German pair Africaine 808's productions have been a staple at Glasgow's Highlife club night for many years. Here, Africaine 808's DJ Nomad – who plays at Highlife in Glasgow on Saturday, March 11 – picks his five favourite tracks from the vast canon of the West Africa-derived genre of the same name.
The influence of Highlife music on modern African and western pop music has been both over- and under-estimated, misinterpreted, and often limited to only one certain “classic” style. In nearly three decades of collecting and studying African music, my understanding of Highlife has gone through several stages of marvels and revelations. As a young collector, I would often be confronted by older guys who had specialised in early Highlife from the 1950s to the 1970s with records that all sounded pretty similar to me – outdated and of no use for my DJ sets. Even 20 years ago those records were already expensive – another reason for me to ignore them, and with them an entire genre. For many years, Highlife would have been the last genre of African music i would look for. Soukousse, Zouk, Cavacha, Jive soul and disco, Nigerian funk and boogie were much more tempting, and fitted my needs as a floor-oriented DJ.
Only through expanding my view to take in the entire spectrum of tropical music, and through contact with Colombian soundsystems and their use of the hypnotic Nigerian Edo Highlife, did I develop a new interest in the genre. Around the same time, while researching more and more of the electronic roots of African music, I discovered the drum machine-based “Burger” Highlife, mainly generated and produced during a German-Ghanaian cultural exchange, and that forever changed my view on this music. I started looking deeper into the genre, from its roots in the earliest recordings of West African Palm-wine music, through to the incorporation of electric guitars and all the way to its branching out into modern popular African music styles in the 1970s and 1980s.
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Whether or not one certain Highlife riddim is indeed the root of our modern funk – the Ghanaian band Edikanfo claim so – I don't know. But what I do know is that Highlife music is a bottomless well of joy, no matter where you're from and what other styles of music you're into. Long may the Highlife continue!
King Ubulu – Okumone Uwe
It wasn't a difficult choice to put King Ubulu first on this list, but it’s a toss-up between this and my edit of the track Ndi Uwa Saiwe. Both records feature my two favourite people in Nigerian Edo Highlife: the eternal Rogana Ottah on guitar and King Ubulu on the mic. On this album he describes his music as “flowing like water”, and warns that if his competitors try to copy it the water will devour and drown them. KA-POW! This pretty much sums it up. King Ubulu is a legend. Since his death, his son has maintained his legacy by playing his father's songs in the region, and so, to this day, young musicians in the area are learning about his songs
Rex Gyamfi – Obiara Bewu
A widely known German Burger Highlife track, and a classic record my friend Jan Schulte (Bufiman) and me used to find on a regular basis in German flea markets (though thanks to the blogosphere it's now an expensive rarity). Jan was for years the only guy I knew who was also into collecting German Burger Highlife and playing it out. This is still one of the most perfect electro Highlife tracks of all time, and will be re-released soon
Amakye Dede and his Apollo Kings – Beka Meho
This is from an extremely hard-to-find LP from one of the most popular Burger Highlife artists in Ghana. This piece is a Canadian, German and Ghanaian co-production and has one of the oddest features I've ever heard on a Highlife track: a violin solo. As far as I know I'm the only DJ who's been playing this in the last few years, though maybe that will change when the electro Highlife compilation I'm currently compiling comes out. This track is a massive winner
Wofa Akwabena Akwaboa – Mmre-Dane
Pure Nigerian rawness and hypnotic beauty on this one. It’s got all the components for an eternal hit: pounding drum machines, polyrhythmic arrangements, Fiji-style howling synths and guitars, a choir, and of course a heavy 180-gram Afrodesia pressing. Another of many highlights from the compilation
Eric Agyeman – I Don’t Care
A very easy to find Highlife classic that i still play on a regular basis. This track always works. – the the second time the refrain hits always has everyone singing along and dancing. Like a lot of Highlife tracks, the story told is pretty heavy – it's about suffering, poverty and hunger – but the music surpasses everything. It lifts you to a higher plane and makes you forget everything. That’s the spirit of Highlife
Nomad plays at Highlife at the Glasgow School of Art on Saturday, March 11