various artists,
The Rough Guide to Highlife
(World Music Network, 2003)

Any music fan worth his salt has a long list of music yet to be investigated. My own list of such things includes highlife music, so I was happy when this album came to me for review. I'm probably the sort of listener for whom this compilation was intended: someone who's curious about the genre but doesn't know where to start.

Well, I know a lot more now! The World Music Network has done a good job on this compilation. There is an essay describing the evolution of highlife music, and the notes on each track include a detailed discussion of the performer. Complete information on each track's source is also included. Given the wealth of information, the small type size is not surprising, but the clear font means reading is not too much of a problem. Sonic quality is not always pristine, but this does not interfere with the music.

Lest I give the impression that this is a recording that only a musicologist could love, be assured that you can slip this CD into your player and get a lot of satisfaction without reading the liner notes. Highlife is the good-time music of West Africa, particularly Ghana. Its seeds were planted in colonial days when local musicians were influenced by western forms of music. Highlife has been flavored by big band, jazz, pop, rock and Caribbean music; West African musicians took these sounds and combined them with indigenous rhythms. The groove tends to be mellow and usually features guitars, brass or a combination of both.

There is a hint of mariachi music in the combination of vocals and brass found on Jerry Hansen and the Ramblers Dance Band's "Ekombi" or Orlando Julius's "Binu Binu." The most jazz-oriented cut is Joe Mensah's "Bosoe," which is over nine minutes long. The Caribbean flavor is strong on Celestine Ukwu's "Igede" and Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe's "Ka-Anyi Jikota." E.T. Mensah's vocals on "Medzi Medzi" are wonderfully smooth. As The Rough Guide to Highlife progresses, brass gives way to more guitar-centered pieces. The closer, George Darko's "Hilife Time," even works 1980s-style synth into the mix.

What is impressive is that the disc hangs together so well, even though it covers music from different eras and different countries. There are a few unusual tracks that stick out, such as King Onyina's minor-key "Ohia Asoma Wo." But the overwhelming impression is of chiming guitars, loud brass and tapping percussion. Most vocals are not in English and no lyrics or translations are given; with liner notes so jammed with background information, something had to give.

"Hilife Time" has a line about "sunshine music." This phrase is a good description of highlife's irresistible party, and this CD is a great invitation to the party.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 10 October 2003

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