Quick question: What was the first Rough Guide with a regional focus—the one that came right after that globally general book-companion The Rough Guide to World Music? Answer: The Rough Guide to West African Music. That guide was followed, at intervals, by The Rough Guide to Highlife, The Rough Guide to Nigeria and Guinea, The Rough Guide to Senegal and Gambia … and so on, and so on: a real flood of West Africans. “We’re both mad about this kind of music, aren’t we?” says Phil Stanton, the founder of the label, to the compiler Martin Sinnock in the interview that comes with this disc. Sinnock agrees. He admits that his home is stuffed with West African records. “I’m embarrassed to talk about it… I’m constantly tripping up over piles of CDs and LPs.”
He sounds reluctant, but at the same time pleased to be asked, as dedicated enthusiasts often are. The pair of them are friends, and it’s evident that they both know their stuff. This is the kind of interview that whets the appetite. You expect that whatever compilation comes out of this partnership is going to be good.
The songs Sinnock has chosen span a period from the late 1950s to the late ‘70s. “A golden era,” he writes in the notes. By the ‘50s, the Europeans who had colonised West Africa were packing up and going home, leaving their former colonies in the hands of the locals. The new governments set up ministries of the arts, and those ministries went searching for musicians. Music was a tool that helped give the new countries a sense of identity. Where the Europeans had national orchestras, the Africans had national bands. Several of these bands even used the word “orchestra” in their names, a piece of appropriation echoed in the Caribbean by calypso singers who called themselves Lord and King. The colonised had found their own uses for the language of the colonisers.
Bands that had been playing cover versions of overseas product now began to search for ways to make the music distinctively Guinean, or Malian, or Senegalese. Native dances and songs were the obvious places to start. On top of this they blended popular Latin genres such as rumba, as well as the European tunes that had worked their way into the region’s consciousness during the occupation. Highlife, which became a staple of Guinean pop, took its name from the “high life” enjoyed by people at European-style formal dances during the 1920s. By the 1950s, it leaned toward a combination of guitars and trumpets with a chorus and a lead singer. (Nowadays rappers are sampling it and nicknaming the new genre hiplife, but you’ll have to look outside this compilation for that.)
There are several different highlife bands on West African Gold. If you want an example of the typical sound, then try Celestine Ukwu’s “Ife Si Na Chi” or Eric Agyeman’s “Abenaa Na Aden?”, a sunlit swirl of guitar and singing with an organ humming in the background. If you like it, but it seems a little too gentle, look out for Naxos World’s Electric Highlife album. It shouldn’t be too expensive and the bands sound grittier than they do here.
Overseas, during this time, guitars were becoming an increasingly important part of popular music. The same happened in West Africa. It was an age of beautiful guitarwork; of winding, rapid, intricate sounds. One of the loveliest pieces of guitar on this compilation appears in the Rail Band’s “Mali Cèbalenw”. The tune has two guitar lines, one subterranean, the other higher, and they’re both so rich and ringing that your heart resonates in sympathy. It’s like hearing two wise voices rise out of an intelligent well. For once, Salif Keita’s singing is upstaged. Keita recorded this song with the Rail Band early in his career, when he was finally off the streets, no longer busking, and his voice had not yet become the steel arrow that it is today. It feels its way into the notes instead of spearing them. He sounds good, but the guitars sound better.
Lyrics were often used to tell stories, give lessons, make announcements, or publicise the musicians’ opinions on political issues. West African Gold begins with E.T. Mensah’s “Ghana-Guinea-Mali”, a gentle calypso celebrating the Union of African States that was established between the three countries after independence. “A state on a strong foundation / For redemption of Africa”, explains the song. Other African countries “are called to join this great union”. The notes don’t give an exact date for “Ghana-Guinea-Mali”, but it must have been recorded somewhere around the very early ‘60s; the Union of African States was established in 1961 and came apart in 1962. The Union was built on Marxist principles, but this calypso is not at all the blunt, shouting propaganda that is often associated with Communist politics. It hums along with a nostalgic swing.
It’s followed by the most incongruous track on the disc, Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats with “Let Them Talk”. The doot-de-doo of Mensah’s calypso steps up the tempo and turns into funk. Pino was Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat predecessor, and “Let Them Talk” is like a mixture of Kuti and James Brown. It sounds as unusual on this album as it did back in the days when it burst onto the local dance scene with its aggressive pelvic-thrust swagger.
