Thanks to Simigwa-Do, Ghanaian veteran Gyedu-Blay Ambolley acquired world fame for producing the very first rap song in music history. Those who want to see the man live again can go on 4 November in 4AD in Diksmuide, but we already spoke to Blay for his highly appreciated set in the AB Club at the start of this year.
Blay, let's start with the place where it all started for you: Sekondi-Takoradi, a city in the extreme south of Ghana.
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Sekondi has been a bustling city since the fifties and sixties. It is a port city with sailors who brought things back from just about where they came. Musically, this was reflected in the import of mainly American vinyl singles and LPs full of jazz, funk and even classical music that allowed me to discover musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Stevie Wonder. Sekondi also has a bustling nightlife full of bars, clubs and prostitution, and there were also numerous local bands playing funerals, weddings and the like, so I had the opportunity to get to know local and international talent at the same time. "
The first instrument you experimented with was a flute from your father, but the first person who played an important role musically was one of your uncles, Uncle Bonku.
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Uncle Bonku was a guitarist who toured in West African countries such as Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra-Leone. He realized very early on that there was musical talent in my school. My father was in the army and I came home one day with a flute in my pocket I started experimenting with the instrument and soon taught myself some melodies, so when I met Uncle Bonku I told him that I wanted to become a musician and he asked me which instrument I prefer At that time I was enormously fascinated by the drums, because drummers work with both their hands and their feet when they play, but Bonku soon put me back on the ground by letting me know that it was it was almost impossible to get a decent drum kit in Sekondi, so being a guitarist himself, he suggested that I give the guitar a chance and taught me the four guitar chords that form the basis for the Ghanaian hi ghlife music and from there I continued to practice, building on the foundations he had taught me. One of my first professional experiences as a musician was with the Towel Beach Band from Sekondi, but the ball really started rolling when Tricky Johnson, a well-known Ghanaian guitarist who still played the big E.T. Mensah (Ghanaian musician who was generally regarded as the highlife king and band leader of The Tempos, a band that enjoyed popularity throughout West Africa, ed.) Invited me to join his Tricky Johnson Sextet. They were just looking for a good vocalist and before I started playing the guitar I already sang songs from the repertoire of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, among others. So I told them that I could sing and that suddenly became my main occupation. As a vocalist at the Tricky Johnson Sextet, I also started to get the attention of other bands, and that's how I finally bumped into Ebo Taylor. At that time he was the band leader with the Ghana Railway Dance Band. The bass player from that band had just left, so Ebo asked me if I might be interested in replacing him.
If you can play the guitar, switching to the bass is actually a piece of cake, and that's how I suddenly became a bassist. "
As a musician, did you primarily earn your living as a bass player in those first years?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Yes, I think I was a bassist from somewhere in 1968 to 1972, about four years long. After the Ghana Railway Dance Band followed the Uhuru Dance Band, a big band from the capital Accra. Coincidence or not, but here too Ebo Taylor became my bandleader after a while, and when the Essiebons abel decided to start the Apgya Show Band, he even became my bandleader for a third time! Another big difference was that the Apgya Show Band was not a cover band, but that we performed with our own repertoire, Ebo composed, I composed, and we played our own songs everywhere! music with that band and to my surprise our sound also caught on in Europe. I have always considered my time with the Apgya Show Band as the foundation for my later work as a solo artist. "
At a certain point you decided to leave Ghana behind to first go to the United Kingdom and then to the United States. What motivated that decision?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "I realized all too well that America was the entertainment mecca of the world and thought to myself:" Blay, isn't it about time you tried to try it out there? If you really want to test your musical abilities, that is the place to be! ". I had heard of the Apollo Theater in New York, where countless popular artists of the time - I am thinking of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett or James Brown - had been on stage, so I definitely wanted to try that too! You should know that the Apollo Theater is a place where the audience threw you off the stage if you didn't live up to their expectations. The next act took your place, it was that simple! When I was allowed to stand on stage for the first time, I turned out to be an instant success, bringing two songs and during my short set black men and women jumped on stage The audience was crazy! That performance was my testing ground to test if I could settle in America.
