This music finds comfort in its own corner(s) of the world; it acknowledges the grandeur of distance, the sense of space undiscovered, and the exuberance that comes from knowing it’s there. Any young’n who may possibly (improbably) be interested in exploring African music — specifically, West African music — should sample the well-known and irrepressible greats “Ogiobo” and “Sweet Mother” and reward themselves with the rest.
“Highlife” as a genre — “sensation” would probably be more accurate — was named as such because it was often played at high-end resorts that were indirect of access to the gents (and sometimes ladies) who drove the stuff around in the first place. As the fine liner notes make clear, with quotes from musicians who were there and a solid-if-equivocal history lesson, highlife’s origins are very loosely defined, if defined at all: generally, the aesthetic incorporates an early 20th-century sense of melody with rhythmic impulses hailing from traditional Ghana, Nigeria, or the Caribbean…with a touch of European jazz styling to the progressions and harmonizing. Minor keys are rare; warmth of timbre, light-footed solos, and playful sways are all copious.
Oddly enough, one of the few artists who gets more than one cut on Highlife Time is ’20s guitarist George Williams Aingo, who’s also the furthest-removed from the horns-electric guitar-drums setup of the other material. It seems generally agreed-upon that the basic highlife synthesis started to embolden itself on a more international level in the mid-’50s, spearheaded by ET Mensah and his band, The Tempos. Showcasing the dexterous percussion of the counterculture-friendly Guy Warren, Mensah and Co. open this package, and you can tell from the get-go that the compilers are playing it fairly safe.
And yet it’s all so damn fun. Mensah, Warren, Cardinal Rex Lawson, and Dr’s Victor Uwaifo and Olaiya, among others, have indeed been compiled elsewhere, and there’s no shortage of more extensive compilations to be had. Nevertheless, this collection is musically near-flawless. The aural details are numerous and work best as surprises anyway, but keep an ear out for the conversing horns and fabulously-timed percussion in The Ramblers International’s “Muntie”, the beguiling mix of disorienting pedal steel and plaintive horns in Celestine Ukwu’s “Okwukwe Na Ncheckwub”, the sun-bright-gorgeous guitar tone in Dr Sir Warrior’s “Ilhe Chinyenre”, and Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe’s 11-minute “Osondi Owendi” — which never gets boring despite consisting of only an arpeggiating guitar, tinting backing vocals, and a melodic ramble. You can hear the music get even, if you will, ballsier in its cuts from the late ’60s and ’70s, when African rhythms started getting appropriated into all that great pop music we know and love. (The liner notes advise us to look for the Professional Uhuru Band singer Charlotte Dada’s cover of The Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down”, and we should indeed.)
Tellingly, all of Highlife Time’s songs were recorded before the ’90s “world music” boom (or should that be a capital W?), which tended to supplant talent with the estimation of class. But there’s no delusion or pose in the music of this Highlife Time — there’s none to put on. My personal favorite cut is Charles Iwegube’s “Enum”: the percussion is zesty and the horn tuneful, but as the guitars take their sad, slow dips, there’s a communicable sense of loss; of perservering with eyes on the horizon. The yearning becomes so communicable that whatever’s actually being sung has, by this point, become immaterial.