Jembaa Groove 2024
Photo: C.Jannis Keil / Ballantyne Communications

Jembaa Groove’s Jazzy Highlife Is Beautiful on ‘Ye Ankasa’

Berlin’s Jembaa Groove tap into the sonic palettes of African and diasporic forms like highlife and jazz to create a truly elevated work of art.

Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves
Jembaa Groove
Agogo Records
5 April 2024

Berlin may be Jembaa Groove’s home base, but listening to the group’s smooth blend of highlife and jazz on their second album, Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves, makes it clear that they carry with them much broader senses of place and personhood. Band leader Eric Owusu and multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah grew up together in Accra; Yeboah is now based in London. Like Owusu and Yeboah, Cuban-born trumpeter Daniel Allen Oberto has played with late Nigerian legend Tony Allen. The intercontinental connections, in other words, run deep. At the same time, there’s a perfect seamlessness to Ye Ankasa: brass, keys, drums, guitars, and voices all melting together in a warm, dynamic atmosphere.

Owusu’s nimble voice typically takes the lead, confident and mellow. It perfectly complements the instruments around it and the vocal harmonies that rise up from the rest of the ensemble to support him. A couple of featured Ghana-born vocalists join in throughout the album. Deep-voiced Simigwa pioneer, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, celebrates hard-working fathers on “Agya”. Sheffield-based Afrofuturist artist K.O.G. (“Kweku of Ghana”) is an especially sunny presence on the bright, blissful “Sweet My Ear”, a celebration of a loved one coming home that stands out as one of the record’s most upbeat tracks.

Radiant as Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves sounds, it’s also weighty. Jembaa Groove sing of daily hardships—the homelessness and hunger far too prevalent worldwide—and determination to overcome them on bittersweet “Dabia”. At the start of “Makoma” are words from late Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah championing anti-imperialism and African self-determination, emphasized by a particularly strong wall of horns. Wistful “Namo” mourns the bloodshed in the world with a starry array of keys at the forefront, but the lively rhythms of “Asem Ben” offer a better way forward: love, understanding, and togetherness.

For all the time it spends condemning social injustice, Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves is more about hope than anything else. In gentle “Ewiase”, Owusu and the rest of the group remind their listeners that life is short and that it’s worth spending what little time we have trying to leave the world better than we found it. Spacious, wordless “Outro” closes the work with a tender touch, horns alternately gliding and fluttering as they lope across dreamy keyboard atolls. It’s a wonderful final example of how much feeling the group can convey through music alone, a rich end to an emotionally dense album.

The textures of Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves range from silken to velvet; they are overt but never overbearing, complex but always all-encompassing. There is not a rough moment to be had. Instead, there is intense creative chemistry and a sense that it is not only fine but good to bring unequivocal beauty into the world. Jembaa Groove does this not at the risk of glossing over more difficult issues but intending to make it possible to confront them in productive ways. By tapping into the brilliant, multifaceted sonic palettes of African and diasporic forms like highlife and jazz and making them their own, Jembaa Groove builds a truly elevated work of art with Ye Ankasa | We Ourselves.

RATING 8 / 10