Gyedu Blay-Ambolley on Simigwado and highlife history

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley
Cover of the new album

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley is one of the most original musicians to come out of Ghana, he is noted for being a pioneering highlife musician, songwriter, producer, composer and the inventor of the ‘Simigwa‘ genre. I recently had the opportunity of speaking with the ‘Simigwa‘ inventor about his association with highlife music from Ghana which emerged in the 20th century and spread across the West African subregion in the 1920’s. Ambolley says the predominant instruments in highlife are guitars, horns and the clave motif which identifies the genre for its 1-2 beat and steps that begins the rhythm before being accompanied by other instruments.

This was the tweet that gave rise to this blog after I tweeted while I was listening to Ambolley on an American radio program:

Ambolley defined highlife as one of the most danceable tunes which easily drew both Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians alike to the dancefloor during the colonial days, ‘this form of music is the root of all others in Africa‘ he believes.

The musician took me on a journey on how he fell in love with highlife as a youth growing up in the then Gold Coast, which is now Ghana. Highlife music was first commercialized by pioneering greats of the genre like E.T. Mensah, Ebo Taylor, the Ramblers International Band and more contemporary individuals like Pat Thomas, Amakye Dede, Daddy Lumba, and others. The genre has thrived over the years despite the evolving of new ones with time.

Hiplife and hip hop are the newer genres that have found themselves spots on the music scenes in Ghana. As Ambolley says: ‘these new styles can never kill highlife, they might be corrupting the genre but can never kill it because highlife is the root of all musical genres‘. The hiplife movement which began in Ghana involved the incorporation of rap lyrics into local rhythms. It received a major boost from Reggie Rockstone who is known as the Godfather of hiplife.

As the first musician from Ghana to formally incorporate rap forms into local highlife rhythms, Ambolley eventually saw the creation of his own style and genre which he dubbed ‘Simigwa’, which also happens to be the name of his first LP released in 1973. That album made history by becoming the most iconic albums of the entire Ghanaian discography with a daring album cover.

One of the greatest exporters of highlife to the globe is the great Ghanaian music sensation; the Osibisa band, who Ambolley believes etched their way into world history owing to the support they received from the first President of Ghana, Osagyefor Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, coupled with the passion and burning desire they had for what they were doing as musicians.

Ambolley says it is rather unfortunate that governments of Ghana since Nkrumah has failed to realize the power of music as a great foreign exchange earner, they are not supporting the music industry. ‘It is rather sad that music as a course of study has been removed from the syllabus of elementary education in Ghana while the University of Ghana music school in Legon Accra is in dire need of restructuring.

The younger generation of musicians in Ghana and across Africa are simply heavily relying on modern technology to create their beats and sounds, thus inventing the copy-cut-and-paste style of production‘ Ambolley says. ‘We no more have producers, writers and composers who dedicate themselves to studying and understanding the language of music to even understand how to create timeless melodies and meaningful lyrics‘ Gyedu-Blay sadly says.

If we are to strengthen highlife then, ‘not only do we need active involvement on the side of governments, but there is also the need to reintroduce and support the music curriculum at the most basic of levels in the educational systems. Musicians need to delve deeper into their trade to understand it and stop looking at the shortcuts to fame and money‘ Ambolley suggested.

Ambolley’s new album called Sekunde, released in 2012 in Europe under the Hippo Records label has been doing pretty well. The ten track album is a modern mix of Afrobeat, funk, jazz and of course highlife.

The ‘Simigwa‘ man explains that “Sekunde“, the right way to say the corrupted version of the name of the town “Sekondi”, is dedicated to that coastal town of Ghana where he was born.

Written by Oral Ofori

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