E.T. Mensah & The Tempos

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E.T. Mensah & The Tempos
King of Highlife Anthology
Retroafric (www.sternsmusic.com)

There were so many musical continents whose discovery, or perhaps sole existence, owe themselves to what were then the advanced technologies of the gramophone, amplification, or the radio. These devices, mixed with a heaping wallop of colonization, world war, shipping, immigration, and a growing western influence in general concocted musical stews that don't seem particularly avant-garde now; however, not so many decades ago, they either led to further musical explosions- such was the case with African American proto-rock and roll, aka R & B- or became the explosions themselves, an example of which spans this set. While highlife never hit American shores during its mid twentieth century heyday, it, alongside Congolese rhumba, changed everything in formidable hunks of Sub-Saharan Africa. And it was Ghana's Emmanuel Tetteh (E.T.) Mensah who was at the helm of this change.

So it seems as baffling as it does logical that this set, the most comprehensive collection of his music ever assembled, would be seeing the light of day as late as 2015. No doubt, University of Ghana's longtime Professor of Music John Collins, whose biography on Mensah took 12 years from the time of its 1974 birth to actually get published, feels much the same way. His 63-page booklet here is in fact a direct result of that initial research, with one key difference. In '74, Mensah and the Tempos were still rocking West African dance halls (Mensah died in 1996).

Mensah, who came from Ga-speaking Asares in a section of Accra still dominated by thatched huts in the 1920s, when he was only a few years old, was part of culture deep in ritual. Many houses, including his, had shrines for the dead, but this meant the musically-inclined Mensah was forbidden from making any sort of musical sounds. Yet it's here that one example of the complexities associated with colonial rule in Africa appears. Because Mensah was sent off to a government school during the time of the British control, he heard fife bands, and ended up, as young as 10, playing trumpet and saxophone with school bands.

Even as early as 1927, when Mensah was eight, a local dance band music, already known as highlife, existed. It was this music, a blend of British military marches and the instrumentation that came with it (brass, woodwinds, parade drums) and Ghanaian hand drumming, the clave, and a certain swing no doubt influenced by the types of American jazz records brought over by Americans themselves during World War 2, which Mensah developed into a Pan-African pop sensation every bit as important, if not as influential as anything from the West. Bluegrass couldn't have been without the vision of Bill Monroe, funk would've never been without the self-determined rigor of James Brown, and highlife as we know it, that durable, buoyant combination of Cuban-influenced counter-rhythms, and jazz soloing laid over an internal logic deeply African, would never have reached such popularity and advancement without E.T. Mensah. Because, other than the fact that he played semi-professionally as a teen, he ended up taking leadership of the Tempos around 1949, when then band member, drummer Guy Warren headed temporarily to London.

Over the next several decades, the band recorded, experienced the euphoria associated with a visit from jazz star Louis Armstrong, toured all over West Africa, experienced the excitement and frustration that came with the country's 1957 independence, and, with their many visits to Nigeria, spearheaded the growing movement of Nigerian highlife musicians, which included a young Fela Kuti. In fact, back in Ghana, the casts of various bands rotated so frequently that numerous Ghanaian dance bands, all-but-forgotten ensembles such as the Black Beats, Red Spots, Stargazers, Spike Anyanbor's Rhythm Aces, and The High Class Diamonds all seemed to be an extension of one major highlife band. These players all had their roots in what Mensah was putting down.

The music here, 69 tracks from the band's golden era- 1950s and 1960s- (exact recording dates aren't given), includes Mensah's earliest, rawest, and probably best material, such as a tribute to Ghana's first post-independence President, Kwame Nkrumah, the classic “The Tree and the Monkey,” and over a dozen other tunes originally pressed on 78 RPM discs.

"Kwame Nkrumah" (Disc 1)

By discs two and three, the music has become slightly slicker, though the recordings are still murky enough to all but bury the complex drumming and snaking guitar melodies under the horns. It's here too that the music can seem most antiquated in comparison to some of Ghana's rawer sixties-era guitar dominated rural highlife (a fantastic, frustratingly out of print collection, I've Found My Love: 1960s Guitar Band Highlife, is easily the best example of this music), or some of the slightly edgier sounds coming from some of Nigeria's 60's-era bands such as Charles Iwegbue & his Archibogs or Eric "Show Boy" Akaeze & His Azagas.

"Korle Bu" (Disc 2)

"Because of Money" (Disc 3)

In fact, a brief Q & A Collins did with Mensah in the 70's and printed in the booklet, shows that the aging bandleader seems to have a hard time accepting Ghana's then more progressive acts such as Hedzoleh (whose potent initial LP has been reissued by Soundway), and he seems to fail to recognize that Afro-beat, highlife's logical successor, was every bit as African as was his highlife. Both styles borrowed from the west, but both also rearranged those influences so that polyrhythms were at the music's core. Afro-beat simply chipped off even more of the melody, for long, single-chord, trance-like grooves, something highlife itself had opened the door for.

The examples of this very thing, increasing de-emphasis of horns, rawer, more to the front guitar licks, and breakdowns, where everyone lays out but the drummers so that one or more percussionist can take the solos formerly given to politely muted trumpets or saxes, are found on disc 4 of this collection.

"Mee Bei Obada" (Disc 4)

"Comfort" (Disc 4)

On these later tracks, Mensah pushed highlife right into the territory expanded upon in the 1970s by Ghanaians Alex Konadu, The African Brothers, The Uppers International, and many, many others. Here then, at over 194 minutes, is a chance for a 21st century immersion into exuberant examples of some of the earliest African pop music, overflowing with charm and sophistication, more than a worthy of a revisit, and still able to rock a party. - Bruce Miller

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