It was certainly an excellent learning experience and I was able to achieve a great deal, but still felt like a loss ... The American musicians I worked with over there simply failed to grasp the African rhythms and cadence and so I finally decided to go back to return to Ghana. "
Of course we also have to talk about your most famous song, Simigwa-Do. What is that number actually about?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "In my language (Fante, ed.), Simigwa-Do means something like:" I am like a king on my throne! ". Simigwa-Do is now generally regarded as the very first rap song in music history. The Guinness Book of Records may still claim that Sugarhill Gang can walk with that honor, but that is not right! "
However, you had to be patient for a long time before you received the credit that you were entitled to.
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "If you want to take credit for something, you need proof, but I needed it, because when you look at the release date of Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight, you will find that the song appeared in 1979, while Simigwa -Do already date from 1973! "
Since there was absolutely no mention of hip-hop at the time, I wonder what inspired you, which ultimately made it the very first rap song?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Well, when I was still in school as a little boy, I used to hang around with a bunch of friends. We used to get together and create rhythms. One of them always started to put something on his congas play and the rest of us made up accompanying lyrics that we debited in a style that would now be described as rap. Passersby often stopped to dance or listen to what we were doing, so I have that concept Always kept somewhere in the back of my mind In the sixties of the last century I became a big fan of James Brown, because his music rhythmically leaned very strongly to rhythms we knew from northern Ghana, such as those at the Fare Fare or Frafra tribe. Another major influence on my music was of course the Ghanaian highlife. I have combined all those ingredients as if I were preparing a soup, because if you have the right ingredients, it is quite easy to prepare a delicious soup. More than any other track that I released afterwards, "Simigwa-Do" has become the number that made the general public discover my name, music and style. "
Thanks to that number, you are now also regarded as the godfather of the Ghanaian hiplife movement. Do you feel connected to that movement?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Yes, absolutely! They also respect me because they know too well that what they do now would never have existed without me!"
And do you like the music they produce?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Musically not, no. Those young people use American beats and such to rave about it in local dialects. I advised them not to do that, because it is not in line with our local identity. In In my work I use local dance music with a male rhythm (collapses a rhythm, ed.) and a female counter rhythm (collapses a different rhythm, ed.) If you want to introduce people from abroad to the culture of your country, you have to basing on local music traditions Many of the hiplife artists have also started to incorporate elements from the dancehall into their music, but dancehall and reggae come from Jamaica and if you are going to recycle that, you actually do nothing more than copy something that already existed. The big problem is that many of those young people no longer learn to play music, but are only working on computer technology, where they just hit copy-paste! I'm sorry, but the computer is certainly not an African invention ! (laughs) That being said, you can still create your own thing with that technology, as long as you handle it smart enough. But as I said, they respect me because they know that I am the founder. "
During your career you have also had the opportunity to share the stage with greats such as Miriam Makeba and Fela Kuti. Is there one name that stands out for you; an artist you collaborated with and who managed to conquer a special place in your heart?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Then I immediately think of Fela Kuti, because of the originality of his music. He was a very intelligent musician ... You have many musicians who just take what already exists and add something to it, but Fela took what already existed Fela's music was clearly based on the Ghanaian highlife, but he made it evolve into what we know today as afrobeat.If you listen to his bass lines, wind instruments, orchestration and guitar rhythms, you hear music which you will always connect immediately with Fela! The combination of his musical creativity with the pan-African messages that he put into his songs is the reason why I still admire him so much. "
If you perform outside of Ghana, your audience will not always understand what you are talking about and so your music is often just considered as party or dance music, but the message is just as important to you, I understand?
