vocals harmonize well. Joe Mensah’s “Boscoe” starts off slowly establishing a groove, but is infectious and danceable, almost Funkadelic!
Nana Ampadu and the African Brothers are represented by “Bone Biara So Wo Akatua.” The booklet tells us that his lyrics are allegorical morality tales, but the average listener who doesn’t understand Ghanaian will content themselves with feeling the rhythm. This is music that sounds marvelous turned up loud. There’s a touch of early reggae to some of this, but perhaps it’s simply my unfamiliarity with the style. Lots of rhythm, bass, and sparkling, swirling guitars grooving and dancing … it’s almost pure sound, especially when you don’t understand the lyrics. Rather than be bogged down by the messages, the listener is forced to respond only to the sonic input. It’s a pure and vital experience.
There are fifteen tracks on The Rough Guide to Highlife. Fifteen vibrant, rhythmic, hypnotic tracks of exotic and exciting music. It’s a wonderful introduction to this music. Bravo Rough Guides.
(World Music Network, 2003)