Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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Album Review: KonKoma

KonKoma's debut album highlights Ghana's rich afro-funk history and musical legends.
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Ghanaians must feel left out when it comes to afrobeat. People often forget that Ghana, rather than Nigeria, is where it all started. This was the place traditional African rhythms first combined with European brass, an essential mould for the sound later popularised by Fela Kuti. It may have been given a different name – ‘highlife’ – but the roots of afrobeat are obvious. Loyal fans of Ghana’s musical history – as can be seen from their past compilations – Soundway Records are now proudly releasing the debut album by contemporary afro-funk outfit KonKoma.

“KonKoma is the name of a tribe in Northern Ghana”, says lead guitarist Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman. “They are very colourful and their rhythms are wonderful. The band is a rebirth of Ghanaian music from the 70s and 80s – it feels very authentic.”

Both Bannerman and keyboardist Emanuel Rentzos are living relics from that period. Bannerman played regularly with Pat Thomas, acknowledged by Ebo Taylor as one of highlife’s most important singers, while Emmanuel Rentzos exemplifies KonKoma’s American funk connection, boasting collaborations with Bobby Womack, Johnny Nash and Herbie Hancock. The superb funk/highlife instrumental ‘Accra Jump’ is an easy marriage of the two styles, showing a direction the two genres could have pursued if such collaborations had been commonplace back then.

Perhaps the most valuable Ghanaian characteristic displayed by KonKoma is impeccable timing, reflected in tracks like ‘Sibashaya Woza’ and ‘Kpanlogo’. The drumming in particular stands out as James Brown worthy. Amidst a rich crowd of horns, African and European drums, guitars and keyboards, everyone gets a fair slot. On ‘Handkerchief’, a xylophone-driven backbone is tweaked back and forth from prominence using 21st century sound engineering; guest mixer Mike Pelanconi (aka Prince Fatty), noted for his genre-spanning back catalogue, seems to be on the right wavelength. On the album, building a contemporary group around two legends has proven to be a wining structure, not just for KonKoma but for Ghanaian music as a whole.

KonKoma is released by Soundway Records.

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While I generally like your article and thank you for posting it, I think you ought to do your research thoroughly. It is true that Fela Kuiti adored Joe Mensah, but Joe did not start the highlife trend. Highlife did not originate from Ghana. Fela's music certainly does not have its root in Ghanaian musical evolution. Some infuences maybe, just as much as jazz, blues, juju, fuji, apala, Were, and so many more. the point is that musicians like Fela had so much cultural resourves to draw from. The phenomena of highlife music started through colonial and returned slaves influences in many places in Africa simultaneously. While the French and the English brought their music and have Africans play for their own entertainment dating back centuries. it is true, however that African musicians using Western instruments for public entertainment started to emerge after colonialism, mostly people breaking away from police bands and orchestras. There have been people like Domingo Justus from Nigeria dating back mid 1920s recording their own highlife which provided the path for juju music. There are plenty more on the French side, since the French appreciated more cultural experience and encouraged it more compared to their colonial counterparts.  Fela's music developved as a compassionate response to human suffering and the specific experience that was unique to his culture both at home and at large, and of cause his concern for human development or lack thereof in his environment. Fela's case was unique in that sense as he was able to attain an integral plain of genius. He moved to Ghana after having troubles with the Nigerian government expecting solace there but he was kicked out after few years because the Ghanaian government considered him a bad influence on their youth. So Ghana was not a permissive environment for Afrobeat development. I generally do not like it when aloof westerners prioritizes one African country over another because they thhink they simply can. it iwas not fair then, and certainly not fair now. Let's just tell the truth as journalist and give the people a decisioneering tool. That's it. Keep your biases for your dinner table. For us Africans cultures matters and don't want you t mess with with it.Good writing is one thing, good information is another. To us the difference is fast food vs home cooking. Think healthy and let's put more effort in proving good information. it is of cause ok to promote Konkoma, but not at the compromise of a legend like Fela, Thank you! 