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley: "Absolutely! For example, on my most recent album, which appeared on the German Agogo Records label (Ketan, ed.), There is a song entitled Africa Yie, in which I talk about Africa, the Africans and what is on it Many parts of Africa are still suffering from massive corruption and neo-colonialism, and like Fela, I use my music as a source of information and education - take that away and you can dance, dance, dance until you come to house, but you would rather not go with something to think about? In many of my songs, by the way, just sing in English, not that broken Nigerian pidgin English that Fela used, so if you keep your ears open you will certainly understand what I am talking about! "
interview with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley in Brussels
This morning had a video interview session for Tracks music programme of ARTE TV with Ghanaian highlife musician Gyedu-Blay Ambolley at Seymour Kassel Records with Karolien Polenus. Talking about Ghanaian & Nigerian highlife via old records from the Seymour Kassel & my personal collection. Was real sweet experience meeting his great kind man. Gyedu-Blay recognised a lot of his friends, old band members and colleagues on the covers and had quite some anecdotes to share with us. Bless! > and check out the man's live show if he comes to your town this week!
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, the boss of Simigwa-do is back
By Julien Le Gros on November 25, 2019 / Comments Off on Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, the boss of Simigwa-do is back
At 72, one of the highlife veterans returns with a new album, 11th Street, Sekondi . And continues to shine his unique style, the Simigwa-do. Interview.
Photo by Volt
Gyedu-Blay Ambolley was born in 1947, ten years before the independence of Ghana, while the 30 glorious Highlife opened. He will have experienced them fully, before attempting the American adventure as his compatriot Pat Thomas. Back in the fold about ten years ago, he put together a band with young, but seasoned musicians from his hometown, Sekondi. Since then, some of his old albums have been reissued (at Mr. Bongo) and Agogo Records publishes his new productions. The most recent, 11th Street, Sekondi, is released this November 29th. An album where highlife and funk coalition free the hips with their driving grooves that command the dance.
In an Olympic form, Gyedu-Blay presented it a few days ago in Paris (New Morning). This is where PAM met him.
Why is this album titled "11th Street Sekondi"?
This is the name of this street, in this house where I was born. I could have been born in the 9 th or the 10 th. It fell on this one. All I know today comes from this environment, the basics of music, guitar during my school years. I thought it was time to recognize what made the artist I am today. My sisters were singing in church. My father was a soldier. He came home with a flute with which he played martial songs. When he was not there, I tried to play hymns on his flute. It was my first apprenticeship to the ear, then the four-string guitar, the chords the if, the do, the ground. The music we play in this country is based on these agreements. I am the only professional musician in the family.
What was the influence of the "Voice of America" program?
There was a jazz fan in my street. From 10 pm, he turned on his radio because there was an hour of jazz program. I was standing behind his window, because I could hear the music. Something was pushing me to go every time. That's how I heard about these Americans Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp ... I learned their names because they were quoted. It made me open my mind beyond Ghana's borders.
Then you worked with a certain Tricky Johnson.
He was a very good guitarist for ET Mensah who directed the Tempos, one of the most popular high life groups. Tricky comes from the same place as me. From home to home there is a quarter of an hour of walking. He formed a sextet that I joined at the end of my studies in early 1963. He knew how to play Western music, and highlife. His group opened me a lot to the standards. He played Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr. and made me sing on it. At the time these musics were extraterrestrial for me, but I had the sense of musical structures, 12, 16 or 24 measures. When we have the sense of music, we can identify a format. Tricky helped me along this path, in addition to the highlife that was already played by our elders in Ghana. It took me a year to store everything he taught me. After Tricky, I formed a combo for three months called the Downbeat band for which I played bass. From guitar to bass, there is only a short distance. Then, in 1964, I joined the Railway Dance Band, with a real orchestra, two trumpets, two trombones, an alto saxophone, a tenor. Sammy Lartey the leader had gone to head the Ghana Broadcasting Band in Accra. Ebo Taylor replaced him at short notice. So I had the privilege of playing with these two people. Sammy Lartey the leader had gone to head the Ghana Broadcasting Band in Accra. Ebo Taylor replaced him at short notice. So I had the privilege of playing with these two people. Sammy Lartey the leader had gone to head the Ghana Broadcasting Band in Accra. Ebo Taylor replaced him at short notice. So I had the privilege of playing with these two people.
What did you learn from Ebo Taylor?
I admired him very much. He was playing for the Stargazers band. It was a small band, alto saxophone, trumpet and trombone. I had musical backgrounds, but being behind him, who is a composer, an outstanding arranger with a sense of fainting had an impact on my own music.
