When the history of Ghanian music is written, one man will loom large, Ebo Taylor. He is a colossus of Ghanian music. Ebo is best described as an innovator who went on to influence further generations of Ghanian musicians. Nearly forty years later, Ebo’s influence is still being felt not just in Ghanian music, but further afield. Thanks to reissue labels like Mr. Bongo Records, a new generation of music lovers are discovering Ebo Taylor’s music. This includes his 1980 album Conflict, which was rereleased by Mr. Bongo Records on vinyl on 1st January 2014.
Conflict is just one of the albums that have just been reissued by Mr. Bongo Records as the new year dawned. However, it’s the first of these albums that I’ll tell you about. Before I tell the music on Conflict, I’ll tell you about a pivotal figure in Ghanian music, Ebo Taylor. He was much more than a musician. Ebo was also a songwriter, arranger, producer and bandleader. Quite simply, Ebo Taylor has done it all, and that includes creating a new genre of music.
Born in Ghana in 1936, Ebo Taylor’s career started in the fifties, when he was the leader of two highlife bands in Ghana, The Stargazers and The Broadway Dance Band. These weren’t just any highlife bands. No. They were two of the best and most important highlife bands. This allowed Ebo Taylor to establish a reputation, before he decided to spread the gospel of Ghanian music in London.
By 1962, Ebo had moved to London, where he founded The Blackstar Highlife Band. Having founded his own band, Ebo could dictate musical policy. What he wanted to do, was create a fusion of musical genres and influences. This included traditional Ghanian music and other West African musical genres. To this, Ebo combined funk and jazz. What The Blackstar Highlife Band created, was a musical melting pot. Afrobeat, highlife, jazz and funk came together to form a hypnotic and enthralling fusion of African and Western music. So, it’s no surprise that The Blackstar Highlife Band became a popular group not just in London, but further afield. The effect this had on Ebo’s career was considerable. On his return to Ghana, his services as a producer were greatly in demand.
Having returned to Ghana, Ebo was like the all-conquering hero. Word had spread of the genre melting music he’d created in London with The Blackstar Highlife Band. Job offers came thick and fast. Musician, songwriter, arranger and producer, Ebo could turn his hand to anything.
Ebo was a member of the short-lived The Apagya Show Band, who released one single, Tamfo Nyi Ekyir in 1973. They also released one album, which lay unreleased for thirty-nine years. From playing, Ebo decided to move onto arranging and production.
Then in 1975, Ebo arranged C.K. Mann and His Carousel 7’s 1975 album Funky Highlife. Later that year, Ebo produced Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s album Simigwa. It was through production that allowed Ebo to put his new ideas about music into practice. Ebo it seemed, had done just about everything in music. Two things remained, songwriting and releasing a solo album.
Two years later, in 1977, Ebo wrote several songs for Pat Thomas and Marijata’s eponymous album. Ebo was also called upon to arrange the album. This was good practice for what was about to happen. The one thing Ebo Taylor had still to do, was release a solo album. This would be rectified in 1977, when Ebo Taylor released his eponymous album Ebo Taylor on Ghanian label Essiebons. Before long, Ebo would release his sophomore album.
Twer Nyame was Ebo Taylor’s sophomore album. It was released on Phillips West-African Records. Having released two solo albums in the space of a year, it was another two years before Ebo released another album.
Ebo’s next album was collaboration with the Saltpond Barkers Choir. Me Kra Tsie was released in 1979, on Ghanian label Essiebons. This must have given Ebo a taste for collaborations, as his next album was another collaboration.
For what was his fourth album Conflict, Ebo Taylor joined forces with Uhuru Yenzu. Ebo wrote the five tracks that became Conflict. Joining Ebo and Uhuru were some of Ghana’s best musicians. This included a rhythm section of drummer Max Hammond, bassists David Lamptey and Paa Kwesi, plus Ebo who played guitars and keyboards. Adding the percussive sound were Tom Prize on congas and Arthur Kennedy who played African drums. The horn section included alto saxophonist George Amissah, tenor saxophonist George Abunuah and trumpeter Arthur Kennedy. Once Conflict was recorded, it was released in 1980.
On its release, Conflict was a success in Ghana. Sadly, it never found a wider audience. Ebo Taylor was an African phenomenon, but as far as the rest of the world concerned, he was another of African music’s best kept secrets. Thankfully, that’s changing and Brighton-based label Mr. Bongo have rereleased a remastered version of Conflict which I’ll tell you about.
