There are some who find fame immediately after showcasing their talents to the world. Others have to wait a couple of years to get recognized and appreciated. And there are those whose work get recognized and their influence spreads overtime, raking the benefits of their work even in their old age. Their genius acts get celebrated by those who may have, in hindsight, ignored it initially. One man who embodies all the above is Ebo Taylor.
Ebo Taylor is undisputedly a legend. His musical influence goes far beyond the shores of Ghana. He is one of the few music connoisseurs who gave highlife of the 70s a niche that became the toast of the world.
The septuagenarian composer, music arranger and guitarist is a pioneering figure in the elevation of afro beats music to a global audience. His love for experimentation led him to discover the limitations of local (African/Ghanaian) sound, which was the lack of instruments -the local sound relied on vocals and drums. To address this inadequacy, Ebo Taylor incorporated horns, guitar and piano elements into local highlife music. The outcome was a brand of highlife music referred to as ‘Afrobeats’.
In an interview with now out of print cultural magazine DUST he said:
We only had vocal choruses and drums. So I introduced horns, guitars and piano into the arrangement to give it a new profile. Whilst I was recording there (Essiebons Studios), we would try other more experimental tracks on the flip side of the records and it worked well. This encouraged me to write more compositions in this vane.”
Ebo Taylor’s compositions are a sought after commodity in the US and Europe, especially among crates diggers who are willing to dish out good money for his vinyls. A big acclaim for his works came in 2010 when Usher sampled one of his classics Heaven for his song ‘She Don’t Know’ featuring Ludacris off his 2010 album, ‘’Raymond Vs Raymond’’.
One of Ebo Taylor’s classic songs which has inspired this article is ‘’Ohy3 Atare Gyan’’, which loosely translate as: you’re looking dapper for nothing. Or simply, empty. The song has a highly infectious psychedelic funk appeal courtesy the heavy horns, guitar riffs and pleasing vocals of Ebo Taylor.
‘’Ohy3 Atare Gyan’’, is a popular refrain among the Fante speaking populace along the coastal regions of Central and Western Region (specifically Cape Coast and Sekondi/Takoradi). The expression has various interpretations, depending on the context of use. ‘’Ohye Atare Gyan’’ can be used, in some instances to emphasize the difference between formal education and ‘home’ education. The formal education here refers to ones’ ability to speak and write English. ‘Home’ or traditional education means being knowledgeable about the traditions of one’s heritage. The often quoted dictum, ‘school sense no bi sense; home sense na e we dey talk’ goes to buttress the distinction between the two forms of education. The phrase could also be used to denote the depth of one’s ignorance. That’s, it’s used to chide those who carry themselves as ‘super humans’ yet are nothing but ordinary people.
‘Ohye Atare Gyan’ was one of the six tracks found on his self-titled album released in 1977. Recorded in London, UK, the album was made up of six tracks (3 songs on both sides of the vinyl). One of the most popular songs on the album, aside ‘Ohye Atare Gyan’ was the horn dominating ‘Heaven’.
But, before I get into the historical underpinnings of the song, Ghanaian highlife music offer more than entertainment to the listener. The songs are mostly filled with didactic themes about human actions and the effects of wrongful acts on a person and society. The songs are a way of addressing or shaping minds of individuals. Some of the artistes deliberately make the songs to mock, draw attention or educate the listener about their history, traditions or question behaviours at variance with what make us Ghanaians. And ‘’Ohye Atare Gyan’’ does the latter.
‘’Ohy3 Atare Gyan’’ mocks or exposes the ridiculous attitudes of Ghanaians who lived in or travelled to Europe or America for educational reasons or to ‘hustle’ in the 70s through to the 80s. Thanks to their newly acquired ‘tastes’ (lifestyle) and wealth, they usually ‘exorcise’ the ‘Ghanaian’ in them way and treat the culture on which they were brought up with a level of contempt. This attitudinal change inspired Ebo Taylor to make this record. On the song, Ebo Taylor singing in Fante (translated below) poured out his observation:
‘My brother returned from abroad and can’t speak Fantse. He returned from abroad and despises fufu and kenkey’ My brother, thanks to his fashion sense (suite and tie) and his nice car doesn’t respect elders anymore’
From the translated lyrics, Ebo Taylor is highlighting the defacing of the ‘Ghanaian-ness’ by returnees whilst pointing out the inherent hypocrisy in such attitudes. He is therefore asking them to shun their attempts at forcing to be Europeans and rather be proud Ghanaians (Africans) by embracing their heritage, their culture and roots. The line ‘My brother returned from abroad and can’t speak Fantse’ is from a place of strong observation, where some returnees ‘forget’ any word of the languages they had spoken from birth. It also points out how Africans feel inferior speaking their own languages. As we are aware, language is power; it’s an identity and once you lose it, you lose yourself.
Historical Antecedents of the Expression
Let me put forth this caveat: I’m assuming the expression was coined during the colonial era for one strong reason: the reference to ‘brofo’ (spoken English) in the hook. Ebo Taylor sings on the hook ‘ohye Atare Gyan, ɔntse brofo’, meaning despite how well dressed one is, he can’t speak good English. And considering that, formal education was a colonial introduction, it is safe to assume so.
The British colonialists, apart from pursuing commercial activities and introducing Christianity to the people of Gold Coast realized the need to educate the local populace for the following reasons: 1) make trading easier, 2) have locals occupy certain positions within the colonial establishment as part of facilitating the colonialization process, and 3) speed up the Christianization agenda.
An educated African was a ‘Gentleman’. And a ‘gentleman’ must have among other qualities, a good grasp of the English language and a good fashion sense (three- piece coat, neck tie, or neatly pressed white shirt and shorts for colonial police force and teachers). The negative outcome of this education was that, the educated Gold Coaster of that era did not want to be associated with anything ‘local’ since all local traditions were considered primitive). His priority was to be a ‘Gentleman’ like the British masters so they practiced their ways by adopting British cultural values and treated their African heritage and customs with a certain air of disdain and contempt. The Kwaw Ansah classic movie, ‘Heritage Africa’ depicts this culture aptly.
Interestingly his thinking is pervasive in modern times. Being rich and fashionable without being educated is deemed a travesty and by extension disqualifies one from being called a gentleman or a lady. It is worth pointing out that, there are many who still find it reprehensible to speak in their local dialect as it diminishes their ‘status’. Others walk around with an air of confidence yet are ignorant about ideals peculiar to their heritage. We also have those who boast of their educational background yet can’t logically dissect issues. Being identified as a gentleman is good. But, a gentleman who shuns his customs and traditions is nothing but a lost soul.
Despite being released close to four decades ago, ‘Ohy3 Atare Gyan’ still sounds great today thanks to the resonating theme of the song. Ebo Taylor, obviously unimpressed by the new found ‘western lifestyle’ exhibited by the elite of his time inspired the composition of this song; to criticize all those caught up in ‘disrespecting’ our culture, similar to the many highlife tunes of old where social commentary was a dominant feature in the songs they composed.
Hear the re-make of Ohye Atare Gyan by one of my favourite producers Yung Fly (@ProdByYungFly)