As a matured genre, modern highlife tends to fall flat sometimes, with very few new musicians finding novel ways to utilize the core sound which is the heart beat of contemporary Ghanaian music. Hip-Life producers resorted to sampling, the way hip hop producers chopped up soul songs to create a new sonic landscape. Fela’s Kuti fused its spirit energy with the mesmeric flavor of jazz to create Afro Beats. Ghanaian expatriates in Germany also put funk and disco melodies into highlife and birth Borga Highlife that gleamed dance floor all over Europe and Ghana. Yet most current highlife musicians, especially those who stick to the genre’s original structure quiver in the shadows of the legends before then, unable to replicate the brilliance. However, Kyekyeku is uninterested in replicating brilliance but is tending his own fire in those same shadows and shining bright.
The young maverick Ghanaian guitarist on his debut solo project, Higher Life on Palm Wine snaked blissful along the blurry divide between these two genres (highlife and palm wine), showing the history and evolution of his influences. But on his latest release he appears more certain and in charge of the direction he wishes to take, creating a homogenous sound from start to finish with very little bumps along the road. Released independently this year, Sor is a nine-track statement of intent from Kyekyeku.
The sound still leverages nostalgia, which Ebo Taylor-esque horn sections on African Voodoo Party and wabbly glistening electric guitar chords on I See You Long Time straight from golden age highlife that Nana Ampadu might envy. The records brevity, wrapping up in about 45 minutes also enhances its appeal as the songs are barely overbearing yet sweet enough to be memorable. The title track Sor, which interpolates the main phrase of a popular Hip-Life/Azonto song, Ayi by Chriss Waddle, is an irresponsible jam from the awakening horns to his rap sung verses. Driven by the quick tempo of a hand clap baseline, Kyekyeku utilizes pop culture as a satirical tool, addressing systemic corruption in a light-hearted fashion.
On this tape, Kyekyeku takes a more overtly political tone, acting as a social commentator through his lyrics. The songs characterize majority of the issues African are concerned with at the moment from a borderless continent to neocolonialism. This direction is in perfect alignment which the historical core of Highlife music. From the beginnings with folk bands to post independence ballroom music, Highlife has always served as a platform of opinions on current affairs to be voice. This brilliant essay series by Dr. Kwesi Owusu shows the extent to which social protest is tied to the unique guitaring styles that characterizes highlife. Kyekyeku choosing this stance reflects the level of his education in the genre as well his intentions to further it especially through satire. Even the name of his band, 5 Days No Light Off, alludes to the bane of Ghana’s electricity load-shedding program codenamed Dumsor.
This political direction is also an indicator of how greatly improved his songwriting has become, especially in his musical arrangements with more impactful choruses and direct lyrics, most of which are in Pidgin English this time. However, you still feel the poetics embedded in Twi on Wombo No Kay And other twi songs on the tape.
Sor is one step in a methodical artistic evolution form Kyekyeku and the next step should be visuals. Aside footage from his enthralling performances on stage, he has not quite come up with a visual code for his music as other like Wanlov and Jojo Abot have done. By creating a unique visual style, Kyekyeku will also be giving his lyrics new life through film. It would be interesting to see how he intends to visually communicate the themes addressed on this album.
With his sophomore tape, Kyekyeku has created a wholesome sound referencing his influences yet asserting his personality at the same time. You get the nostalgic appeal of golden-age highlife alloyed with the refreshing flavor of the present transporting you to Ghana music paradise!
Written by Hakeem Adam
Photo Credit: Abigail Snyder, Link Reuben/Sauti za Busara