Review: Vintage Highlife With A Dash of Modernity Fills Santrofi’s “Alewa”

Alewa” by Santrofi captures the spirit of highlife, delivering it in their own ways without compromising on its riveting authenticity”

When some legends of highlife music proclaimed the transgenerational nature of the genre, they appeared to have had a tunnel vision of how things would play out decades ahead. The clairvoyance of these highlife veterans is being vindicated. The power of highlife music goes beyond its rhythmic fervour. The genre’s pliable nature allows for experimentation, allowing for the infusion of other musical influences. Highlife music is like an overflowing canvas that permits gifted artists to sketch their painting with grace without the genre losing its glow.

Highlife, like all music genres, has endured its own ebbs and flows. As one of the most recognized genres, and the leading music export from Ghana – and West Africa by a stretch, the genre morphed from palm wine music (Koo Nimo) to big band highlife (E.T. Mensah), then to highlife/ afrobeat (Nana Ampadu, Ebo Taylor). In the mid-80s, highlife entered the “burger highlife” phase where the genre incorporated American funk and European pop music elements into its composition.

Led by George Darko, Daddy Lumba, Nana Acheampong, Charles Amoah, the sound soon became a staple. Around the late 90s and early 2000s, the influence of Urban RnB shaped the sonic direction of highlife, thus became more contemporary for the younger followers of the music (Ofori Amponsah, Nana Quame, Daasebre Dwamena were leading voices).

The explosion of Afropop from around the second half of 2000, underpinned by highlife music attracted a few young artists to its fold. The allure of Afropop – its broad acceptance, hipness- appealed to the young acts than highlife which was deemed old and lacking any selling point. Afropop, it must be stated is the most patronized genre on the continent at present.

It was therefore unsurprising when some highlife acts veered into the afropop space. The outcome of this switch was the abandonment of highlife music by these new-age artists, albeit incorporating its stems in the art they create – through sampling, interpolations of rhythms, groove, melody, lyrics.

Things are however changing. The highlife music space is witnessing a resurgence largely led by young artists who have chosen to pursue highlife music in its purest form. These artists, mostly music bands, are recapturing the spirit of the genre and delivering it in their own ways without compromising on its riveting authenticity.

One of the music bands leading the way is Santrofi. The band’s debut album “Alewa” transports the listener to the late 60s, through to the 80s when highlife was the toast of many. “Alewa”, the album title is an ode to a local candy which came in white and black colours. The title carries a dual meaning: one, it alludes to the sweetness of the songs and two, a balanced world where all races co-exist in unity.

The latter allusion is validated on the title track of the album “Alewa” (Black and White), a mid-tempo highlife tune with a graceful aura. Heralded by arresting Yaa Amponsah guitar riffs, jubilant horns and drums, the lead vocalist, in his pitch perfect Akuapim Twi re-echoes the familiar theme of unity (“whether black or white, we are all one people”). Earlier, a poet had set the stage on the album opener “Kokroko” with a perfect introduction of the group. Like a linguist introducing an important guest at a traditional gathering, the linguist (Okyeame) welcomes Santrofi. (The band borrows its name from the four-wing bird of beauty considered a nuisance treasure).

The evocative feeling that highlife music inspires is largely from its expansive rhythmic qualities. A great highlife song would embody certain distinct sonic elements like the unmistakable Yaa Amponsah guitar riffs, percussion and horns combining to produce an irresistible melodic groove. Also, most highlife music leans on storytelling – with didactic references about life- rendered in verses.

On “Alewa”, these qualities are excellently displayed on songs like “Africa” (a call of duty for unity and progress), “Kwaa Kwaa” which taps into a well-known Fante folklore and “Konongo Kaya”, a cautionary tale about envy, jealousy and wickedness. Love features heavily on “Odo Maba”, a remorseful confession of a man who treated his wife with contempt is steeped in late 50s and early 60s big band highlife sound. “Odo Maba” is a track that E.T. Mensah and The Tempos Band would make. The pleading lyric ‘welcome me with joy’ harkens back to the expression of joy in the prodigal son’s tale.

One of the outstanding records on the album is “Cocoase”, an ebullient medley that captures the true definition of highlife (Osode music). The tempo of the song, coupled with the performance of the lead vocalist evokes a parallel with songs by Ebo Taylor. The uptempo “Adwuma” parleys the essence of hard work. “Work is work, some have it good, others have it bad/ Whatever your situation, enjoy your trade since that feeds you”, he sings on the verse. “Kwabena Amoah”, is a highlife medley that highlights the joys of work and partly addresses the outlook of the African woman. Closing the 10-track album is “Mobo”, a soothing, jazzy song that exalts God. The serenity of the song would make Gyedu-Blay Ambolley jealous and Kwadjo Acquai smile in his grave

“Alewa” is a perfectly crafted, well written, excellently sequenced album that uncompromisingly embodies the rudiments of highlife music- a mix of vintage-inspired highlife, highlife funk and afrobeat. Santrofi is a group of young musicians with diverse musical influences deciding to pursue a musical direction less travelled by their contemporaries. Judging by the quality of work on ‘’Alewa’’, its no wonder why they were playing on some of the biggest music festivals across Europe prior to COVID-19 making a sweep.  

Emmanuel Ofori (on bass guitar is, electric lead guitars), Dominic Quarchie (on the rhythm guitar and lead vocals), Bernard Gyamfi (trombone and shekere), Norbert Wonkyi (trumpet, Flugelhorn and bells), Prince Larbi (on drums and vocals), Emmanuel Boakye Agyeman (organs, fender rhodes and vocals), Victor Nii Amoo ( Percussions), and Kofi ‘IamBeatMenace’ (co-producer, audio engineer and brands Coordinator) have proven to be the new custodians of Ghanaian highlife music.

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