'King of Highlife Anthology' Finally Does Justice To African Bandleader Mensah

Aug 24, 2016
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new anthology devoted to the pioneer African bandleader of the '40s and '50s, E. T. Mensah. He was called the King of Highlife, an offshoot of jazz that, for years, was the most popular style of music in southern Africa. Here's Milo's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KWAME NKRUMAH")

E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILO MILES, BYLINE: If I told you there was an African bandleader with the touring and organizing skills of a Count Basie, a legacy of spin-off performers as rich as Duke Ellington and a historical influence not unlike Louis Armstrong, and that he even jammed once with Louis Armstrong, you have to ask - who can this be? The answer is E. T. Mensah from Ghana, known as the King of Highlife. The reason Mensah could be so accomplished and yet remain rather obscure in America is because he retired by the 1980s, just as African pop stars began more international tours, eventually even to the United States. Fortunately, Mensah's songs have lost none of their immediate appeal and are properly presented at last in the four-disc set, "King Of Highlife Anthology," which includes everything recorded by Mensah and the various incarnations of his band, the Tempos. A strong example is "Day By Day."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAY BY DAY")

E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing) Day by day, night by night, if you born pikin na (ph) girl, you want her to go to school. What a girl she going to be, what a woman to go to school. And she close to come for home, on her way she meets her friend. Now her friend go be na boy, and he take her hand for go.

MILES: Like jazz, highlife is a complex fusion of a number of modes, including jazz itself and African folk forms. There were many other highlife groups even well before Mensah, but none as successful or as sharp. In a move that would shape all subsequent African pop, the Tempos added melodies taken from the Caribbean, Brazil and Latin rhythms, particularly from Cuba, so the anthology includes sprinkled examples of highlife sambas and calypsos. Not all the lyrics are in English, but a surprising number are. Mensah was clearly determined to reach as many audiences as possible without pandering. No matter what the subject, the positive impression delivered by the 69 tracks here remains fun to play, fun to hear, fun to dance to.

(SOUNDBITE OF E. T. MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS SONG, "JOHN B. CALYPSO")

MILES: E. T. Mensah also shines as the first postcolonial music superstar of Africa. Taking off with his own band right after World War II, he soon became as popular in Nigeria as he was back in Ghana. He would sometimes assemble a version of the Tempos to keep doing shows back home while he toured. He was also a hit in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, he only played a few shows in Europe in the 1980s, when his music was finally issued there. One standout track included on those initial releases was "Munsuro."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUNSURO")

E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing in foreign language).

MILES: Mensah died 20 years ago, and "King Of Highlife Anthology" finally does him complete justice. The very classy packaging must be praised, including a definitive 60-page condensation of Professor John Collins' biography of Mensah, an essential item for African pop devotees. A couple vocal performances are a bit drab, and the later music is more assured and vivid than the earliest, but those are tiny gripes. For those who want more samples, a batch of Mensah tunes are available on YouTube. Finally, to underscore the influence of Mensah, it's worth noting that superstar Fela Kuti started out running a highlife group, essentially imitating Mensah. The old master was dismissive of Kuti's later Afrobeat. As far as E. T. Mensah was concerned, Fela had stopped following the class act.

DAVIES: Milo Miles reviewed the "King Of Highlife Anthology" on the RetroAfric label.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL FOR YOU")

E T MENSAH AND THE TEMPOS: (Singing) All for you, E. T. (ph), all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. Are they with you, papa? Are they with you, mommy? Are they with you, papa? All for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. All for you, E. T., all for you. Are they with you, papa?

DAVIES: On tomorrow's show, we'll talk with investigative reporter Seth Freed Wessler, who's reported on troubling conditions at privately operated prisons which hold non-citizen federal inmates. The Department of Justice recently announced it would be ending its contracts with the operators. Wessler's series appeared in The Nation. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.