Aug 3, 2011

Ghana Rock History Is Unearthed After 40 Years

It's just eight songs long, less than 24 minutes of music. But midway through 'Psycho African Beat,' compiling the entire recorded output of Ghanaian band the Psychedelic Aliens, there's a very cool epiphany. And a snapshot of a moment in time when at least a certain part of popular music in this part of Africa experienced a seismic shift – a picture seen for the first time in decades thanks to a little musical archaeology to unearth it.

The first four tracks, made in 1970, are good garage-soul – fun stuff, lyrics mostly in English, beats and sounds distilled from Motown, Stax and James Brown along with British Invasion reinterpretations, all with chunky guitars and reedy Farfisa/Vox-style organ. But little really stands out from the crowd, and it seems a step or two behind, given the great number of bands all over the globe that had been doing similar things for several years at that point. By the time you get to the fourth track, 'Extraordinary Woman,' you've got a pretty good idea what you're getting.

But then Track Five starts – and it's a whole different thing. The intro tantalizes with its fuzzy guitar lines, a bit rougher and looser. Then that gives way to the song proper and, whoa! Percussive polyryhthms, guitar and organ lines bobbing and weaving, toying with each other and vocals with some real fire, not to mention lyrics entirely in local languages (though English became the official Ghanaian tongue). Even amid the rush of African funk, rock and soul that's been dug up and reissued in recent years, this stands out. The first impression is that if Santana had come from Accra, its music might sound like this. And the approach on that song, 'Gbe Keke Wo Taoc,' continues through the collection's final three numbers.

So what happened? Santana happened.

On March 6, 1971, Accra hosted a music festival billed as Soul to Soul, an ambitious and historic gathering of largely African-American artists on African soil: Wilson Pickett, a huge star in Ghana, topped the bill that also included Ike and Tina Turner, 'Compared to What' jazz team Les McCann and Eddie Harris, the Staple Singers ... and Santana, with a lineup sporting Latin jazz star Willie Bobo on percussion. And in a contingent of local acts playing the event: the Psychedelic Aliens. (The event, packaged by American promoters working with the Ghanaian government, was documented in a film, also titled 'Soul to Soul,' which was released on DVD in 2004, though the Aliens' performance was not included.)

The Aliens – the band's original name before they became the Magic Aliens and then the Psychedelic Aliens – had recently returned to Ghana after spending the better part of the last year on the road, mostly in Nigeria, honing their sound and lineup.

"When we started the group we were playing covers of the pop era," says Aliens guitarist Ricky Telfer, now 64, from his home in Newmarket, Ontario, outside of Toronto. "We had a French singer and another singer, Roberto, doing English songs. We were playing in nightclubs around Ghana."

Telfer, who moved to Canada more than 30 years ago, is a computer technician and installer who plays organ in his church, says that the group became popular enough to start to travel around the region, particularly a stint in Nigeria in 1969 and 1970, where they started to hear – and incorporate – more American soul, notably the Stax staples Booker T. and the MGs and the mind-opening innovations of Jimi Hendrix. The two lead singers didn't make that trip, though, so with a tight quintet of Telfer, rhythm guitarist Reyad Couri, keyboard player Malek Crayem, bassist Lash Laryea and drummer Smart Thompson, the sound got pared down to the soul essentials. And, crucially, the band started to write its own material rather than rely on the covers the singers favored. It was in Nigeria with that smaller lineup that the group recorded an EP, the first four songs on the new compilation.

"After our contract ended in Nigeria and we went back to Ghana we had this experience playing our own music," Telfer says. "Our audience just started growing bigger and bigger. We didn't have the two singers anymore. So we started writing our own songs. And we got to hear of Santana and some other groups."

Santana's use of Latin rhythms and structures to power a new rock hybrid inspired the Aliens to try the same approach but with their own roots.

"We started writing songs with the African beat. We had that influence. We wanted to do it in our own way with the African lyrics."

