BY BENSON IDONIJE
THE just concluded High Vibes Festival in Accra, Ghana, realised the need for the preservation of highlife in its pure setting. It also acknowledged, in practical terms, its evolution and fusion into modern variants, including burger highlife, Afrobeat and even straight-ahead jazz, driven by African rhythms.
Highlighting the various perspectives of these musical dimensions with sounds from various parts of the West African sub region as well as central Africa – with the raw sound of King Ayisoba, the conventional highlife of The Ramblers, the sounds of Takashi, Amandzeba, K.K.Fosu, Gyedu Blay Ambolley), Kwabena Kwabena – all from Ghana; Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80, Nigeria; Miatta Fahnbulleh, Kamaldine, Guinea; Sainstrick, Congo, and Gamgbe Brass Band from the Republic of Benin, it was a jazz festival of sort even though in essence, it was a celebration of highlife. Many issues however came to light, bringing with them, a new consciousness.
AS a matter of fact, viewed against the papers presented at the symposium that ushered in the concerts, the realisation dawned on the inaugural festival that highlife is not the exclusive preserve of West Africa, but a product of all Africa; the flavour of highlife is used to spice up some of Africa’s other great musics.
Among other things, it became clear that highlife is one of the first examples of a fusion between the old and the new, and a prototype for all African pop. To many anglophone, the name is used generically for any African guitar pop.
It was also seen that its modern big band style, which began with Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah of Ghana and Bobby Benson of Nigeria, has evolved to burger and hiplife in Ghana, but has reached out to Afrobeat in Nigeria.
SEUN Kuti was the top of the bill, and he lived up to this billing with an electrifying stage presence demanding of high level energy. But the biggest surprise of the concert came from the Gangbe Brass Band from the Republic of Benin who amazingly demonstrated the great sense of musicianship, introducing a high degree of ‘art’ into their performance by playing the finest of jazz, interspersed and punctuated with melodies of the folkloric type-propelled by African percussion – to define the music’s true African identity and origin.
With an instrumental line-up comprising trumpets, trombone, tuba and a tenor saxophone added to give the ensemble the harmonic flavour of something in the reed family, along with West African percussion and vocals, the band held the enlightened audience that filled the National Arts Theatre, Accra, spell bound.
The Gangbe Brass Band, which has become popular all over the world, played mostly tunes from their new album, Assiko.
The album is all about “taking a position, a willingness to act and to proclaim that the time is right, that the time has come to start working seriously and profoundly together to develop this country, without ever losing sight of the world.”
The band is instrumentally strong, but they also send out inspiring messages through their songs. One of its most impressive performances was Beautiful Africa. “Long courted and squeezed like a lemon,” the song says, “Africa, the mother of humanity, stands and will forever hold its ground, resisting the plagues that destabilise it: exodus, pillage, ignorance and the draining of human resources.” “We must keep faith and ask everybody to be optimistic,” the melody line continues, “because Africa, fertile as it is, grows and will continue to grow. Even so, it has limitations and we must be careful to ensure that it can re-establish itself as quickly as possible. In order for its branches to grow larger and bear fruit, all its capacities must be directed towards the eyes of its native populations and most of all, in the eyes of those who have left it”. This slap in the face of faith is what they are trying to communicate in this beautiful song.
Instrumentally, the eight musicians who constitute the Gangbe Brass Band are accomplished musicians, a feat that is immediately recognisable from the robust and clean ensemble sound. It then becomes obvious that individually, they are proficient as they begin to prosecute their solo lines with articulation and creativity.
I HEARD groups like Sakhile in South Africa at one of the Northsea Jazz Festivals and thought to myself that it was one of the greatest Afro-jazz groups on the continent. But I was confronted with a new element when I heard Gangbe Brass Band in Accra, Ghana last week. In the case of Sakhile, it was an all-percussion affair with rhythms and bass guitar to give full accent to the rhythm. And of course, the dominant factor in terms of the music’s fluidity was the flowing lines of the tenor saxophone played by the leader of the group. Quite an awesome sound.
As a contrast, Gangbe offered an all-star performance where all the instruments, especially the frontline are proficient.
Most of the hornmen that today parade themselves as superstars are just hiding behind the effects of ensemble sounds. Some of them have not even properly articulated their tonal conceptions and so still sounding blurred and immature even after decades of music making. But it is amazing that all the members of the Gangbe group are masters of their various instruments, and sound authoritative in terms of clarity and phraseology.
Benin may be a small country tucked in some corner of West Africa, but its rich culture is constantly being trumpeted worldwide by the Gangbe Brass Band, whose members are proud to be able to hold their own with the entire world as far as the elevated music called jazz is concerned. And they beautifully fuse it with rhythms and folklores from their motherland.
The word Gangbe means sound of metal in the Fon language, and the band has literally been beating that metal since 1994, telling all who care to listen that a dynamic band from Benin is marching on extreme vim to conquer the world.
Gangbe has taken its eclectic sound across Africa and to Europe and North America and Brazil. What the musicians always appear to demonstrate is that it is possible to marry the old and new, the traditional and modern to achieve an exciting fusion that transcends borders.
The Gangbe Brass Band perhaps owes its success to a sense of unity and commitment arising from the fact that it operates as a collective as opposed to the situation where a leader assumes authority and directs affairs alone. It has won awards at home and abroad. The group’s appearance on the High Vibes Festival was an inspiration for all African musicians who are still wondering if it is possible to make it big on the international scene with music that derives its main source of inspiration from African elements. The group also eloquently demonstrated that to drive African music to international pop mainstream, the vehicle is jazz, just jazz.
The example of the Gangbe Brass Band should be a lesson to all African musicians, especially instrumentalists. The message is that musicians should spend hours practising their instruments daily, doing scales and exercises, otherwise they would remain static.
AHE Gangbe Brass Band was formed in 1994, but it did not come into the limelight until five years later when it participated in the Pan-African Jazz Festival in 1999 at the Du Bois Center. The audience did not know them, but they came on stage and (exactly the way it happened at the National Theatre, Accra, Ghana last week) within a short while, impressed all with their distinctive use of Beninois rhythmic patterns, the establishment of riffs of the call-and-response types especially of the brass family and the use of counter-pointal dueting, by horns.
Formed by eight young jazz musicians who had previously been playing in different bands, the Gangbe Brass Band has remained formidable, blending traditional rhythms with jazz harmonies.
The band sees itself as ambassadors of world music, claiming that as musicians, they are assuming a role. As a result of their international exposure, their spirits have travelled across the world, and have been influenced by new musical traditions — jazz, blues, swing, funk; and the link with Africa as the point of departure has been woven regardless of frontiers. This is a link that should be optimised because all these new musical forms of the 20th century are in some way a gift from Africa to humanity.
“One can only weave new fibres at the end of an already existing string,” as they say in the song Miwa from their new album. The Gangbe Brass Band has been weaving this new string for many years now and it is hoped that they will inspire other musicians in Africa to take over.