The documentary Black Stars traces the history of Highlife from its birthplace in Ghana, telling a story of musical cross-pollination between West Africa and the West.
It is first and foremost a celebration of the music, music which went undiscovered internationally for decades. The soundtrack includes some incredible songs from some of the most famous veterans of the Ghanaian music scene, some of whom are currently enjoying an unexpected spike of acclaim late in their careers.
Following the recent celebration of this documentary (and the Love In Africa album launch) at The Total Refreshment Centre in London, we got Vincent to chat to one of the legends of Highlife featured in the film, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley!
Hi Gyedu, how are you doing?
I’m back in the studio, putting another album together. My last album was released by Agogo in May, and I’m preparing another one for next year.
When’s this one coming out?
I wanted the other one released by Agogo to get in the system for about one year, so definitely it’s going to come out next year before summer.
How come you’re already starting on another album?
Because, you know, it’s an inspiration. When you get the inspiration you have to put the inspiration down. I know my fans in Europe and America will be expecting a continuation, and that’s what I’m doing. Because I don’t wait for the time to come, as I keep going, I keep preparing myself for what needs to come next year.
You haven't released an album for 13 years or so, is that right?
Yeah, well I did release an album but it was local here in Ghana.
I see, so it wasn’t an international release…
Exactly. When I was in America yes, I released some albums that were circulating worldwide, but when I came back from America I felt I had to do something for the locals, for them to be able to identify me. So my whole concentration was on that side of things.
How does music you make in Ghana differ to the other music you make elsewhere?
What I’m doing here in Ghana is also international. Because any time I put an album together I don’t just think of only local; I think of coming out with an album that will cross borders. So what I’m doing is always specifically in that direction.
Has highlife changed over the years or is it still pretty much the same as it was back in the 70s/80s?
No. I think it’s changed now, because the younger ones that have come don’t know ‘music’. You know, they are not reading music, they are not taking instrumentations and all of that; they are depending too much on the computer. They make the beat and whatever the computer gives to them is what they take out and play around with. You often forget that the computer is not designed here, the computer is designed in Europe and America, they put in styles of music in that computer, so when they bring it here, we need to make it ours, we need to take the rhythms and all that and turn it all around. Because after all, Africa is the basics of rhythms. So, the younger ones are not doing that, and they are losing the touch of highlife. But we are here, and we’re still gonna keep informing and educating the younger ones.
That’s an interesting point. Obviously now there’s new generations that are coming up that are exploring not only highlife but also other kinds of music, such as jazz and electronic music. Do you think it can still be good for highlife? Highlife has always been about fusion, right?
Well, highlife can be played in all kinds of formats, and highlife is the basis of all dance music. Every dance music that has come from Europe or South America or India, or anywhere, has the basics of highlife in it. So you can take that highlife and play around with it, whether you want to ‘discotise’ it, or whether you want to put a salsa feel in it, it’s all in it. So highlife is something that can never die. I mean the younger ones are doing what they think they know, because time changes; and when the time is changing then you need to change with the time. But that doesn’t mean you have to forget your roots, no. The roots have to be there, but your roots can be modified as the time changes.
Would you make music with the new generations?
Oh yes, I’ve already done about three or four here in Ghana. But the time is coming for me and the international artists also to be able to get together and do it. Because for me, my music is always a happy music, my music is always a dance music, my music motivates people and makes you feel happy around yourself. So, in collaborating with other artists, whether it be a rapper or something else, it’s cool with me. But I know the international collaboration of younger generations will also happen soon.
Has the outlook on your own music changed as you’ve toured more and recorded more around the world?
Yeah, because as the years go by, new things keep on popping up, and I always identify what comes up. Because music is just like painting, you have to do the sketches and all of that before you can put colour in it, decide whether it’s going to wear a hat, or shirt or coat, or anything like that. And my music changes with the times, that’s why my music is not forgotten, because it changes with the time, and people can feel themselves in there.
And it has to be experienced in the present moment.
It’s interesting how you said your music is about enjoying and feeling good and dancing, so an important aspect of the music is to see it live…
Yes, because when you go to perform, people all come from different homes. As everyone comes with different problems, when you put all these people together you need to be able to do something to allow them to forget about themselves and be happy. That’s the power of music – you put it out there, and people will just feel it. If you perform for around an hour, let’s say, then that will be the happiest time for people.
How do you feel about recording music?
Well you know, these days the recordings are different now from before. When you go to record, you know the basics of the music that you want to do. There are studios that do live recording and all that using live music, because all my instrumentations and everything is live. Before we go to the studio, we rehearse the music so that when we go there, everyone knows what to do, and there [in the studio], everybody will have an input into the music, because we’re playing around with the sound and we know which way to drive it. So you know, live recording, it’s human, and that’s where the human feel is. I love that, I love that more than computerised sounds.
Do you get to improvise much with the music?
Oh yeah, because my music, especially when I was in America, is an open music. It allows them to improvise. Whatever that they’ve learnt from school, talking about arpeggios or whatever, it gives them room. So my music is an open music that improvisation has no end in my music.
That’s how it becomes more inclusive, because you can bring other people into your sound and your energy.
Yeah because my music is an international music, and I make sure that the basics are there so that every musician from any other country can feel themselves in that music and be part of it.
So do you think that can you still capture this energy on the live recording or do you still think that live performance is more powerful?
Well you know, when you’re on the stage it’s different from going into the studio. Because when you go into the studio you have a concept of going to record, but when you go to perform the interaction between you and the audience – that’s where the magic is. And that brings us so many different forms of interpretation on your instrument, because you’re interacting with the audience and this gives you more possibilities as a musician.
Will you be continuing to tour with the previous album, for the next year?
