To those of us who keep track of what’s hot in the record shops, London’s Soundway Records should be no stranger (especially to vinyl lovers). They release plenty of fantastic new material from around the world, but what they really excel at is their exceptional reissue output. Past compilations have included forays in the funky archives of 1960s–80s music from Ghana and Nigeria, sweet sounds from Kenya, and some fantastic collections of Colombian and Central American music. These are rare and often forgotten sounds that span an interesting variety of countries and musical styles.
Their latest installment, Highlife On The Move: Selected Nigerian & Ghanaian Recordings From London & Lagos 1954-66, I think is particularly special. It explores a sort of underworld of what is generally know about the development of modern African music. From the years 1954-66, the songs on this compilation were the embryonic stages leading to the fully-fledged Highlife and Afrobeat of 1970 and beyond… Spread across 3 vinyl LPs (or 2 CD’s), there is no shortage of choice here!
Casually including a bonus 7” vinyl is something that Soundway often seems to do on their vinyl compilations, and this release is no exception. This time it’s the first ever recording by Fela Kuti, or as he was known then, Fela Ransome-Kuti with his band The Highlife Rakers. The song Fela’s Special is one in particular I find really beautiful and special (it’s in the title!). And an interesting backstory to go with it – the original Melodisc 7” that featured this song as well as the lovely Aigana, was so rare that there were only a handful of copies made, if that. According to Soundway, ‘Both tracks have been unearthed after more than fifty years in hiding.'
When you sit down with your record (or heaven forbid, a CD!) in your living room and listen to this album you should find yourself immediately struck by how Latin-influenced this music is. The chord progressions, guitar styles and horn lines all have strong traces. Cuba in particular seems to have had a greater effect than most Latin countries on the sound of early Highlife. Drink A Tea by Steve Rhodes & His London Hi-Lifers is prime example of this – you could almost imagine yourself in 1950s Cuba and it being a record from the likes of Rubén González or another of the Buena Vista clan. Other songs on the release seem to lend more sonically to Calypso or Mento music, for example Maria by Eddie Lamptey & The Peoples Highlife Band, or Brown Skin Gal by Awotwi Paynin & His Ghana Rockers.
Standout tracks include the incessant Africana by Soundz Africana, a track that seems to sit in the heavier sounding pre-Afrofunk camp than most of the other tracks as well as Anyin Ga Na by Victor Olaiya & His ‘Cool Cats.’ However, nearly all of the tracks on this release can handle their own stead. This compilation really stands high against others for me. The effort, research, and time (reputedly years!) that has gone into making this is truly commendable – and the result really shows this. The vinyl edition comes with 3 x LPs, a bonus 7”, a detailed booklet with a treasure trove of fascinating information, and a free MP3 download… Need I say more?