“I was playing highlife jazz when Geraldo Pino came to town in ‘66 or a bit earlier with soul,” Kuti reported to his biographer Carlos Moore. “Ahhhhhh, this Sierra Leonean guy was too much. Geraldo Pino from Sierra Leone! I’ll never forget him. I never heard this kind of music before-o, I’m telling you. Only when I went to Ghana shortly after that did I hear music like that again, soul music … After seeing this Pino, I knew I had to get my shit together. And quick!”
In the West African Gold interview, Phil Stanton wonders why Pino isn’t better known, and after listening to “Let Them Talk” I was wondering the same thing. It sounds like music that a lot of people would love: American soul with an African flavour, good but obscure. You could put it on and your friends would turn to you and say, “Wait … who is this?” “Geraldo Pino,” you’d say. “You haven’t heard him before, but wow, hey?” And then you’d all start dancing along like idiots.
Sinnock pins the reason for our neglect of Pino on a combination of Kuti’s reputation, which was powerful enough to push his musical forebear out of the public eye, and Pino’s nationality. Sierra Leone doesn’t have a huge international profile, musically speaking, and indeed everything else-speaking as well, unless you want to talk about atrocious civil wars. S.E. Rogie is about it as far as their international musicians go—there will be people reading that and thinking, “S.E. who?”—and their palm wine music has leaked out into a few western compilations, and that’s the end of it. Oh, Sierra Leone. May its resurgence be swift and musical and not accompanied by any more bloody severing of hands by dumb bullies.
The rest of the songs are the dance band kind, the ones with the Latin flavouring, the brass, the singing men, and the guitars. Sinnock says that there were three bands that “had to be on here”: the Rail Band (the Orchestre Rail Band de Bamako if you want to use its formal title, which few people do because it is long and “Rail Band” is much simpler), Bembeya Jazz, and Orchestra Baobab. He’s found good tracks from each. “Mali Cèbalenw” I’ve already mentioned. Bembeya Jazz was a Guinean band fronted by a man named Demba Camara whose lingering tenor voice brought him fame before he died in a car crash back in ‘73. The song on West African Gold is a B-side released in the year of his death. It’s called “Whiskey Soda” and it features the sound of Camara pretending to get drunk. He slurs, hiccups, and ends up making a duck-like bawling squawk. The lovely thing about all of this is that the rest of the band goes on playing nonchalantly behind him as if nothing is happening.
When it comes to Orchestra Baobab, our compiler wisely doesn’t make the slip of taking a well-known song from a well-known band’s most well-known album, as The Rough Guide to Flamenco Nuevo did in March. Orchestra Baobab has two well-known albums to its credit, and a track from either one of them would have seemed like cheating. The live version of “Boulmamine” that closes West African Gold was recorded in 1980 and released on CD in 1994. It’s the same song you can hear on 2002’s Specialist in All Styles, but done a little faster, sharper, and shorter. The differences are enough to make it sound fresh. The quality of the recording is less perfect than it was on Specialist, but who cares? It’s Orchestra Baobab, and they are The Men. Madman Issa Cissoko has the usual intermittent fun with his sax, and Barthelemy Attisso is modest but deadly behind his glittering glasses.
The other groups are less famous than those three, but all of them are worth your time. The Horoya Band’s “Were Were” is a brisk, dense wall of guitar with a bright horn section, and rapid singing. The Super Sweet Talks turn out a piece of highlife organ gospel called “The Lord’s Prayer”, which is just close enough to cheese to make me want to giggle, without going over the edge. Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Masters steer their “Ekassa No. 34 / Igiodo-Giodo” melange in one direction during the introduction, and then they jump back and switch sounds in a way that still surprises me every time I hear it. Uwaifo’s flute is unusual and totally welcome.
No doubt there will be collectors out there with their own private houses covered in African vinyl who will look at this line-up and say, “He should have included this,” or “That’s not their best work; why didn’t he use this other song instead?” but for someone like me, and possibly like you, who would be happy to hear a good sampler that includes enough of the essentials to keep a newcomer informed, but doesn’t retread tunes that will bore the older-timers, The Rough Guide to West African Gold hits the nail on the head. People who already own those earlier Rough Guides will notice some of the same artists reappearing (Victor Uwaifo, for example, appears on the highlife Rough Guide accompanied by a different band, the euphonically named Titibitis), but as far as I can see the label hasn’t re-used any of the same songs. They don’t need to. “That,” as Martin Sinnock says, “is the great thing about West African music. Once you get into it, there’s just stacks of it”.