Nowhere does this article say that afrobeat originated in Ghana, read it back! I completely agree that highlife, an essential building block for afrobeat, has been overshadowed, Ghanaians must feel left out. That's in no way a criticism of Fela Kuti. He developed highlife/afrobeat into a more accessible, revolutionary music form and should get all credit for that. But highlife (again, an essential building block for afrobeat) existed in Ghana long before Fela was born. Although I'm sure similar sounds could be heard around West Africa at that time, the opinion that highlife originated in Ghana is overwhelmingly strong. And my father is Nigerian btw.

It is unfortunate how and why people talk and criticise things they know little or nothing about. Eventhough Fela was great as an Afrobeat musician, it is very clear for anyone who really knows the history of Fela's journey in life and music, that he lived, stuidied, learnt and acquired 'Afrobeat' from Ghana.When Fela returned from the UK, he worked for sometime as a producer/DJ at the NTA and later formed his Koola Lobitos Band. He was not making much impact because there were musicians like Victor Olaiya, Bobby Benson etc who were playing Highlife. Fela incidentally had played in Olaiya's band for some time.In order to find and chart a new direction and focus for his music, he had to travel to Ghana. Ghana was clearly ahead of Nigeria music-wise and the best known musicians in West Africa, mostly playing highlife, were Ghanaians. Even the best Nigerian highlife musicians either learnt the act in Ghana, or had a Ghanaian mentor/hero or had Ghanaian band members. Ghana was like the place where things were 'happening' in West Africa.So Ghana was the natural choice for Fela if he wanted to raise the bar in his career!It was when Fela was studying in Ghana(Hugh Masekela was also studying music in Accra at the same time) that he discovered 'Afrobeat' as a genre of music in Accra; though it was not being played in the revolutionary form that he was later known for. The emphasis in Ghana was more on 'funky' highlife. That was long before he returned to Nigeria in the 1970s and became the colossus that he was.Fela was comparatively unknown and not reckoned with as a music(highlife or Afrobeat) superstar until he went and returned from Ghana. He had much senior and better known musicians. But his return with the revolutionary type of Afrobeat, his crusade against social injustice and corruption are what made him stand tall above his contemporaries. But he was not the founder of Afrobeat music. He adopted  'Afrobeat' after studying and learning the tricks during his stay in Ghana for some years during the late 1960s.Infact Fela used to feature some of the huge, tall-standing traditional Ghanaian drums that are used for big royal occassions in traditional Ghanaian towns/cities. It is the kind of drums that are used for entertaining royalities like the King of Ashanti(Ashantehene) and other royalties. He used to beat the drums himself, a pointer to some of the things he learnt during his stay in Ghana.Fela started having problems with the Nigerian Govt in the late 1970s, long after he had returned from Ghana with a bang. It was his second attempt to go back to Ghana in the late 1970s (Obasanjo's era) that into hitches because Obansanjo and Acheampong(Ghana's rulers) were both military rulers and friends right from their days at the military training academy at Teshi, Ghana, - the first Military academy in British West Africa, and where some Nigerian military officers were being trained before Nigeria had NDA at Kaduna.Juju music in Nigeria is much younger than Highlife, and Fuji came on board much later on. Even most juju musicians(e.g. IK Dairo, Ebenezer Obey) started as Highlife musicians, with Highlife's very huge influences from Ghana. Juju music was never at the level of Highlife/Afrobeat at the time Fela went to Ghana in the 1960s, so that would not served as veritable ground for him to explore at that time.The writer of the article was right in asserting that Ghana was the 'original' root of Afrobeat. Fela got it from Ghana and took it to global heights and he deserves all the credit for his efforts. Even right now, currently, Hiplife genre of music, which originated in Ghana in the mid 1990s is spreading and adopted widely among Africans, in Europe, in West Africa, especially in Nigeria. But they may be calling it other names, e.g Afro Hiphop etc. But the rhtymns, beats, etc are all Hiplife, with huge elements of the Ghanaian 'Kpalango rhythms'.All the new hits by young Nigerian musicians,  like Omawumi's Bottom Belle, Iyanya's Kukere, J Martins, Duncan Mighty and sereval others are now playing Hiplife.The popluarity of the Azonto dance, which compliments the Hiplife genre has made it very attractive for the Nigerian musicians to also go the Hiplife(Afro Hiphop)- Azonto way!