One of the qualities, I find, that is shared by many of the musics that most appeal to me is the ability to create and sustain juxtapositions between different, and often seemingly contradictory, moods or ‘feelings’. The mysterious ways in which, for example, the best Brazilian Bossa Nova can simultaneously express contentment and melancholy, or in which Albert Ayler’s music can be both ecstatic and reflective. Ghana’s many highlife guitar-bands of the 1960s and 1970s seem to have mastered the secrets of this alchemical process; creating a music that is both communal and intimate, celebratory and wistful, light and heavy, hot and cold. The singles in this post feature undisputed masters of the genre.
Dr. K. Gyasi was born into a musical family, in 1929, and raised in Patasi, Ghana, a town south of Kumasi. By 1950 he was living in Accra, and polishing his skills playing guitar with Appiah Adjekum’s band. Two years later, in 1952, Gyasi made his first recordings, at a mobile recording studio in Nsawam-a town about twenty miles north of Accra-that was probably operated by Philips (Decca had already built a permanent studio in Accra in 1948). By 1963, Gyasi was already popular enough that President Nkrumah invited him, along with several other musicians, to accompany his official delegation on a trip through the Soviet Bloc and North Africa. Almost forty years later, Dr. K. Gyasi still remembers fondly the golden years of the early 1960s, when his guitar-band, the Noble Kings, opened legendary nightspots like Accra’s Tip Toe Nite club, and played every weekend for packed dance floors in Accra and Kumasi.
Throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s the Noble Kings became one of Ghana’s most popular guitar-bands. Dr. K. Gyasi was the first bandleader to introduce both the electric organ-he was inspired by Geraldo Pino’s Heartbeats-and a horn section to guitar-band highlife. By the mid-1970s, Gyasi was touring Ghana with both the Noble Kings and his own theatrical group, entertaining villagers throughout the country with ‘highlife operas’. In 1977, he released one of the best records of the era, his classic ‘Sikyi highlife’, a masterpiece of minor-key highlife. The political instability and military coups of the late 1970s, however, brought the glory days of guitar-band highlife and the Noble Kings to an end. With repeated curfews, police roadblocks and political pressure, the dancehalls stopped programming live music, and the open-air concert parties lost their audience. Dr. K. Gyasi currently lives in Kumasi, and his many recordings remain classics of guitar-band highlife.
Dr. K. Gyasi and the Noble Kings had a long relationship with Dick Essilfie-Bondzie and his Essiebons Enterprises; the first Ghanaian Gold Disc was a Dr. K. Gyasi and Noble Kings recording on the Essiebons label. These next two singles were produced by Essiebons, the first released on the Phillips label and the second on Essilfie-Bondzie’s Dix label. Neither of the singles is dated, and Dr.K. Gyasi can’t remember exactly when they were recorded, but based on the catalogue numbers I think they are both from the early 1970s.
The A-side of the Phillips single is “Obaa Bako Agyegye Me’, a Dr. K. Gyasi composition. He warns his young listeners to listen to their elders, ‘My parents warned me not to marry that woman, but I didn’t listen, I was hardheaded. Once we were wed, however, my bride started to show her true colors. Sometimes you have to listen to your elders’.
‘Obiara Beka Onka’ is the B-side, and features some nice interplay between the saxophone, lead guitar, and organ (played by Honey, who is the only musician credited on the label). The group sings, ‘Everybody talks. Say what you want and go on your way. There is so much trouble. You think you are the only one who can prosper; you don’t think you are part of the struggle. Whatever it is, say what you want and go your way’.
The A-side of the Dix single is ‘Sama Awo Deme’, another Gyasi composition, again featuring Honey on organ, as well as some nice flute playing.
The lyrics start, ‘I traveled far from my country and didn’t have any woman to keep me warm at night’. Then Gyasi goes into a verse warning those who mistreat orphans to be careful, to think of those who don’t have anyone to protect them.
The B-side features Dr. K. Gyasi singing in Hausa. He remembers that this song came to him one day when he went to eat in a restaurant run by a Hausa women. He sings, ‘Mother at least until I arrive, stop crying. I will tell you the story. I would like to come home but I don’t have the means. I am praying to God that I will come back soon, may God make it possible’.
