Friday, February 05, 2010

Living the Highlife

"The story of West African Highlife is partly the story of West African independence itself. From Highlife's early roots in church music, sea shanties, and military brass bands to the orchestra podiums, backstreet nightclubs and concert halls of Lagos, Accra, Benin City, Freetown and elsewhere, Highlife charted the growing confidence of a proud and gifted people casting off the shackles of empire: a people truly ready to live the highlife."

-from the liner notes for Highlife Time

So as I was saying on Wednesday, I just got the latest issue of Wax Poetics, and it's titled the Africa issue. It's got me all jazzed up to share some albums with you that I've been listening to. To kick off my African odyssey I shared a modern Nigerian musician yesterday named Nneka. Today I'm going to stay in the same neighborhood but take a trip back in time to the late 60's and 70's, when Highlife could be heard in the dance halls of West Africa.

The term Highlife has become somewhat of a catch all phrase for two different styles of music that were being listened to: high class dance bands played for the elite and guitar driven tunes which made the rounds amongst the "commoners." In both cases the music pulled from two different worlds: the European big bands and brass bands of imperial subjugation and the native traditional sounds and instruments. With independence gained, many of the countries of West Africa reclaimed and reinvented their own sounds, including Highlife. And as cultural and musical independence gained momentum, a shift toward Africanism flourished in the music as well.

SO, to get to the music that you can listen to, there are two incredible compilations that collect songs from this period which deserve your attention if you're interested in exploring more than just Fela Kuti's Afro-beat. Obviously, trying to summarize over a decade's worth of music from an entire country, never mind a corner of a continent, is well-nigh impossible, but Ghana Special and Highlife Time make the effort, both being double disc releases. Amazingly, although the two comps share some artists, there's not a single track repeated between the two. Each of them separately is a satisfying hunk of Afro-goodness, but put the two together and you have a massive collection of tunes that offer a dizzying array of sounds, styles, and textures. Compared to Fela's sharp edged and twistingly evolving Afro-beat, you'll find the songs here typically more celebratory in tone and much briefer for the most part.

To give you an idea of the diversity represented, check out a track from each below. The first, Aaya Lolo, comes from Ghana Special and displays some funky-as-all-get-out organ work. The second, Joromi, comes from Highlife Times and carries a more traditional Afro-influenced feel to it. Either comp is worth your coin, and both include liner notes that are sure to educate you.

Visit the comp's official site and the Soundway Records website.

Sir Victor Uwaifo And The Melody Maestroes - Joromi : Highlife Time

Visit the comp's label Vampisoul.

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