Yeah, that’s the preparation for now, to hit the tour for next summer. I have a festival in Kenya, Nairobi, that’s happening in the first week of December. Once that’s done, we’re going to get set up for the European tour. We’re going to entertain, so we need to get ourselves ready for that...
You’ve been playing with the band for quite some time now so I imagine you understand each other quite well.
Well yeah, the last recording we did on Agogo records are the same musicians I’ve been playing with for almost five years. When I came back from America I set up the band. So we know each other musically, we know each other’s moves and everything. When you play with the same musicians for some time it becomes a family music.
Do you think it’s important to get to know them as friends as well?
Yeah, of course. Because you know you’re the leader of the band, they’re looking up to you. I’m older than all the musicians in my band, I have to show them the discipline and ethics of the music, so they all look up to me. I make sure that I’m connecting with them, I’m teaching them something and I’m also learning something from them.
That’s cool, it’s like a process of collaboration between you. But also this idea of sharing and passing on ideas, to younger people especially, has been going on since the beginning of humans, and it’s the most basic form of communication.
Yes, yes, that’s it, from human to human. It’s different from someone writing it down for you to read it. But if you’re interacting with somebody who is passing on the message, it goes deep down. Like as you said, passing on the information since time immemorial, we pass on information from human to human and it’s always deep, deep, deep. All of us are humans, so we share the same common thing. So irrespective of where we come from, when we meet you sense a human feeling anytime, anywhere.
That’s the amazing thing about music – you can go to any place in the world and find a commonality. So you were in London recently, how was that?
Yeah. I was happy to come to London and work on a documentary about highlife. Because highlife has been the basics of our entertainment here in West Africa, and we’re working on this and I’m happy about that. Also to be invited to be part of the inauguration of the documentary – I was very happy to interact with the audience. And that’s just the beginning; the big time is just coming. When I start touring next year, then the whole thing is gonna be together and set up.
It’s going to be a big new chapter for highlife.
Big time. Because you see, lots of African music has internationalised itself – e.g. I know the Francophone music has been saturated in Europe for some time. And now they’re looking for something new – and that new thing is coming from Ghana...that’s why next year it’s going to be the beginning.
How do you feel about bringing this identity of Ghana to the world?
I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and working on this for a long time. Because if you wanna present anything, you have to work at it. You are presenting it and people have to understand your presentation. So I’ve been working at it for a long time, but the right time is now, the right time is truly, truly now.
It’s interesting because obviously you’ve been making and playing music for many years, and you’ve seen how the world and Ghana has changed, but you still have this vision to share, and maybe the time is now because it’s changed so much that we need to go back to the roots maybe…
Thank you so much for that. Like you’re saying – I’m glad you say that – because the world has changed so much and so fast, now people are getting uncomfortable. They now see that the roots is where it’s at. We have to make a turn-around so that we enjoy. Because we need to enjoy. Technology is fine, but it’s moving too fast.
I always find it interesting coming back to London, for example, because the pace of life is so quick and even in the streets everyone is walking very quickly, and you see with fresh eyes just how quickly people are living.
I lived in London back in ‘80-‘81, so when I come back to London, you see how people are walking so fast because they have to get somewhere - no time to slow down, now you get on the train. Everyone’s reading. Everything’s *tacktacktacktack*. Everything’s too quick. I slowed down because I don’t live there. That’s the nature of what’s happening in UK, Europe, America, etc...
Do you think the same is happening to Ghana too?
Yes, it’s affecting Ghana too. Because many things here are coming from Europe and other parts of the world are having an influence. We are copying what’s happening in Europe, so that’s where the affect is slowly coming.
How long were you away for?
I was in the States for close to twenty years. I was in New York and moved to Los Angeles afterwards.
Did you have some good times in LA?
Oh yeah, I had a band over there, and because of the movies and all that, you meet a lot of movie stars, popular musicians – Michael Jackson was in the same place, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, George Duke, yeah, all these guys. Concerts were here and you ended up meeting them. I loved New York, lots and lots of action going on in NY. Los Angeles is spread out, but NY is close, so the action’s happening right in front of you.
You didn’t pick up an American accent yet…
[Laughs] Well when I moved over there I was already a grown-up somebody, so it never happened.
Do you still enjoy touring?
Like I said even now, it’s gonna be stronger than before because of the preparation I’m making. When I was in America there are good musicians in America, but you always feel something is missing. There’s a whole sound that’s missing.
And what is that?
They’re good musicians, but I’m talking about the rhythms, the highlife rhythm. What the drummer has to play here in Ghana, and the conga player has to play here in Ghana, that’s missing over there. The drums and congas are the basics of every instrument. So if this is missing, it doesn’t sit well, and that’s the reason why I came back home. That’s why I’m preparing here.
I’ve noticed this myself when playing with musicians from Africa in particular. There’s a certain internal rhythm that they have and I’ve noticed with a lot of musicians from the UK, Europe, and so on, there’s not the same rhythmic education from a young age; they can be technically very skilled but there’s not what you say is missing, that ‘thing’.
There’s this violin player – Jean-Luc Ponty – he was playing with Africans...so the Africans set up the rhythm and he put his scale on it. The rhythm needs to be there, so you can put your style on it.
So we should make a campaign for everyone to learn the congas…
Yes, definitely. [Laughs]
Do you have anything more to add regarding your upcoming projects?
I’ve set myself out there and I want everybody to know that a continuation is coming, Ambolley is going on. I’ve released many albums, maybe every two years I've come out with another album because of the inspirations that I have. To anybody who has the chance to listen to us, you’re going to have fun with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley soon from the Summer onwards, and I look forward to seeing everybody.