Highlife Abides: The Endlessly Joyous Sound of Ghana with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley
The return of 74-year-old Gyedu-Blay Ambolley for his 35th (!) album is a timely reminder of what a musical force his home nation Ghana is.
As African music gains ever more traction, it’s kind of natural that South Africa and Nigeria dominate global markets, purely given their size.
That said, Nigeria’s West African neighbour Ghana has always punched above its weight – thanks especially to it being the home of highlife, a style which has endured, mutated and influenced Africa and the world for over a century.
Highlife is one of the more difficult sounds to pin down with a definition, as it has been radically hybrid and internationalist from the very beginning.
Even in the late 19th century, it represented that Black Atlantic internationalism, with influence from Cuba and New Orleans – elements which have remained crucial ever since.
Core elements have included a distinctive chiming, melodic guitar style (which has consistently influenced other styles right across the African continent) and heavily syncopated drum patterns, but none of these are necessarily essential.
The 1960s would be when the sound started being globally known, via diasporic acts and then the idea of “world music.
As the decades went on, endless other styles were incorporated.
Indeed Ambolley’s 1982 song called “Highlife” both incorporates and references in the lyrics jazz, disco, calypso, reggae and more – and has a hefty helping of Fela Kuti’s Nigerian Afrobeat in the mix as well.
Soon after, synthesisers would come in and a distinctly 80s highlife sound would be forged, and so on through the 90s with hip-hop and dancehall rhythms (forging what became known as “hiplife”), and into the 21st century with the Auto-Tune and higher production values of other Afropop forms.
Our new playlist, then, covers a lot of ground.
Spanning from the 60s to the present day, and covering all the above mentioned influences and more, it’s a demonstration of how diverse highlife is – but hopefully gives you more of a sense of the core values of the sound than any description ever could.
It’s deliberately not chronological, to emphasise the sonic contrasts between all the variants, but also to let the commonality shine through.
Some of it is ultra lo-fi, some has deluxe production values, but all of it absolutely shines with party energy – and hopefully serves as a demonstration of enduring Ghanaian spirit and invention.
All Images: Agogo Records
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.