Jan 10, 2013

KonKoma - KonKoma

Rooted in 1970s Ghana, KonKoma is the brainchild of saxophonist Max Grunhard and producer Ben Lamdin (Nostalgia 77).

The idea was to create a band around two highly esteemed Ghanaian musicians - Alfred Bannerman and Emmanuel Rentzos. Both are mercurial talents who over the years have graced the stage with the likes of Bobby Womack, Hugh Masakela and Peter Green as well as being long term members of the Afro-rock band Osibisa, but it wasn’t until KonKoma that the two old friends have had a band built around them.

The English-speaking West African country was the destination of Soundway’s acclaimed compilation series Ghana Soundz Afro-Beat, Funk And Fusion in 70’s Ghana. It has been a long held ambition for the label to work with a contemporary Ghanaian band who can push the country’s unique take on Afro-beat and highlife forward.

KonKoma adds a progressive edge to their rich blend of Afro-funk, jazz, soul and traditional African rhythms as well as acknowledging the 70s recordings that spawned the sound. Produced by Max Grunhard and Ben Lamdin, the album was recorded and mixed by Mike Pelanconi (aka Prince Fatty) in Brighton.

Guitarist Alfred Bannerman, founding member of teenage Afro-rock band Boombaya (featured on the Soundway compilation Ghana Special) has remained one of the mainstays of the UK’s African music scene for more than 20 years. Keyboardist Emmanuel Rentzos has been playing alongside his fellow Ghanaian since the early 1970s when he was the lead singer of the young Ghanaian outfit Santrofi’s band. Once Max and Ben had won the support of Alfred and Emmanuel, Ghanaian musicians and now key members of KonKoma, Nii Tagoe and Reginald ‘Jojo’ Yates came on board.


Ghanaians must feel left out when it comes to afrobeat. People often forget that Ghana, rather than Nigeria, is where it all started. This was the place traditional African rhythms first combined with European brass, an essential mould for the sound later popularised by Fela Kuti. It may have been given a different name – ‘highlife’ – but the roots of afrobeat are obvious. Loyal fans of Ghana’s musical history – as can be seen from their past compilations – Soundway Records are now proudly releasing the debut album by contemporary afro-funk outfit KonKoma.

“KonKoma is the name of a tribe in Northern Ghana”, says lead guitarist Alfred ‘Kari’ Bannerman. “They are very colourful and their rhythms are wonderful. The band is a rebirth of Ghanaian music from the 70s and 80s – it feels very authentic.”

Both Bannerman and keyboardist Emanuel Rentzos are living relics from that period. Bannerman played regularly with Pat Thomas, acknowledged by Ebo Taylor as one of highlife’s most important singers, while Emmanuel Rentzos exemplifies KonKoma’s American funk connection, boasting collaborations with Bobby Womack, Johnny Nash and Herbie Hancock. The superb funk/highlife instrumental ‘Accra Jump’ is an easy marriage of the two styles, showing a direction the two genres could have pursued if such collaborations had been commonplace back then.

Perhaps the most valuable Ghanaian characteristic displayed by KonKoma is impeccable timing, reflected in tracks like ‘Sibashaya Woza’ and ‘Kpanlogo’. The drumming in particular stands out as James Brown worthy. Amidst a rich crowd of horns, African and European drums, guitars and keyboards, everyone gets a fair slot. On ‘Handkerchief’, a xylophone-driven backbone is tweaked back and forth from prominence using 21st century sound engineering; guest mixer Mike Pelanconi (aka Prince Fatty), noted for his genre-spanning back catalogue, seems to be on the right wavelength. On the album, building a contemporary group around two legends has proven to be a wining structure, not just for KonKoma but for Ghanaian music as a whole.


70s West African funk reissues are such a heavy trend these days that it was inevitable living bands would start recreating the essential sounds of that easy-to-love, endlessly compelling era. And perhaps it was inevitable that the UK Soundway label would be involved, since it has released so many vintage titles from Nigeria and Ghana in recent years. Saxophonist Max Gruhard and producer Ben Lamdin (Nostalgia 77) spearheaded KonKoma, using longtime sidemen, and veterans of the legendary Ghanaian Afro-rock band Osibisa. Guitarist Alfred Bannerman and keyboardist Emmanuel Rentzos are central figures here, but to pull together this lush update of big-band Afro-funk took a host of singers, percussionists, guitarists and brass players. Together they recreate the sound and spirit of a bygone era that seems strangely relevant in the early 21st century.

Partly that’s because funk never dies. The squirrelly weave of guitars and percussion and blasts of brass on the opening track, “Lie Lie,” are pretty hard to resist. Reverential use of venerable organ sounds and guitar tones, enhanced by contemporary recording techniques, breathe life into a classic genre, rather than rendering it precious.  Working from a demo without full sleeve notes, I can’t tell you much about the origins of these 12 songs, but, whether they are remakes or new compositions, they amount to a vivid, fun-loving homage to the era that inspired them.

