Mr Cee - Nye Wonko
In the 80s west African music scene, it was often the way that a talented musician, composer or singer would labour away at a series of obscure, under-financed, poorly engineered recording projects before hitting gold. Such seems to have been the narrative with the comparatively unknown but very talented songwriter/vocalist Charles Kwadwo Kwarteng: Mr Cee.
Shortly before (or after- the dates aren’t clear) this excellent Ansona recording, Charles had released a self-produced ‘digital highlife’ album Kaba. To be absolutely candid, it had very little going for it: whilst Charles’ songs and lyrics were good, the tinny digital-only backing tracks didn’t really do the music any favours.
Although still a sought-after album among digital music collectors, Kaba simply doesn’t have one-tenth of the force, creativity, and sheer engineering and musicianship excitement that Nye Wonko demonstrates in spades. In many respects this is a ‘classical’ highlife album in terms of style and performance, but blessed with a modern production and funky savoir- faire to place it fairly and squarely within the realms of the very best that burger highlife has to offer.
This solidly engineered Ghana Films Studios production (who, according to popular opinion, had the best set-up by far at the time in Ghana) boasts an 11-piece studio band playing ‘real’ instruments, as well as a four-voice choir including the phenomenal Lady Talata, herself a prominent and prolific solo recording artist throughout ghana, Nigeria and benin at the time.
On tenor sax we have Sammy Lartey ( Bongos Ikwue, Alex Konadu, Kyeremateng Stars Band and countless other high-profile sessions such as with Sidiku Buari’s band – see BBE’s reissue of Buari’s sought-after classic Feelings to hear more of this great tenor man, as well his contributions to the Jewel Ackah and Eric Agyemang Asona reissues in this series); on keyboards Pat Erskine (Pat Thomas, Jewel Ackah again, Pozo Hayes and many other top bands); Paa Akrashie on trumpet (Ebo Taylor, Alex Konadu, Edikanfo, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley); Kwaku ‘Lawyer’ Boateng on drums (African Brothers Band International, Nana Ampadu).
And that’s just for starters. With such a star-studded orchestra, it’d be almost impossible to go wrong- and in fact, everything goes right. It’s the perfect example of ‘Old School meets New School’. Every track’s a winner.
HIGHLIFE MAGIC: AT THE BOTTOM OF THE GARDEN??
A couple of years back, UK-based House and Soul DJ Jerry Frempong’s wife Kate was doing a Spring -clean at the family home. At the bottom of the garden, in among a pile of rusty garden tools and so on, she discovered a couple of mysterious bin-bags. She was about to assign them to the skip with everything else, but a sixth sense persuaded her to check the contents. It was a huge pile of rare soul, funk, disco, boogie and- yes – Ghana Highlife records. Kate brought this to the attention of Jerry, who immediately understood the significance of the treasure trove.
Jerry’s father, Anthony Robert Frempong, who had passed away in 2013, was the founder of one of the most significant Ghanaian record and music companies anywhere in the world: Asona records. Asona was founded in the mid-80s, with little fanfare, in Peckham, South East London. It was a label with a firm mission: Burger Highlife. No, not a swanky fast-food chain, nor a 5 -star German hotel chain, but a record label devoted to the new African dance music genre that was sweeping Europe, North America and West Africa at the time – electric highlife.
Jerry immediately contacted fellow Uk-based Ghanaian record label owner Peter Adarkwah, who saw the significance of this serendipitous discovery. Before long, a ten-album reissue deal was hammered out: and here you have it!
BURGER HIGHLIFE AND THE ‘DIASPORA LOOP’.
So: why Burger? Like many music stories, it started with money- or the shortage thereof. Classic Ghana Highlife has a star-studded history dating back to the early 1920s, with 20-plus piece orchestras playing nightly at hotels and ballrooms across the country. By the 60s, American soul, funk and pop records had become available in small quantities, and their electric-based sound started to inspire Ghanaian musicians of every stripe. As with the history of Afro Cuban music, here was African music doing its transatlantic ‘loop’- African rhythms go across the sea, inspire others, and return to Africa some years later, to be rebuilt and tweaked anew by African musicians.
This came to wide general public attention on March 6 1971, when a group of African American and Ghanaian musicians came together for a memorable concert in Accra’s Black Star Square. Tina Turner, Wilson Pickett, Carlos Santana and other African American artists performed head-to-head with the likes of Ghana jazz pioneer Guy Warren and funky highlife Basa Basa Soundz co-founder Amoah Azangeo.
Soon, Ghana Highlife spread across Europe and North America. But the honeymoon would soon be cut short. By the end of the 70s, Jerry Rawlings’ military government, desperate for funds in a sinking economy, imposed a 160% tax on imported musical instruments and equipment. The inevitable result was that artists and bands couldn’t make ends meet and had to go elsewhere: in this case, especially to North America, the UK- and Germany.
It’s generally accepted that the first major funky electronic disco/boogie Highlife tune was George Darko’s 1983 Hamburg-recorded Akoo Te Brofo – so, Burger Highlife – or sometimes, Borga Highlife. But the artists included in BBE’s Asona reissue series together span a panorama of Ghana’s music history, right back to the late 60s. It may be called Burger, but it’s also classic Highlife seen through a different lens: the lens of the Diaspora Loop.