E.T. Mensah

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from afropop.org and http://www.retroafric.com:

E.T. Mensah & the Tempos: King of Highlife Anthology (RetroAfric 4 CD set, 64 page booklet)

E.T. Mensah ‘The King of Highlife’ is a true legend of African musicthe founding father of that most popular style of dance music, which spread like a bushfire across the African continent and beyond during the 1950s and 60s.
Highlife was the first Pan-African pop music and still survives as the basis for contemporary genres like Afrobeat, afropop, hiplife and is an essential ingredient of earlier forms including Congo rumba, soukous, mbalax and the original Afrobeat.
Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah was a multi-instrumentalist and band leader whose dance band Highlife re-Africanised American swing music, blending it with Caribbean melodies, Latin rhythms and indigenous elements from the musically rich culture of Ghana (then known as The Gold Coast).
Although he had started out on a musical career in the 1930s, E.T. recorded his first 78rpm discs in 1952 and as he later claimed: “When my records came out in 1952 they vibrated into the ears of the listening public in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. It was from this period on that music fans throughout West Africa began to acclaim me as the King of Highlife.” That reputation carried right across the continent, being enjoyed by, and influencing, musicians as far apart as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegambia, Congo and Kenya.

Throughout the 69 songs on the the four CDs of E.T. Mensah & the Tempos: King of Highlife Anthology (RetroAfric), we hear highlife’s appropriation of palm wine guitar lyricism, the clave beat and many arranging ideas from Afro-Latin music, swing jazz, elements of calypso (including a Latin-esque cover of “Sloop John B”), along with hints of rock ‘n’ roll and the new music emerging from the Congo at the time.

We learn in the John Collins’ precise and deeply informed booklet (60 pages long, and fascinating from top to bottom) that E.T.’s band was a constant work in progress. All the dynamics of struggle are there—mass departures, rebellions over pay, scurrying to find new players in time for a crucial gig. Musicians enjoyed a low status in Ghana, especially in the days before its independence, and this bandleader’s ability to keep the gigs and recordings flowing at this quality level, amid so much turnover, testifies to his greatness as much as any musical ability.

There are wonderful stories behind some of the songs—playing “All For You” with Louis Armstrong in 1956; and earning a scold from Kwameh Nkrumah when the celebratory 1957 song “Ghana Freedom Highlife” also praised rivals of the independence movement. (The band had to re-record the song, minus the offending lyrics.)

But mostly what endures here is the music: Its innocence, playfulness and gentle humor remain seductive all these years later. In part, that’s because this music captured so many cultural elements surrounding one of the most exciting moments in African history, when the first African nation earned its independence. As so often in the African story, dramatic history yields powerful and enduring music. Kudos to the folks at RetroAfric for once again documenting a crucial chapter in African music history with definitive thoroughness and style.

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