When we emerge on the other side of the decade, it may very well appear in hindsight that the most prevalent trend in music for the past ten years was that of reissuing and repackaging existing material. In some respects, this has proved to be a worthwhile pursuit, particularly when taking into account expanded reissues of Sub Pop classics or The Jesus Lizard’s catalog. In other respects, it gives us too many repackaged versions of albums we already own. And no disrespect to Chromeo, but I’m not sure their albums really warrant deluxe, double disc editions. Then again, a few notable labels have been focused on bringing long lost rarities from decades past and locations distant into the ears of modern listeners, and doing a hell of a job at that.
Soundway Records is one such label whose efforts in compiling African popular music of decades past has resulted in some of the best listening of the past few years. Last year, their Nigeria Special series opened numerous doors into Nigerian music of the ’60s and ’70s, ranging from blues and highlife to rock and disco. And as 2009 comes to a close, Soundway follows up that series with a new double-disc set that takes a trek a few countries west to Ghana. Comprising two discs and 33 tracks, Ghana Special is every bit as expansive and incredible as its Nigerian predecessors, taking on a handful of genres in a 14 year span, ending in 1981 when many of the country’s musicians began migrating to the U.K., and subsequently, Germany.
Having originated in Ghana, highlife is featured prominently on Ghana Special, though the sounds here are pretty diverse. The first disc kicks off with a funky number titled “Kai Wawa” by The Mercury Dance Band, and maintains a consistently cool and hard grooving series of songs throughout. The nearly seven-minute “Din Ya Sugri” by Christy Azuma and Uppers International is as trippy as it is funky, while The Barbecues’ “Ohiana Sua Efir” layers on thick organ riffs and a beat that proves infectious from its first couple clicks and thuds. St. Peter and the Holymen’s “Bofoo Beye Abowa Den” is tuneful and sweet, a melodic pop gem. There’s an almost garage-rock quality to the shuffling jangle of The Cutlass Dance Band’s “Hwehwe Mu Yi Mpena” and a surfy psychedelia in Vis a Vis’ nine-minute Afrobeat standout, “Obi Agye Me Dofo.”
Extensive and incredible as the first disc is, the second half only enhances the overall experience. The Sweet Talks’ “Akampanye” is catchy and soulful, rich in melody and fantastic horn section hooks. The rhythms of Oscar Sulley’s Nzele Soundz’s “Bukom” are fierce and commanding, making it one of the most high energy moments on a box set that’s definitely not in short supply. Bokoor Band’s “You Can Go” is, simply, a perfect pop song, while “Dr. Solutsu” by Basa Basa Soundz even features none other than Afrobeat king Fela Kuti.
Adding to the sprawl of incredible music on Ghana Special are extensive liner notes, which aid in making this collection as much an educational document as it is a treat to listen to. For newcomers to African music, Ghana Special is an extremely rich and generous introduction. Yet even for those with ample collections, this should prove a great next step, lining up obscurities alongside a handful of familiar names. Proving once again the care and attention that Soundway puts into its archival releases, Ghana Special is an overwhelming and essential set of music.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.