During their many years of performing and recording the Noble Kings also served as a launching pad for many artists who went on to front their own bands, like the guitarist Eric Agyeman, the singer Bob Akwaboah, and the great Koo Nimo. Born Daniel Amponsah, in 1934, in the town of Foase- in the Atwima Kwanhoma district, not far from Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region- Koo Nimo grew up in a musical family; his father was a guitarist and trumpet-player in a local brass band. Introduced to European classical guitar at the age of 15, Koo Nimo eventually developed a repertoire that married classical playing techniques to the rhythms and melodies of the Ashanti.
In 1955, after a brief stint in Accra, Koo Nimo moved to Kumasi where he formed his first regular group. About ten years later, he made his first recordings with Dr. K. Gyasi, and in 1968 recorded his first album ‘Asante Ballads’. By the early 1970s, Koo Nimo had committed himself to palm-wine guitar highlife, performing and recording his original repertoire with a seven piece acoustic ensemble.
This next single, recorded at Ghana Film studios, and released on the Ghana Film label was probably released in 1974. The A side ‘Koo Nimo Ne Gyasi’ is a tribute to Koo Nimo’s first wife who passed away on September 27, 1973; they had nine children together, of which four died young. Listening to this recording over the phone, from his home in Kumasi, Koo Nimo told me that this song remains close to his heart. He sings, ‘In every family there is a person who pulls everyone together, who cements the bonds of the group, if this person should pass away the family can disintegrate’.
The B side ‘Kofi Gemfi III’ is a tribute to a Mr. Kofi Gemfi, a friend who Koo Nimo greatly admired. Koo Nimo starts off singing, ‘during the evening the orphan wants the mother. Koffi Gemfi if you are alone, it’s sad to be alone. The orphan wants his mother’. Koo Nimo then goes into a spoken passage addressing the difficulties of being an orphan, ‘It is so painful the life on an orphan. So those of you who take care of the orphan have patience. As our elders say, if you take care of others yours will get better’.
Pat Thomas was born in 1946, in the town of Agona, in the Ashanti region. Both of his parents were musicians, and Pat grew up singing. In 1968, he joined the Broadway Band and stayed with them until 1970, when he moved to Accra and joined Ebo Taylor’s Blue Monks. The next year, Pat was in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire fronting his new band The Satellites. In 1972, Pat returned to Accra and joined the Sweet Beans (the band of the Ghana Cocao Marketing Board), with whom he stayed until he left Ghana in 1977. For the next twenty-three years Pat lived abroad, with extended stays in Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. He returned to Accra in 2000, and released his latest CD in 2008. He still performs regularly in Ghana and will soon start a weekly residency at the Jokodan nightclub in Accra.
This final single features the golden voice of Pat Thomas with the Ogyatanaa Show Band. The Ogyatanaa or ‘burning torch’ band was founded and directed by Kwadwo Donkoh, a Ghanaian diplomat turned bandleader and producer. These two tracks were released on Donkoh’s Agona label. As the label indicates, Pat was a guest vocalist, and never a part of the Ogyatanaa band.
Pat recorded only a handful of songs with the group, and never performed live with the Ogyataana Band. At least one of these tracks was successful enough that Kwadwo Donkoh wanted to bring Pat back to the studio with the group, but financial disagreements sunk the idea.
‘Mmobrowa’, a Kwadwo Donkoh composition, and the A-side of this single, was the most commercially successful of the Pat Thomas/Ogyataana Band collaborations. It is a song about poor people who cannot afford to buy nice shoes or clothes. Pat advises them to work hard, keep struggling and things will work out.
The B side is a tribute to one of the basic rhythmic building blocks of highlife, ‘Yaa Amponsah’. As Pat explains it, ‘Yaa Amponsah is the first rhythmic pattern that highlife musicians learn to play on the guitar. Everyone plays it in his own way, with his own style’.
This post is based on interviews with Koo Nimo, Pat Thomas, Dr. K. Gyasi, and Dr. John Collins. It also draws on the published research of Dr. Collins and Miles Cleret. Special thanks to Peter Clottey for his interpreting help and for his translations.