Though he hailed from Ghana, E.T. Mensah was a musical ambassador for the world. During the '40s, swing had made its way across the Atlantic and planted itself in the popular dance culture of West Africa. For musicians trained in the European (imperial) tradition of marching bands, early jazz bore obvious appealand big bands rose to bear its standard. E.T. Mensah, trained on saxophone and trumpet, joined a group called the Tempos in the late '40s. By doing so, he committed himself to a new kind of musical integration which would be termed Highlife.
Rather than adopting only the styles of jazz and European music, his group turned toward other New World and African sounds. The instrumentation of the Tempos included congas and claves; their song forms came from Brazil and the Caribbean. Mixing these styles with jazz improvisation and an African approach to rhythm and song, the Tempos came up with something truly new. And West African music was never the same. Mensah was the undisputed King of Highlife.
All For You, the first of two '50s Mensah compilations put out by RetroAfric, features twenty tunes that originally appeared on 78 rpm records. They're all just under 3 minutes in length, so there's no extended improvisation or vocalsa stark contrast to the seemingly endless jams that came later as highlife matured! Half of the group (around ten members total) are drummers, which means that the rhythm section here has a critical mass. In general, the tunes start out with a swinging theme on the horns, followed by brief vocals (in pidgin English or Ghanaian languages), mixed with improvised solos. Tossed in among the mostly highlife tunes are a couple of sambas and four calypsos, which sound perfectly in place in this cultural melting pot. The improvised solos sound literate and inspired, clearly aiming to reinforce the music's role as fuel for dance.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of this group in the development of West African music. Mensah managed to assimilate sounds from Africa, Europe, America, and the Caribbean, and in the process he helped create a new musical form. Later on, guitars would begin to creep into highlife and eventually dominate the music; popular American rock and funk styles would also go into the melting pot. But not at this point in the '50s, which makes All For You a brilliant snapshot of culture in progress.
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