With 25 albums under his belt over a career spanning four decades, the evergreen veteran highlife musician Gyedu-Blay Ambolley continues to shine. But, his stellar career began in 1975 with the release of the classic “Simigwa” album.
The pose is striking at a glance: a strong gaze into the lens of the camera. The twitch of his lower lip to the right side of his mouth. The cloth wrapping around his neck in a style reminiscent of how people, mostly males in the pre-colonial days and in rural Gold Coast dressed. His left arm resting on his chest and the right, at the back of his head.
The pose used as the album cover exuded a shade of uncertainty. What occasioned this facial expression especially the lip twitch? Is he mocking someone the way some kids do? Did the expression symbolized something deeper? Answers to these questions could only be provided by Gyed-Blay Ambolley aka ‘’Uncle O’’ and the photographer who snapped the photo. The expression and the demeanor of Gyedu-Blay has made the album cover one of the most iconic album covers ever.
Gyedu- Blay Ambolley is known for his astounding career which has resulted in the release of 25 albums over a 40 year career span. The Sekondi born musician and multi-instrumentalist released his debut “Simigwa” in 1975 by Essiebons Record label. His last album ‘’African Soul’’ was in 2015. Gyedu-Blay has also been very active especially with the youth. He was featured on FOKN Bois ‘’Abena Repatriation’’ off their recently released “Afrobeats LOL’’.
“Simigwa”, a title that does translate as “enstool me” from Fante to English was befitting considering how Ambolley, once an ‘’apprentice’’, had come of age to earn his own “stool” or seat as befits a master.
The album was co-written and produced with Ebo Taylor who recruited and played with Ambolley in the Uhuru Band. Composed of 6 tracks – 3 on each side of the vinyl- the album was an experimental debut in terms of sound. “Simigwa” fused of highlife, rock, afrobeat and funk musical styles and influences- styles that Ambolley had grew up on. It was a bold musical arc that Gyedu- Blay Ambolley took.
With a running time of 29 minutes and 55 seconds, the Asamansudu born, Sekondi bred musician showed off his broad talent to the world. Each song on the album was grounded in traditional highlife foundation. This was instructive since highlife established the identity of the artist (being from Ghana) and was a way of promoting the genre to the rest of the world.
Songs like “Kwaakwa” and “The Simigwa” were pulsating records due largely to its fast pace rhythms which combined afrobeat, rock and 60s funk respectively. ”Kwaakwa” was a medley of folk songs usually sang by kids during playtime. The title “Kwaakwa” was borrowed from the sound made by crows. The influences of James Brown are translucent on this record, especially how he spoke and sang on the song. Ambolley could be heard referencing some standout lyrics of Mr. Brown on ‘’Kwaakwa’’.
Like “Kwaakwa”, “Simigwa” was an ode to the Simigwa dance which Ambolley and his peers performed as kids. Interestingly, Ambolley continues to perform these cool, body bending dance during his live sets. “Simigwa’’ was a nostalgic recount. This record also introduced the world to the ‘kwagees’ – a composition of street slangs spoken mostly by the people of Sekondi. It must be stated that, Ambolley’s claim to be the first rapper- way before the Sugar Hill Gang dropped their rap album- is based on his showing on ‘’Simigwa’’- the song.
“Adwoa” explored the murky side of love: a tale about a man who divorced his wife because she was taken him for granted was delivered in a soulful tone. You’d appreciate the lyrics more if you speak or understood Fante. Half of the 4 minutes, 11 seconds song was dedicated to exquisite instrumentation, allowing the traditional African flute to glisten across it.
One of the best songs on the album came by way of “Toffee”, a classic in its own right. Composed along the lines of Miles Davies or John Coltrane jazz records, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s saxophone foamed atop the jazzy song. “Toffee” had him pouring out his love to either someone he was trying to woo or a partner he had missed. One of the remarkable standouts on this record had to be the way he mentioned ‘toffee”.
Instead of pronouncing the word as it’s said, Gyedu-Blay gave us “aToffee”- something which had stuck all these years. In fact, I never knew he was saying ”Toffee” years upon hearing the song. “Toffee” and “Onam Daadze” happen to be the first records I heard from uncle Gyedu-Blay.
The hand of Ebo Taylor, a respected musician, songwriter, producer and arranger is heard on “This Hustling World”. The opening beat of the record is similar to the one heard on Ebo Taylor’s “Heaven”. He also provided additional vocals on the song harping on the unpredictability of life and the need to be respectful and humble. “This hustling world/Never mock at your friend”, he sang. “Cos life don’t respect money/ It changes hands”, he emphasized.
On “Fa No Dem Ara” (Take It As It Is), Uncle Gyedu-Blay themed this piece on contentment and being hopeful of a brighter future, one’s condition notwithstanding. Ambolley sounded both preachy and motivational. His tone was mellow, synching with the ambiance of the song.
The experimentation that Gyedu- Blay Ambolley carried out on “Simigwa” has permeated all of his over 25 albums. His sounds – influenced by jazz music, authentic afrobeat, James Brown’s 60s funk/rock and rap- is both vintage, appealing and modern to the ear.
Again, his lyrics are enriched by renditions of folk music, life experiences, his political views (mostly bothering on Pan-Africanism and political freedom) a la Bob Dylan. Interspersed within the music are humorous anecdotes to keep his albums balanced and exciting. No wonder Ambolley keeps pulling crowds of various ages whenever he performs. I have no sympathy for you if you’ve never been to an Uncle Gyedu-Blay live concerts.
The versatility of Uncle Gyedu-Blay makes it hard to sometimes place him under a specific genre. This difficulty however has not diminished his success. With multiple awards to his name, Uncle O! , as some call him appears very evergreen even at 75 years. The fire of success bellows within him on stage and on records.