Life Stories: Highlife and Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980
US: 12 Apr 2011
UK: 11 Apr 2011
When Ebo Taylor released his latest album, 2010’s Love and Death, he said this of his approach to the record: “For the new album, I wanted to advance the cause of Afrobeat music. Fela started it and we shouldn’t just abandon it. We should push it so it is a standard form of music.”
Well, with the attention Afrobeat and African music in general has been getting recently, it’s safe to say that Taylor and his compatriots have gone a long way towards making it not just a standard form, but a vital and important one in music across the world. More interesting to note, though, is Taylor’s deference to Fela Kuti. Kuti is, surely, the godfather of Afrobeat, and he and Taylor actually studied music together in London in 1962. But if Fela Kuti is the face of Nigeria in African music, you could argue that Taylor is the face of Ghana. And if Fela Kuti reigns over Afrobeat as we know it, Taylor’s new retrospective—Life Stories: Highlife and Afrobeat Classics 1973-1980—makes a convincing case for him as at least a second in command.
By the time Taylor went to London to study, he was already on his way to making his mark in Ghana composing, arranging, and fronting for bands like Stargazers and Broadway Dance Band. Those big bands dealt in highlife music, a genre that rose out of Ghana, Nigeria, and Liberia and incorporated elements of jazz and calypso with traditional African elements to make big-sounding, punchy dance numbers. You can hear that big-band vibe on Life Stories, but Taylor’s ‘70s output is far more expansive and exploratory. Like Kuti, he stretched out in the 70’s and worked funk and soul into his sound to make works that were no less danceable, but far more unpredictable and complex.
While it’s easy to see Kuti’s influence here—as with most Afrobeat music—Taylor’s approach is still unique and his execution as both composer and performer is astounding all the way through this collection. His work actually sounds closer to some of Tony Allen’s records. Allen, who played with Kuti, got a bit more laid-back on works like No Accommodation for Lagos. Like him, Taylor lets the vibe loosen up a bit, so that the hot-blooded liveliness of these songs is never lost, but where Kuti’s records came at you in exciting ways (due in part to his commanding voice) Taylor builds a subtler energy. This is perhaps best shown in his work with Uhuru-Yenza. Taylor and Uhuru-Yenza only recorded one album together, but songs like “What is Life?” and the original version of “Love and Death” both have a funky chug, huge horn sections, and blistering guitar lines. They also address political concerns like Kuti did, but here the vocals are sweet, the singers come together and sing with a growing warmth rather than a hard edge. Horns go quiet and softer elements like flute swell up any extra space. In short, these songs draw you in; they leave space for the listener to be part of things. There is tension here, to be sure, but there are equal measures of release, and that groove riding under much of Taylor’s work makes it somehow stronger, more confident, and thus more affecting.
This collection lets us in on highlights from Taylor’s solo career, but also points us to a glut of hidden gems. His work with the Apagya Showband—who only released a couple of singles—is well represented here with the “Tamfo Nyi Ekyir”, “Kwaku Ananse”, and “Mumude”. These songs trade organ vamps and gnarled guitar work, as a sort of call and response, and this stuff sprints more than any of Taylor’s other work. These songs juxtapose well with the CK Mann Big Band song here, “Etuei”. Taylor only wrote and produced on this one, but its dreamy slide and gauze guitar work show another brilliant side to his musical vision.
The stuff we get from Taylor’s purely solo work is absolutely essential listening. “Heaven”, which opens the two-disc set, is an Afrobeat classic, with his wandering guitar leads slicing holes through the skronky organ work. His guitar playing is at its best on “Peace on Earth”, where the horn section best represents his Highlife roots with those beautiful, towering rundowns that stop the song it its track to punctuate each movement. The biggest surprise here comes in the rare track “Aba Yaa”, an epic, shuffling 15-minute piece. The structures get loose on this one, but Taylor never loses direction. This stuff marches forward, but rather than move forward with the propulsion we expect from Afrobeat, it claims a space and builds a landscape around it with vocal harmonies, chiming organs, a warm bed of horns, and funky guitars. It’s a definitive statement from Taylor, both as a player and a composer/arranger, and an endlessly interesting piece of music to study.
The collection ends with “Egya Edu”, a track made with another of Taylor’ short-lived projects, the Pelikans. The song bookends nicely with the well-known “Heaven” by driving home Taylor’s incredible consistency. These 16 tracks, the lofty highlights of his most fruitful days, represent an amazing run of great music by a brilliant artist. In these 100-plus minutes of music, there isn’t a weak moment to be found, and that surprisingly steady excellence reveals Taylor to be as important a musician as there is in African music. Fela Kuti was making his own classic records at this time—Afrodisiac, Gentlemen, Zombie, and so on—but Life Stories makes it clear that, even if Kuti’s albums have gotten more attention, Taylor was making music just as exciting to listen to, and just as important to our understanding of African music at the time. As our attention to African music grows, don’t be surprised if Taylor’s legacy grows with it. For giving us the music we get on Life Stories, he deserves at least that much.