With one decade of the ’00s down, it would seem that now is a particularly apt time to revisit and reflect upon African music’s influence on Western pop music. In just the past couple years alone, artists ranging from Vampire Weekend to Yeasayer to M.I.A., and even Surfer Blood, a band who shares much more in common with Weezer than Fela Kuti, have been infusing their distinctive brands of pop and indie rock with elements of highlife or Afro-beat. Yet all of these artists’ fans are still probably green to the diverse and sprawling history of highlife, and I certainly can’t fault them for that. Seeking out African sounds takes a certain level of commitment and curiosity, particularly when record stores are dwindling in numbers, and many of them don’t carry an exceptionally diverse selection of highlife.
A certain number of archivist labels are making an effort to partially rectify that, however, and chief among these curatorial overachievers is Soundway, which has already released several collections highlighting blues, rock, disco and, of course, highlife, from Nigeria and Ghana. The latest in the ongoing series is Nigeria Special, Vol. 2, which covers blues and highlife from the 1970s. Now, highlife, for those who aren’t especially well-versed in the genre, is a style of music that originated in Ghana with roots in calypso and palm-wine music, while ultimately incorporating elements of European music, R&B, blues and funk. It’s older than rock ‘n’ roll and it’s gone through just as much evolution over the years, but on Nigeria Special, Vol. 2, what we hear is a sound with a heavy influence from rock and jazz, which is strikingly apparent in the first track, Fubura Seikbo’s “Psychedelic Baby,” which is a touch trippy, as could be expected from the title.
Guitars, fluid and spindly, flowing and gorgeous, run wild across the compilation’s 19 tracks (or 22 if you opt for the triple-LP), marking one of the most distinctive aesthetics of the highlife sound. There’s a ramshackle jangle to Blacks Zenith’s “Shango Oba Omina,” though its main attraction are its big and buoyant horns, adding a streak of color across its rhythmic shuffle. Some gorgeous riffs kick off the laid back “Ibi Awo Iyi” by the Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt, while The Otarus’ “Omohupa” is melodically gorgeous in its descending guitar riffs. The People Star’s “Onwu Dinjo” stretches out across six and a half minutes with a bright and celebratory sound, and of course, more wonderfully shimmering guitar.
There are, of course, some curiosities to be found here, such as Twins Seven – Seven & His Golden Cabretas’ “Totobiroko (Ogbele),” which is built primarily from vibraphone and hand percussion, with no guitar or horns to be found. Meanwhile, The Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination turns “The Lord’s Prayer” (really) into a super funky jam. Joy Nwosu & Dan Satch’s “Ewo Umu Agbogho” is generally laid back, but has some of the most operatic vocals on the entire set. And Tunji Oyelana & The Benders’ “Iwo Ko La Dami” is as close as any of these tracks come to the hard funk of Afro-beat.
Much like the other entries in the Africa Special series, Nigeria Special Vol. 2 strikes the rare balance of providing both a good introduction to newcomers to the genre, and a great new addition to the collections of those who may be more knowledgeable about highlife and Afrobeat. Pair this with Soundway’s previously released collections of Nigerian rock, disco and Afrobeat, and you’ve got one killer box set.