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V/A - Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81

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Artist: V/A

Album: Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues 1968-81

Label: Soundway

Review date: Nov. 5, 2009

DJ/record collector/producer Miles Cleret has been putting together deluxe collections of West African music long enough that there can be no dispute; he knows how to do this sort of thing right. There’s certainly nothing knocked-off or half-assed about Ghana Special, which extends both the musical lineage and the general high standards of sets like Ghana Soundz, Volumes 1 & 2 and Nigerian Special. Cleret has spent years compiling a vast and wide-ranging archive of vintage vinyl that enables him to select marvelous songs, which he masters so they sound great and puts in sequences that makes it hard to stop the record. His accompanying booklets, while not as fat or as personal as Analog Africa’s, are consistently eye-pleasing and informative. The guy even makes a point to properly license his material, so you don’t have to feel wrestle with your conscience if you buy one of his records.

If anything, Ghana Special owes its existence to Cleret being on a roll. The Ghana Soundz volumes concentrated on indigenous funk, but Nigeria Special showed how harmoniously West African rock, highlife and blues blended with the Afrobeat that still springs to non-African minds when we think of Nigerian music. This set casts a similarly wide net, from the Mercury Dance Band’s jubilant, horn-driven electrification of a Hausa war chant to T.O. Jazz’s lilting, Latin-grooved highlife to Christy Azuma’s light-stepping Afrobeat. And that’s just the first three tracks. Keep going and you’ll get some schooling in good Christian living set to guitar and hand drums that sway like a palm-wine drunk courtesy of St. Peter & the Holymen, some faux-Chinese mugging over the City Boys Band’s sparse, subterranean bass lines and interlocking percussion, and a truly tractor-hipped Afro groove by the Big Beats, whose members had honed their chops in Lagos, Nigeria, and once called themselves the Triffids (no, not those Triffids, but maybe these?). Notice how the telling biographical details work in tandem with the songs themselves? This is how it’s done.

This music is an artifact of a lost era. Ghana was one of the first nations to win independence from its colonizers, but an economic downturn and an episode of political unrest in the 1980s combined with the passing of the African vinyl market in favor of cassettes to put a decisive endpoint to the records collected here. But Cleret doesn’t linger over the point in his liner notes, and Ghana Special doesn’t feel nearly as unreachable as, say, the Ethiopiques series. Proud, virile and thrilling, this music feels too alive for that.

By Bill Meyer

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