In 1973, there was the famous Simigwa Do with the Uhuru dance band
Ebo Taylor was the leader of this orchestra of which I was bassist. One of those friends I knew, from Cape Coast, recorded it in the studio in Accra. I made him listen to my songs. He said, "OK, we'll add it to the record. "My pieces have become very popular. It laid the foundation for what I do to entertain people. In the 60s and 70s, Accra was a bubbling city. There were many clubs and orchestras. The government of Kwame Nkrumah had orchestras playing in state-owned hotels. There were also private clubs. It was the time of "work and happiness". At the lunch break, people were skating clubs with "afternoon jam". They went back to work at two o'clock in the afternoon. Then at 5 pm, they put it back, went home around 8 pm and they were happy. There was a big rotation with the various orchestras: ET Mensah, Blackbeats band, Stargazers, Ramblers band, the African brothers band ... There were also groups of guitars that would play local music from village to village. In 1979, Jerry Rawlings made his coup d'état and all that collapsed. There was a curfew from six in the evening for almost two years. It killed the nightlife. The musicians exiled because there was no more work.
ET Mensah and Ebo Taylor have made high life evolve. What did you bring with your style, the Simigwa-Do?
Music is a question of approach. We need the right ingredients in a soup for it to be tasted. Mine is a combination of high life, jazz, calypso, funk, all mixed. It works very well. When I lived in the United States, the Americans felt themselves in my music, even if it is African, because there is jazz in it. The title "Simigwa do" in twi means "I am a king and I sit on my throne. This is the first commercialized rap in the world. I challenge the Guinness of Records, which places the first rap in 1979 with Sugar Hill Gang 's "Rapper's delight" . Mine dates from 1973 . The rap comes from Africa. In our culture in Ghana there is a scansion to sing the praises of our king. (He hums the air.) I put it on a "Doo ba doo" rhythm, like rap, and it worked very well. People liked this combination of words and rhythm. James Brown inspired me because he has this way of dancing, this rap phrasing and that style of music. It is these three elements together that fascinate people. In Ghana we have very good musicians, but most are limited to high life. I tried to open so that this music is accessible to all. Some went to Côte d'Ivoire or Ghana, others to Europe. When the curfew was lifted, all the musicians had gone. Our music has declined. The youngest, inspired by the United States, then arrived with their rap, hip life. But they were not experienced musicians. They did not know the basics of harmony. They made their music from computer programming. It has "affected" the highlife. But all the music that makes you rise and dance to highlife connotations. That's what makes it a powerful style that will never die.
How was the rest of your career?
I went to live in the United States for almost twenty years from 1988. This country is at the center of the world, culturally. If you want to know what you're worth musically, go to America. There are very good musicians ... but rhythmically I missed this Ghanaian touch. In 2010, I decided to go home and formed this band with which I still shoot. We did a lot of experiments in the '70s with Ebo Taylor who was my conductor in the Uhuru band, the Railway band and the Apagya Showband. All that has been reissued by Mr Bongo are the experiments of that time. And these reissues continue, because the catalog of the Ghanaian label Essiebons is important.
Several songs from 11th Street, Sekondi talk about women (Black woman, Woman treatment, Who made your body like that)
Because of the colonization that has troubled their minds, African women do not consider themselves enough to be part of this continent. Some put on weight to find them beautiful or relax their hair. I tell them to stay authentic. Every people has its singularity. You have to share, but do not try to "look like". Be yourself. You are beautiful ! Women fascinate us. "Who made this nose? »- My mother» One wonders who created such a body!
What does "Sunkwa" mean?
In our language twi, "su" means to cry and kwa is the great creative spirit without which we would not have the earth, the water the animals. If you want something, implore the creator, because everything belongs to him. God is the greatest artist in this world.
In the patina of the album, you remain faithful to your roots of the years 1960-1970. Is it deliberate?
Bob Marley died more than thirty years ago. But when you listen to his records, it's as if he had recorded them the day before because of his heritage, the sound, the words he puts there. Today his music is not forgotten. Always try to make music that defies time otherwise it ages and disappears. In schools in Ghana, children have already heard my melodies. If you have a vision, do things right, your music will last a long time ...