The idea was to take the rollicking Ghanaian highlife sound – the sound that coursed through every musician raised in the nation – and infuse it with the new ideas of rock and soul that were captivating their consciousness. It came naturally in the already polyglot world of Accra, an historic crossroads for African and colonial cultures, something mirrored in the very makeup of the band.

"We were all Ghanaian," he says. "But there was a Lebanese-Ghanaian, a French-Ghanaian, an Indian-Ghanaian. That's how we came up with the name the Aliens. And we looked foreign. I'm completely African – although I have distant relatives for several generations from Holland."

The new sounds made the band very popular in the open-air nightclubs around town. They even had a nice following of groupies, he volunteers.

"We had a young crowd, we were the only group doing that, that had our own sound," he says. "And because of that, when Soul to Soul came to town we were asked to perform."

Pickett, the Turners and the Staples, arguably, represented where the Aliens had been, musically. Santana, and to some extent McCann and Harris, were where they were trying to head.

"It was quite an experience," he says. "Being on stage with idols!"

He laughs, still excited by the thought all these years later.

"That was something else."

And on the heels of that, charged with inspiration, they recorded two singles in Accra, the four songs that now make up the second half of the new album. A fifth song was recorded, he says, but it was not released and the tapes disappeared. The second of those singles was just as lost for years, a mere rumor to the most devoted collectors of African music obscurities, including American aficionado Frank Gossner, who "curated" this project via his Voodoofunk enterprise, and producer Mike Davis of Academy Records, which is releasing it on Oct. 26. It was Gossner who contacted Telfer about a compilation of the group's material, a several-years-in-the-making goal met when Telfer discovered what is likely the only existing copy of the single in his attic.

As that small output indicates, the group's moment was intense but short-lived. Telfer says that performances around town became true happenings, the artists freer to expand the ideas than what is heard on the very short singles.

"Songs would go on five or six minutes," he says, though nothing ever approached the 20 or 30 minutes Fela Kuti and others were reaching in Nigeria with the burgeoning Afrobeat movement. "Fela also had dancers, so he could play that long!"

There were other groups influenced by the Aliens breakthroughs as well – he recalls ones called Basa Basa, Nokolo and the Barbecues. But the latter was the only one of the bunch that released even a single, as far as he knows, and the movement pretty much died out. Even the Aliens couldn't gain any more traction.

"This music was new and the recording company didn't know what to do with it," he says. "They were more interested in promoting highlife than doing anything with ours."

Telfer and Crayem gave into family pressure and went to university to study engineering. The other members recruited replacements, but that didn't last. And that was that, save for the memories, which came flooding back to Telfer as he helped put the archival release together.

"It really took me back to what we were doing at the time," he says. "We were having too much fun then to sit down and analyze it."

Does he consider it important music?

"Oh, yes," he says, without hesitation. "We were the first to incorporate the rock music, introduce that to the Ghanaian public. And now when people here it they do wish we had continued. Now the kind of music from Ghana is all electronic. Some people are really fed up with it."

Could there be a reunion? He's just not sure it could happen. Only Crayem (who works as a music manager with five bands in his charge) and Thompson live in Ghana now – though last year they gave it a try when Telfer and Couri happened to be visiting at the same time.

"We rehearsed a few songs, but we didn't record," he says. "It sounded more ... mature. The energy wasn't there. Still talking about getting together one day to maybe continue where we left off. We'll try."

There is one other thin lost to history that can't be recaptured: An opportunity.

Telfer and his bandmates did get to meet Carlos Santana and his group at Soul to Soul. But hopes for more than a mere meeting never panned out.

"They were there on a learning experience and wanted to jam with us," he says. "But they had to leave the following day, so we couldn't do it. We just talked about general things. At the time they had a problem with their Hammond B3 [organ]; there was a stuck note. So they were more worried about that, trying to find someone who could fix it and we were trying to help."

Maybe if Santana hears their music now, it could be time to reschedule that jam., written by Steve Hochman, published October 2010

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