In recent years, there’s been an explosion of interest in African pop music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. One of the most important reasons for this newfound enthusiasm is the increased availability of high-quality compilation albums that showcase the vast body of excellent, genre-melding music that’s been produced across Africa in the last 50 years.
The French Buda Musique label helped spark the current fervor with the 1997 release of the first volume in its Ethiopiques series. Ethiopiques didn’t primarily focus on traditional African folk music. Instead, it showcased popular recordings by Ethiopian artists, primarily from the ’60s and ’70s — the years preceding the country’s fall into dictatorship, when music production nearly ceased. As music fans discovered, the songs on Ethiopiques were infectious and hypnotic. Influenced by American soul and jazz as much as Afrobeat and traditional African folk, Ethiopiques was chock full of sample-ready tracks, filled with swinging rhythm sections, percolating drum beats, slinky bass grooves, bluesy piano riffs, and soulful singers and horns belting out instantly accessible, hook-laden, snake-charming melodies.
The subsequent popularity of Ethiopiques — 2009 marked the release of the 25th volume in the series–has spurred a number of other labels to follow suit by releasing collections of once-popular, now hard-to-find African music, largely from East and West African countries, and primarily from the ’60s and ’70s. Among those labels, Soundway Records has consistently put out some of the best compilations, starting in 2003 with Ghana Soundz: Afrobeat, Funk and Fusion in 70’s Ghana, the first entry in a two-volume series, which featured mostly out-of-print recordings from the ’70s by long-forgotten African artists influenced by everyone from Fela Kuti to James Brown to Santana. Like Ethiopiques, the music on Ghana Soundz — mostly dubbed “highlife” in Ghana — is an exciting mix of soul, jazz, rock, and Afrobeat. Soundway’s latest compilation of African music, Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds, and Ghanaian Blues, 1968-81, continues right where the Ghana Soundz series left off, giving us more recordings, primarily from the ’70s, by no less than 33 different artists, several of whom appeared on Ghana Soundz. Compared with Ghana Soundz, the tracks on Ghana Special are bluesier, more downtempo affairs, with fewer jams and more traditional songs, but all the hallmarks that made Ghana Soundz successful are retained. This collection is no less essential for fans of world and soul music.
Nearly every song on Ghana Special is a keeper, but a handful of gems shine brighter than the rest. “You Can Go”, by Bokoor Band, is a pop masterpiece with jangly electric guitars, soaring harmonica (played by British émigré and band cofounder John Collins), and the call-and-response vocals characteristic of Afrobeat. It’s sure inspiration for bands like NOMO and Vampire Weekend. “Obi Agye Me Dofo,” by Vis a Vis, is a midtempo jam, anchored by staccato hand drums, a buzzing Funk Brothers bass groove, synth string accents, and jazzy horn solos. “Twer Nyame”, from highlife progenitor Ebo Taylor, would sound perfectly at home on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack, with its pitter-patter percussion, hot horn section, and stellar vocal harmonies. “Dr. Solutsu”, by Basa Basa Soundz, is a swinging, minor key romp featuring the wailing saxophone of Afrobeat ambassador Fela Kuti.
According to Soundway’s web site, Ghana Special was the result of nearly ten years of extensive research in cities across the West African coastal nation and involved visiting everyone from DJs and music store owners to ardent collectors and the musicians themselves. The collection, available as a two-CD or five-LP set, comes in a handsome booklet filled with photos, artist information, and essays.
The sound selection and production quality on Ghana Special is as good as anything in the Ethiopiques series, making it highly recommended and one of the best collections of African highlife — and popular African music from the ‘60s and ‘70s — available today.