Enthusiasms No 65
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...
West Africa in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Independence is still a few years away - Ghana will be first, in 1957, then Nigeria will follow in 1960, and soon the 'wind of change' that Harold MacMillan will acknowledge in his historic speech at the end of the decade, is going to blow colonial rule away from this part of the continent altogether. And as so often happens, there's a musical accompaniment to all this political and social change, born out of new cultural confidence, new technologies and new social structures. Traditional percussion ensembles, already touched with Christian and Islamic influences, are incorporating new rhythms and melodies; syncretic styles such as Juju, Sakara and Apala are emerging and developing; there are new instruments and new playing techniques. Imported records from Latin America and the Caribbean are demonstrating ways in which hybrid African-derived sounds can be reincorporated back to help form new musics.1 Important figures are starting to emerge, who will change the musical landscape forever - Highlife bandleaders like E T Mensah2 in Ghana and Charles Iwegbue in Nigeria; guitar stylists like Kwaa Mensah and Ayinde Bakare; neo-traditional innovators like Yusufu Olatunji and Haruna Ishola3; songsters like Ebenezer Calender in Sierra Leone.
Into this volatile musical environment comes another vital factor. British record companies have been active in West Africa since the early 20th century - Zonophone, Parlophone, His Masters Voice and so on have all recorded and released African popular styles, at least since the 1920s. Decca is a newcomer in the post-war years, but establishes itself quickly as the dominant force (this pole position will only be undermined in the 1960s, when Decca is unable to supply the West African market with Beatles records, and EMI becomes dominant again)4. Over a period of two decades or so, Decca will record and release thousands of records, first on 78rpm, later on 45s and LPs, covering the huge and diverse range of indigenous West African popular musics. Recorded in West Africa, and sent to the UK for pressing, their sound quality is outstanding. These recordings will influence later figures who will go on to make substantial reputations around the world, like King Sunny Ade, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Ebenezer Obey. But otherwise, many of them, especially from the 78 era, will sink into obscurity, most of the names on the labels forgotten altogether, the original discs neglected and gathering dust in private collections, or conserved but available easily only to the few in a handful of public collections.
But new communications technologies, together with massive amounts of curatorial will and hard work, now change all of that: the British Library has made its collection of Decca West Africa 78s available to everybody in digital streaming format - all 952 sides of it.5 The basic levels of navigation are straightforward - there's a search facility, or you can browse by performer, language, genre or country. So far, so good, but most of the performers' names will be unknown even to existing fans, and the genre fields are still quite substantially underpopulated. This last point is not a criticism, genre fields seem to have been completed mostly from primary sources, i.e. the record labels themselves, and most record labels6 at this point did not note a genre (and when they did, it wasn't always that useful). So, for example, browsing for 'Apala' will give only one result, but there's a lot more Apala in the collection. I assume that feedback from users7 might help to change this over time.
Bear in mind that although its appeal to those of us who are primarily fans is manifestly obvious, this is a research collection. Contextual documentation is minimal - the emphasis is on the primary source (i.e. the record itself). Tracks can't be downloaded, unless the user is within an approved academic institution, and they can only be played one at a time (I don't mean that you'd expect to be able to play two tracks simultaneously, but that you can't line up a dozen tracks to play while you do the washing-up).
So, faced with a mouthwatering, if bewildering 900+ tracks, where do you begin? This piece is intended to offer a few starters, playlists that sample the riches available. Please note that these are not intended to be representative - i.e. reflecting the proportions of different types of music - on the contrary, they are intended to sample the diversity available. It's also subjective; I've chosen records that I like. And remember, it only scratches the surface - the only way to appreciate this musical feast to the full is to dig in.
Adeolu & His Rio Lindo Orchestra: Adura Owuro. Good example of the percussion-based popular music, known as Agidigbo, whose rhythms and melodies were influenced by imported Cuban records. The Rancho Boys Orchestra is an earlier version of the same group, and also deserves attention.
Charles Iwegbue & His Archibogs: Aya Congo Lumumba. The only Nigerian Highlife artist included in the collection (for some reason most of the other important ones at this time seemed to record for Philips), Iwegbue was one of the pioneers of the style.
John Eke & His Group: Nwangolo. Extraordinary lamellophone duet with vocals.
Ligali Adisa: Social. Just one example of the many Sakara artists here; others include Jimmie & His Group, Rufai Adisa, Kekere Tiamiyu, Yesufu Olatunji etc
Ganiye Sule: Alowonle. An early example of the developing Apala style. Other Apala artists to explore include Raimi Dogo and Rasi Ajao.
Piccolo Pete: Which Side Money De. Palmwine guitar song, with piccolo, sung in Pidgin.
Lamide Ajengbe: Adelabu Penkele Mesi. This seems to be a variant on Apala, notable for its virtuoso talking-drum player.
