Young musicians of the world: Relax! Even the singular force of nature that would become Fela Kuti took a while to find his sound.
A pair of Fela’s earliest recordings, made in London in 1960, with his bands the Highlife Rakers and Koola Lobitos, have been uncovered and are being released on Soundway Records’ upcoming compilation Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian and Ghanaian Recordings From London and Lagos 1954-66.
The tracks don’t sound like Afrobeat; they don’t sound much like Fela. They sound like the long-lived highlife music, which was born in Ghana as far back as the 19th century, before spreading to Nigeria and flourishing in the middle of the 20th.
This is familiar territory for Soundway. The label has already released a half dozen Nigerian and Ghanaian compilations that were focused on the ’70s, and they described this album as a “prequel of sorts” to those releases, drawing on recordings from the 1950s and ’60s.
Rather than the Afrobeat it would go on to birth, this period of highlife reflects the influential sounds of the Caribbean: The brass section borrows from calypso, mambo and Cuban jazz. There’s a clear amount of guitar technique being exchanged with palm wine music from nearby Sierra Leone, which was happening simultaneously. The how and why Dr. Markus Coester chose these tracks requires a 44-page CD booklet, or 12-page vinyl booklet that includes pictures and advertisements of the highlife as it was lived.
Soundway was kind enough to let Afropop premiere “Biko Rapum Paulina” by E. C. Arinze and the Empire Rhythm Orchestra, a representative slice of a 38-track highlife tour. As March gives way to April and winter at last gives way to spring, it’s definitely something worth checking out.