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V/A - Highlife Time: Nigerian and Ghanaian Sound from the 60’s and early 70’s

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Artist: V/A

Album: Highlife Time: Nigerian and Ghanaian Sound from the 60’s and early 70’s

Label: VampiSoul

Review date: Sep. 12, 2008

Highlife is club music. Not any old nightclub, but big, grand, gay (the "gay" of yore, like when George Burns could sing it and Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t have snickered), evoking images of white dinner jackets and hired drivers. Whether that image is appropriate to a discussion of West African music is another conversation entirely, but highlife just oozes "society" the same way mambo or swing would. Neither temporally nor melodically challenging, it’s a deceptively easy form that invites first- and second-timers to take a swing at it, but like distant American cousins old timey and bluegrass, highlife can reveal myriad styles, its own structural limitations being challenges to enterprising musicians or bandleaders who want to show they are the leaders of their genre. VampiSoul’s Highlife Time: Nigerian and Ghanaian Sound from the 60’s and early 70’s is comprehensive to the point of feeling nearly exhaustive (it’s hard to review a VampiSoul compilation without describing it as "comprehensive" and "exhaustive"), and guides the listener into the highlife world far enough to show that there indeed a host of different angles and approaches representing this chiming, languid, sweaty and sometimes freaky music.

While the pace is often gentle, eruptions of funk (such as Stan Plange & The Uhuru Dance Band’s version of "Grazing in the Grass") dot the collection. Listen to the roaring horns of Rex Lawson and His Rivers Men on their contribution "Numfinye"; the horns, particularly the trumpets, scream out front, more sound than the mic can handle, overdriving to the point that the vocals do the same to compete and the whole thing sounds as if it were shot out of some Ghanaian bullhorn. The dissonant brass hits of Lawson’s "Yellow Sisi" go even further to show the absolute creativity allowed, if not required, in highlife. Unlike the 1-4-5 chord progressions of much of highlife (and West Africa’s) music, "Yellow Sisi" strikes a minor key and rests on a vamp that finds room for a more dense, and more indigenously-instrumented rhythm section, as well as some sax noodling that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Masaro Sato’s soundtracks for Kurosawa’s films.

It’s no secret that Nigeria and Ghana, although separated by two countries, have shared and traded a musical heritage that fed not only careers represented on this album but those of West Africa’s most famous bandleaders, including Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, Ghana’s Orlando Julius (who was reported to be an influence on the former), King Sunny Ade and Chief Ebenezer Obey, the latter two Nigerian juju music proponents whose roots shine through across this collection. The influence that highlife had on juju is apparent throughout: a rhythmic fabric constructed of not just traditional rhythm instruments but often several guitars, each playing a different, syncopated, and ultimately intertwining phrase. The prominence of the talking drum, so essential to Nigerian juju as well as music from Ghana’s neighbor Senegal, surfaces to forecast the arrival of juju as well.

The common ground between highlife and Jamaican ska is visible, too. When Lawson adds his voice to the rhythm section on "Peri Special" by emulating the ubiquitous shekere (beaded gourd) with his mouth by going "chikka chikka chik chik," the distance between Ghana and Roland Alphonso’s Jamaica is shortened considerably. (Check out Alphonso’s own "chikka chikka" sound effect in the ska-comp-stalwart "Phoenix City.")

The absolutely psychedelic guitar runs of Opotopo’s "Etuk Owo" show the highlife style stretched as far as perhaps it’s going to go in recorded history. Warbling synthesizers fill in an otherwise-sparse rhythmic background to set the stage for broken strips and shards of guitar that seem to fall out of the same tree as blues, bebop, aluminum, candy and Sun Ra. It certainly sounds like a one-off, even a blooper, but it helps close the album like a pointy punctuation mark from outer space, and upends any notion of highlife as timid dance music.

By Andy Freivogel

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