Opening Conflict is You Need Love, where jazz-tinged horns open the track. They have a contemporary timeless sound. Rasping and braying, the horns have a light, airy and joyous sound. Crystalline guitars, stabs of keyboards and heartfelt harmonies spread a feel-good message. They’re the perfect accompaniment to the arrangement. Together, they’re the equivalent to a slice of musical sunshine, and a hook-laden one at that.
Love and Death has a similar jazz-tinged sound. It’s an irresistible fusion of Afro-beat and jazz. As the rhythm section provide the heartbeat, stabs of blazing horns and keyboards punctuate the arrangement. When the horns drop out, heartfelt, soulful harmonies take charge. Just like the opening track, they’re the perfect accompaniment to the arrangement. Ying and yang describes them, as Afro-beat, funk, jazz and soul melt seamlessly into one. As for the lyrics, they’re cerebral and thoughtful. I’d go as far as say that their some of the best on Conflict, which demonstrate Ebo’s skills as a songwriter.
What Is Life bursts into life. A myriad of percussion, bursts of blazing horns, stabs of keyboards and a pulsating funky rhythm section unite, before Ebo delivers the vocal with passion and emotion. He’s like a musical philosopher, one who ask the big questions. There’s none bigger than “What Is Life?” Harmonies accompany while, a cascading flute and dramatic drums enjoy add to this delicious musical melting pot. Musical genres and influences melt into one. Afro-beat, funk, jazz, Latin and soul all play their part, as Ebo plays the role of poet and philosopher. Ultimately, Ebo doesn’t provide an answer to “What Is Life?” However, as musical journeys go, it’s infectiously catchy, joyous and dance-floor friendly.
Christ Will Come has a much more understated and thoughtful sound. Just a hypnotic keyboard line, congas and percussion join the flute. They provide the backdrop to the vocal. It’s spiritual and heartfelt, reminiscent of Bob Marley in his prime. As the vocal drops out, the horns take charge, braying and blazing, while the rhythm section power the arrangement along. Horns cascade as the flute takes centre-stage. It’s played real passion. This is fitting given the spiritual quality of the vocal. Spiritual and uplifting describes this track. So does funky, jazz-tinged and timeless, as musical genres melt into one.
Victory closes Conflict. Horns contribute a celebratory sound. There’s a reason for this, Ebo and his band are celebrating a Victory. Maybe it’s the 1979 coup, lead by Jerry Rawlings? Driven along by the braying, grizzled horns and rhythm section, Afro-beat, funk and jazz is combined by Ebo’s all-star band. Then when Ebo sings call and response, the harmonies add to the celebratory nature of the track. Chiming, crystalline guitars join a hypnotic bass as this funky and strident arrangement heads to its crescendo. As it does, you can’t help but get caught up in this mesmeric musical celebration.
Thirty-three years after its release, Conflict, Ebo Taylor’s fourth album can be described using just one word…timeless. It’s hard to believe Conflict was released in 1980. The music has a contemporary sound, as everything from Afro-beat, funk, jazz, Latin and soul melt into one. On a couple of tracks, there’s a prominent jazz influence. That’s no surprise. After all, Ebo Taylor’s guitar playing is best described as jazz-tinged. It ranges from delicate and deliberate, to subtle and understated. Then there’s his vocals. They cover a gambit of emotions. One minute they’re joyous and uplifting, the next spiritual, heartfelt or impassioned. Ebo’s vocals prove the ying to the band’s yang. They play their part in Conflict, a truly genre-melting album which demonstrates Ebo Taylor at his best.
Conflict was written, arranged and produced by Ebo. The album is like a musical tapestry, where an eclectic selection of musical genres and influences play their part in the album’s sound and success. Afrobeat, highlife and other types of Western African music are joined by jazz, funk, soul and Latin music. Dense rhythms, a proliferation of percussion and Ebo’s jazz-tinged guitar are joined by braying, blazing horns. Together, they provide the backdrop for the vocals on Conflict, which was released on vinyl by Mr. Bongo Records on 1st January 2014, as part of a major reissue program.
Best described as an innovative, genre-straddling album, Conflict is one of Ebo Taylor’s finest albums. By then, 1980, Ebo was a vastly experienced musician. He’d nearly thirty years experience as a musician. So when he came to recording Conflict, he drew upon all that experience, fusing African and Western music. The result was Conflict, a potent, cerebral and timeless album, which is the perfect introduction to Ghana’s greatest ever musician, Ebo Taylor.