Conquering lion of Highlife Music, Ebo Taylor has truly seen it all and done it all. The 83-year-old Saltpond based musician, songwriter and composer is just about to begin another world tour as he promotes his latest body of work. The 9-track album titled, Yen Ara, released via Mr Bongo in march of 2018, sees him translating various knowledge bases encoded in traditional Fanti music in contemporary Ghanaian highlife as well as experimenting with certain new rhythmic forms through signature, horn-dominated composition. The album, eagerly anticipated and brilliantly received so far is another stroke of Ebo Taylor’s genius.
At a very comfortable 41 minutes, the album begins with Poverty No Good, introduced by a solemn and choral admonition of poverty. The song, one of which Ebo Taylor composed and arranged, then roars into life with the rolling drum loops metronomed by a muffled conga and brazen horns sections, bridged by Ebo Taylor’s Pidgin English verse on the impossible nature of living with poverty. The charged tempo of the song counters the patient melody he creates with his voice and sets a tone of blending and mix which is consistent through the tape.
The next few songs, however, slope towards more polarized dance-friendly highlife and afrobeats. Mumundey for instance, feature this rousing war-like call and response refrain, sandwiched between rousing trumpet solos, one of Ebo Taylor’s well-known fatality moves. Track 3, Krumandey is more of late 70s disco and funk with a feel good atmosphere that slaps the rhythms onto listeners. The entire song rests on the strong shoulders of this punchy electrifying horns sections that season the vocals of Ebo Taylor’s son, Henry Taylor, whose strong voice rises above the cauldron of bliss on this song. It easily one of the stand out cuts on this tape.
Abenkwan Pucha, however, is the crown jewel of this album as it perfectly syncs the two critical phases of Ebo Taylor’s composition: i.e. the more traditional vocal highlife, brewed from Palmwine Music, to his jazzy funk phase which has become his signature in the African music pantheon. The song has this freshly ground feeling of warmth with yet again, the kinetic and tender horns section, as well as Tony Allen style drum pattern as Ebo Taylor in his aged, raspy voice appears to be using palm nut soup as some grand metaphor.
For casual or first time listeners, this project is by far a huge pool of highlife bliss to dive into as it partially traces the contours of this very Ghanaian genre, showing how the sound has evolved from the palm wine days, through funk and disco to the experimental, electro-based, burger highlife days. It also exhibits Ebo Taylor’s brilliance as a composer. The entire project feels well round with no gagged melodies and unessential phrases taking away from the overall sounds. Ebo Taylor along with the Saltpond City Band and producer Justin Adams, brilliantly engineered soundscapes for the narratives, with the trusted horn section as the pillar upon which the entire sonic architecture is arranged.
However, this is same compositional level, is where the magic that elevates this body of work happens. Despite having a uniquely homogenous sounds, certainly elements do stick out. A considerable chunk of the composition on this album have already appeared on previous bodies on work. In an interview with Afropop Worldwide, Ebo Taylor does admit to repurposing these classics and playing around with certain compositional element to make them fresh for today’s world. In the same interview, he also mentions the another chunk of the album came from songs sung by various Asafo troupes. “We try to get it into a danceable form, while keeping its history”, Ebo Taylor says in the interview. The Asafo, a group of warriors in Akan communities are one of the sub-set of Ghanaian culture that instrumentalize song. Ebo Taylor, shamelessly borrows some of their melodies and rhythms in composing this album. By so doing, he also documents and records this custom that seems to be fading away.
Yen Ara represent one of the final iterations on a quest to perfection. By dedicating his life to the music, Ebo Taylor has worked religiously to achieve what could be a near perfect sound. Not only does he achieve this on this album but he also pays homage to Fanti culture and how the communal use of music to lubricate daily chores is the main ingredient in his sonic composition. Through Yen Ara, the Asafo tradition of music remains alive, although it should make you pause and think about the current state of communal Ghanaian musical culture.
Written by Hakeem Adam.
Images via Mr. Bongo website.