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Ebo Taylor - Life Stories

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Artist: Ebo Taylor

Album: Life Stories

Label: Strut

Review date: Jun. 8, 2011


Ebo Taylor - "Heaven" (Life Stories)


What puts a guy at the top, and what keeps him going? The West African compilations released by Analog Africa, Honest Jon’s, Soundway and Strut have put paid to the notion that Fela Kuti thought Afrobeat up on his own, but he’s still the genre’s dominant figure over a decade past his death. Why? It helps that the Nigerian made a lot of great music, but he also had enormous charisma.

Ghanaian guitarist, singer, and arranger Ebo Taylor has a lot in common with Kuti, and some of his music sounds a lot like Fela’s, but their fates have been quite different. Both men enjoyed a certain amount of privilege growing up, which enabled them to study abroad. They were classmates in London in the early 1960s, where they hung out together and shared their wish to combine the highlife they’d grown up playing with the jazz and contemporary European and North American pop styles that they loved. But while Kuti went back to Nigeria and became a musical-political force of confrontation, Taylor based himself in Ghana and worked elsewhere in West Africa, according to the fortunes of the moment. Given the fantastic quality of the music collected on recent compilations like the two volumes of Ghana Soundz, Ghana Special and Afro-Beat Airways, it boggles the mind to learn that it was made between phases when economic and governmental circumstances made it difficult for people to go hear music in public, let alone for musicians to record, but that’s how it was.

But such challenges didn’t keep Taylor down. He’s a celebrated figure in his neck of the woods, and the number of records that Strut got to cherry-pick to make this compilation testifies to the fact that he did not have a hard time getting into the studio. But that studio facility may be part of what has afforded him a lesser historical position than his old school chum. The nimble picking that blows in after the horns break down the door at the beginning of “Heaven,” the opening tune of Life Stories, proves that he is a superb guitarist, and he impresses with his versatility, lyrical fluency, and facility with a wah-wah pedal whenever he pushes his playing to the front on the 15 tracks that follow.

But neither that song nor any of the others are really about hot licks. No, what makes “Heaven” great is the way it unfolds; everything happens at just the right time, each percussive accent or horn fanfare does just what it needs to do. This guy was (and still is — Strut has also released an album that he made in Berlin two years ago) a master arranger and synthesizer, capable of mixing the sweet melodicism of highlife, disco bass lines, Deep Purple’s keyboard solos, and local folkloric styles into big, bold Afrobeat so effortlessly that you don’t notice where the parts join. He’s so much of a master that he did a lot of his work in collaboration with or working for others; the album’s music is credited to nine different performers. Taylor is a capable, expressive singer, but he shares the microphone with the intricate call and response of Asaase Ase, a non-professional community organization, and Gyedu Blay-Ambolley, who injects some welcome urgency into The Apagya Showband’s cuts. And while Taylor shares Kuti’s concerns about politics, morality and affairs of the heart and groin, his lyrical methods are different; he’d rather update an old proverb than bluntly name names. Kuti was determined to get under people’s skins; Taylor confines his appeals to the ears and the hips.

Life Stories is somewhat deceptively named. It does not survey Taylor’s entire career, but sticks to the middle and late ‘70s, the years when Afrobeat was fresh and African music was still pressed on vinyl. But that focus makes for a certain consistency, just as the sampling of different projects keeps the music varied. His music may lack Fela’s charisma, but it’s deeply satisfying and apposite to all those moments when you aren’t thinking about shouting truth to power.

By Bill Meyer

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