Ghanaian highlife maestro back with a new set
Ghana’s Ebo Taylor has been playing and recording music for decades, but his fame in the West has never quite matched that of his Nigerian contemporary, Fela Kuti. Like Kuti, Taylor plays a high-energy brand of polyrhythmic dance music that owes much to James Brown and much to African forms of pop music like highlife. Taylor’s songs are multilayered affairs, built up out of strands of percussion, throbbing basslines, keyboard and guitar flourishes, and horn accents. Vocals tend to be chanted as much as sung, and songs often stretch their hypnotic grooves to the five-minute mark and beyond. It’s all quite mesmerizing.
It takes opening track “Ayesama” about fourteen seconds to establish the groove that will carry the listener through the next seven minutes. Utilizing all the elements listed above, “Ayesama” weaves an irresistible spell. Follow-up track “Abonsam” is only slightly less urgent, allowing Taylor’s plaintive vocals to come front and center. The other sounds remain, in particular the off-kilter rhythm and brassy horn punctuation.
Not until the record’s midway point does “Yaa Amponsah” break up the all-encompassing vibe of the album. This tune is an uptempo number that feels much slower—and longer—than it really is. Consisting of Taylor’s solo vocal over a pair of guitars, one acoustic and the other plugged in, the song functions as either a pleasant palate-cleanser before the second half of the record, or as an unaccountably out-of-place tune that seems to have wandered in from a different album altogether. I tend toward the latter response: a change of pace it might be, but “Yaa Amponsah” isn’t terribly interesting, and serves mainly to make this listener impatient.
The good news is, there’s more fun stuff on the way in the form of “Assondwee”, “Kruman Dey”, and “Appia Kwa Bridge”. The last two songs, in particular, ramp up the funk factor on this album, incorporating such can’t-miss funk staples as farfisa and wah-wah guitar in their four-to-six-minute workouts. There is a pleasant urgency in the vocals, too, that matches the rollicking bounce of the instrumentation. Without a doubt, these two songs form the album’s high-water mark. It’s curious, then, that they are somewhat buried in the back half of the album.
Another drum-free acoustic number, “Barrima”, closes out the album. This one is easier to accept than the first, both because of the tradition of introspective album closers (“A Day in the Life”, “Redemption Song”) and also because this is a better tune than “Yaa Amponsah”. Taylor’s voice wavers huskily throughout, so the non-English vocals ooze emotion even to the ears of this linguistically limited listener.
Longtime fans may complain that Taylor has lost some of his frenetic energy since his 1970s and ‘80s heyday, and it’s true that his earlier albums such as Love & Death and Life Stories were masterpieces of the genre. But Appia Kwa Bridge has plenty of juice in its six danceable tracks to keep most listeners happy. It’s a worthy addition to the oeuvre of Ghanaian Afro-pop, as well as a lively and entertaining album in its own right.