Ayinde Bakare: Golden Faces. One of the greats of Juju music. Other Juju artists include Ayesko, Mutairo Layinka and Irewolede Denge.
Salami Ojo: Ganiyu Adisa. An earlier variant of Sakara, with lead instrument plucked rather than bowed.
Owerri: Eiengo. Percussion and vocals, with proto-highlife style melody.
Builders Brigade Band: Abrekyi. Classic danceband Highlife; others in this style include The Black Beats Band, The Broadway Dance Band and The Stargazers.
Kwaa Mensah: Fiyai Wansma. Guitarband Highlife emerging from the Palmwine and concert party context.
Accra Gaily Choir: O Israel Bii Fe. Choral vocals with percussion.
Boampon Kwahu Band: Bome dua ma menwu. Concertina and vocals with guitar.
E K Owuso and His Band: Ekaa menkoa Ye Wu. More guitarband Highlife, but somebody here is an especially nice player.
Kwashi Gatse's Band: Age Nye Nuga. Guitar, ensemble harmony vocals and what sounds like a recorder.
Amano Ashong's Band: Aba-ee. Although just percussion & vocal, this sounds very much like a kind of proto-highlife.
Van De Cargo & His Strings: Dabi Biguna Rainbow. Guitar and mandolin with vocals.
The Denu Singers: Amelifu. Percussion & vocal, but much more traditional-sounding.
Raker's Dance Band: Nkye Me Wobi. Less well known Highlife dance band.
Salliah: Gbongay Tee-Ho. Accordion & vocals from Sierra Leone.
Famous Scrubbs: Mountain Cut By Havelock Street. Creole calypso-influenced music from Sierra Leone.
Gbando and his Mendi Jolly Group: Daduma. Vocal and percussion group from Sierra Leone.
The Kroo Young Stars Rhythm Club: A Se To Kpa. Mixed group with guitar and flute from Sierra Leone.
Tarrancis Mandingo Dance Band: A Tu-ba-bu Lay-dee. Distinctive mix of vocals with trumpet and tuba accompaniment, from Sierra Leone.
Nabie Kamara and his Freetown Muslim Club: Albruder. Unaccompanied solo vocal and chorus, from Sierra Leone.
Freetown Abana Club: Mama Lay Lay. Creole street songs with percussion & flute, from Sierra Leone.
The Porto Novo Singers: Amida. Vocal and percussion group from Benin.
Weppa Weno Youth Orchestra: Agbe Ukpothalo. Vocals, with lamellophone and percussion, from Benin.
Ma Felreh and her Susu Jolly Group: War Kai Bu-beh. Vocals accompanied by traditional xylophone, from Togo.
Agidigbo: Yoruba musical style, with vocals and percussion, incorporating Latin American and Cuban influences.
Apala: Yoruba musical style, with Islamic influences, typically antiphonal vocals accompanied only by percussion, especially the dundun or talking drum, and often a lamellophone, or thumb piano.
Highlife: Ghanaian style, later developed in Nigeria. Danceband Highlife featured large bands with brass instruments, such as trumpet, saxophones, bass and drums as well as jazz-flavoured harmonies. Guitarband Highlife featured smaller groups, with one or more guitars and percussion.
Juju: a specifically Nigerian variant of Palmwine music, which developed principally from the 1930s onwards, incorporating other traditional influences.
Palmwine: generic term for guitar-based music made in West Africa in the early 20th century, influenced by European as well as Latin and Caribbean styles. Developed into Juju in Nigeria and guitarband Highlife in Ghana.
Sakara: Yoruba musical style, with Islamic influences, typically antiphonal vocals accompanied only by percussion, and a one-string bowed instrument known as a goje.
2. None of E T Mensah's records have been included in the collection under discussion in this article, 'for copyright reasons', probably relating to the fact two CDs worth have been long available from Retroafric. It's a good reason, although Mensah was one of Decca WA's biggest names, and there are still many sides unreissued.
3. Ishola, who developed the Apala style to a high degree of sophistication, is also conspicuous for his absence. He did make records for Decca during this period, but presumably the BL collection doesn't have any, or maybe there are other rights issues here.
4. There's a useful summary of Decca's activities in West Africa in African All-Stars, by Chris Stapleton & Chris May. Paladin, 1989.
5. Go to http://sounds.bl.uk and follow the links to the Decca collection, if you can manage to avoid being distracted by all the other wonders available.
6. Images of all labels can be viewed, which for anybody interested in old records is something of a bonus.
7. Only registered users can submit additional information. Only users at approved academic institutions can be registered, which means that the various collectors and fans whose contributions might be useful can't use this facility at the moment, although there are probably ways round this.
Ray Templeton - 30.9.09
Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services Updated: 19.10.07