Fans of highlife, afrobeats and African funk, among others, generally discover new music due to either insane passion or dumb luck (count me as the latter). Most music from the Dark Continent is short on popularity and long in obscurity, oftentimes discovered accidentally in international bins at record stores (or, as it were, on blogs). The music’s barely traceable influence is hidden even further into the folds of a tribal culture largely devoid of a cohesive, or at least well documented, historical record. Reference points and genre associations—normal and somewhat less exhausting avenues of musical exploration—are scant, and a broad label is needed. But the fact that the music is even lumped into some nebulous idea of “African music” further blurs its identity. In Africa, things like borders and political spheres are something of a diplomatic technicality imposed, not by cultures, but by imperialism, across generations of multi-ownership and its need to better identify land-holdings. That is, how do you draw a circle around a region comprising hundreds of distinct tribes and dialects and call it a unified thing? Digressions aside, Ebaahi Soundz are the latest example of discovery, and the newest spin in a summer jams soundtrack with an increasingly African lilt.
Ebaahi Soundz, a Ghanaian music and dance troupe, offers a remarkably pure form of highlife, the genre born in Ghana in the early 20th century. Oshitℇ, a six-track meander through Accra, is available thanks primarily to the aptly named blog, Awesome Tapes from Africa. Otherwise, it’s just not easy to find—damn near impossible, in fact. Presumably recorded in 1992, Oshitℇ is a melodic blend of folk tales sung in Ga and Twi, the primary dialects spoken in and around Accra, Ghana’s capital. The first B-side track, “Kpanlogo,” is titled after a folk music/dance form from the same region, and in the absence of language comprehension (i.e. we don’t know what they’re saying.), it’s the only track that offers any idea of subject matter, given its easy Googleability. (No such luck with the others.)
Ghana, along with Nigeria, Senegal and a few others, is a heavy supplier of most of what we (westerners) consider “African music.” (Wealth, relative to other countries on the continent, has something to do with that. But that’s for another blog post, possibly on another blog.) For instance, arguably the most popular of afrobeatniks, Fela Kuti, is a Nigerian with a heavy highlife influence. Because of Fela and others who broke continental barriers, decidedly funkier versions of Africana are often inaccurately labeled “highlife.” (That would be something akin to calling the Rolling Stones “blues,” even though their bluesiest is really just blues-ish.) Highlife is much simpler, despite some recent uptempo variations.
Ebaahi reminds us of that after sweatier offshoots might have led us astray. Compared to the bustling energy imagined in more contemporary samples, Ebaahi presents a pastoral, even provincial portrait of the genre. Purer presentations like theirs might be as close to the form as it sounded a century ago, a sound that’s now likely extinct. words/ j. crosby