Back in 1971, at the peak of the hippie era, when long-haired bohemian adventurers trotted the globe in search of culture, British ethnomusicologist and musician John Collins landed in Accra, Ghana. Teaming with Ghanaian guitarist Robert Beckley, the two founded the Bokoor Band, taking their name from an indigenous term meaning "coolness." From the start, Bokoor was a fusion of Western and African music, merging highlife contemporary Ghanaian pop with covers of Hendrix, Santana, and James Brown tunes. The band folded soon after, but Collins continued to play guitar, harmonica and percussion with local groups such as the Bunzus, which he recorded at the EMI studios.
In 1975, Collins reformed Bokoor, playing highlife, soukous, Afrobeat, Afro-rock, Afro-reggae, and traditional folk with a Westernized feel. The band expanded into a fourteen-member ensemble and became one of the most popular bands in Accra. Its stage shows often featured fire-eaters and snake dancers with live pythons which came in handy when technical glitches resulted in angry, riotous mobs. Bokoor seemed destined for pan-African superstardom, but a sudden devaluation of Ghanaian currency sank its economic fortunes, and the band broke up again in 1979, only to reunite two years later. By that time, Collins had assembled a portable studio, which eventually became a larger facility, Bokoor Recording Studio at the time one of only two professional music studios in the country which he made available to local musicians. Over the next two decades, more than two hundred bands recorded albums there, some of which appear on Bokoor Beats, a new collection of vintage Afrobeat, Afropop, and Afro-rock on the Otrabanda label.
That's the backstory. The frontstory is that the recent resurgence of Afrobeat Femi Kuti, Antibalas, Albino!, Sila & the Afro-Funk Experience has created renewed interest in now-classic West African fusion experiments such as Bokoor. To be sure, Bokoor Beats is an interesting album it has distinct similarities and differences to the more recognizable style of Afrobeat originating from Nigeria, the birthplace of Afrobeat founder Fela Kuti.
But while it sounds good to our ears it's extremely danceable, with mellow, relaxed grooves for days only a Ghanaian can truly relate the significance of an album such as Bokoor Beats. So we asked Akosua, the East Bay's most prominent Ghanaian-American singer-songwriter, to guest-review it.
Akosua compares Collins' recordings of Ghanaian music to Ry Cooder's recordings of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba. She says the songs on Bokoor Beats were made at an interesting time, just after the country's independence, when "Ghanaians became interested in themselves more as artists and moved away from accepting European standards of music," which led to an explosion of new recordings by indigenous bands. That's where Collins came into the picture. "I think Ghanaians were really open to accepting him as an ally," she speculates.
Here are Akosua's thoughts on the album's best tracks:
Bokoor Band, "Maya Gari"
This is great. One of the things I think about is Fela Kuti, and how Ghanaian music and Nigerian music have influenced each other so much. Especially during this time. This was an incredibly political time in Africa, in Nigeria, and in the US as well. ... I definitely hear some of this. In this track, you hear some of the crucial elements of African music, which I also explore in my own music. You hear improvisation. You hear the polyrhythms. You hear the call-and-response. These are things that are essential to African music.
Brekete and the Big Beats, "Egbe Enyo"
What comes to mind for me listening to this album is it's drawing in a whole bunch of different languages. Most of these songs aren't even in Twi [her tribal tongue]. This sounds like Ga to me. ... When I listen to this I hear a lot of ritual elements. It's a little more chanting. It has that trance vibe to it. This draws from Ghanaian indigenous ritual music.
Oyikwam Internationals, "Anoma Franoas"
This is straight-up traditional highlife. We hear horns in this one. The horn here complements the main instrument. It facilitates the call-and-response, whereas in Afrobeat you'll hear the horn as a featured instrument.
Mangwana Stars, "Atiadele"
This reminds me of the music I grew up on. This brings back memories of being seven years old and being taken to some Ghanaian party in New York where they played highlife music until 4 a.m.
Bokoor Band, "Yeah Yeah Ku Yeah"
On this song, we start to hear the Western influence in the music. What I hear instantly is the rhythm changes. It becomes like one, two, three, four. The traditional Ghanaian is like one, two, one, two. It's still interesting to me, but it loses some of that polyrhythm that I love.
Bokoor Band, "Money in Bed"
I love this. I love the singing on this. Like a beautiful female chorus. So inspiring to me. It really resonates with me. It feels like traditional highlife, even though it's a different form.
So don't sleep on Bookoor Beats, and don't sleep on Akosua, either. Check her Web site, AkosuaMusic.com, for upcoming performances and MP3s of her music, which she calls "jazzy folk for the world-music soul."
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