“Handkerchief” is spare, mostly bass and drums, with the sizzle of a Tony Allen afrobeat groove. A single voice, rough like Fela’s, takes the center, adorned by economical brass hits and processed thumb piano.  “Kpanlogo” has a bigger sound, a rolling clave-related groove not so far from Congolese soukous, overlaid with waves of brass and vocal driven by a spiky electric guitar riff to reach a dizzying crescendo. The instrumental “Accra Jump” delivers deep, slow funk with a bottomless pocket and a succession of quirky keyboard, twangy guitar, and fat brass breaks.  “Yoo Eh” brings a floating, dreamy mood with warm, ringing guitar arpeggios, loping bass and a crisp lead vocal, answered by an airy chorus.

The final two tracks features Reginald ‘Jojo’ Yates on the ancient Ashanti harp, the seprewa, and folksy vocals.  The tracks are sweet and unexpected, a classy finish for one of the funkiest releases you’ll hear all year.  Oh, to see this band live!



The strikingly clumsy cover (possibly designed by a 12-year-old boy with a rotring pen, a compass and a setsquare) is so amateurish that it just about tips over into being good, but it gives no indication of what the music therein might be like. So it came as something of a pleasant surprise that it was the most sophisticated, superbly played Afro-funk I’ve heard in the last year.

While Nigerian Afrobeat is arguably the main template for this London based Ghanaian band, the grooves are looser and more elastic than we are used to from that genre. There’s an agreeable amount of air flowing between the slivers of angular guitar, blasts of brass and intricate rush of percussion that delineates most of the tracks.

The relentlessness of pure Afrobeat can get a little wearing after a few 12-minute tracks, but because KonKoma have also subtly incorporated the influences of 1960s psychedelia and American blacksploitation-era soul there’s much more light and shade here. There’s also a real sense that the musicians are doing an awful lot of holding back, so that when the brass section does rear its head, the effect is dramatic and powerful. Producer Ben Kamdin has done an excellent job of both capturing the late 60s/early 70s vibe that’s clearly the main inspiration for these mostly veteran musicians, while also giving them a sound that's very much of the 21st century.

And just to show they have more than one trick up their sleeve, the album closes with the subtlest of ballads built around the dry, brittle sound of Jojo Yates’s gently plucked speprewa (Ghanaian harp). By contrast, Yates’s vocal soars with effortless grace. To end on such a quiet, intimate solo performance is an act of supreme confidence in keeping with the confidence displayed throughout.



The Sound Way label’s mission is to compile and release the best, most obscure and rarest of world music. After a decade of Panamanian, Columbian and most prominently, Ghanaian compilations, the label now boasts a contemporary reincarnation of 1970s Ghana in the form of KonKoma.

The idea originated with saxophonist Max Grunhard and producer Ben Lamdin deciding to create an Afro-funk outfit based around two prominent Ghanaian musicians; Alfred Bannerman and Emmanuel Rentzos, themselves both heavily featured in Sound Way’s retro compilations.

As an Afro-funk virgin I approached the record with cautious optimism and was not disappointed: most of the up-tempo tunes are impossible not to move to and rich in sax-led instrumentation, while many songs such as ‘Accra Jump’ having a distinctly New York jazz club feel.

Undoubtedly, KonKoma fulfills its role as an impressive tribute to the Ghanaian sound of the 70s, its authenticity stamped across it with the inclusion of Bannerman and Rentzos. For the many unaccustomed to Afro-funk the record serves to educate and inspire in the spirit of Sound Way’s original mission, doing so in a uniquely modern fashion.



Now operating out of London, and created to work around highly reknowned musicians, Alfred Bannerman and Emmanuel Rentzos, the Ghanaian inspired band piece together a glorious afro-funk rooted in the style of the 70s, offering a soulful and groovy output that should be sure to get many a folk dancing. The self-titled album is a lovely piece of work that displays their wide range of talent throughout. 

KonKoma starts with "Lie Lie", which is sure to have anyone who has heard it a couple of times, sing along to a language that will most likely be alien to them. The song is also a perfect way to open the record as it sets the pace for what is to follow. It's not a song that finds itself in the tradition of repetitive funk, in the vein of James Brown, but a song that shifts to sometimes seem almost like a completely different entity altogether. "Handkerchief" is a beautiful groove full of tribal percussions, that make you feel like you are headed straight for the Dark Continent. There are steel drums and other ethnic instruments; I do not have the knowledge to recognize. One nice addition is the effects you'd get in disco or Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack, these could have been a downside of cheese but the quality of the music as a whole prevents the song from becoming tainted. "Kpanlogo" is most definitely one of the highlights on the record. It starts with some of the best guitar work to grace the world of funk. Enter the chanting and an awesome brass sections that give the track a Latin feel, yet it still remains deeply African in nature, showing the influence Africa had on the culture of Latin America, something that rarely gets the mention it deserves. With "Niebakwa", we have another sing along song, a slower paced rhythm that is a welcome break and allows the listener to sit back, and have a breather. "Me-Kyin-Kyin" is another standout track, simply because of its sheer funky grooves, created by an awesome bass line, coupled with some amazing and catchy singing. However, the true highlights of the album are the two final tracks, "Senture" and "Jojo's Song". These songs are purely beautiful, the guitar work is hypnotically majestic, and makes you want to sit in the sun and soak up its atmosphere, it makes you drift and long for peace. The vocals on "Jojo's Song" are dreamy and spine chillingly haunting, it is Africa in all its beauty.

KonKoma is definitely an album for anyone interest in funk or African music to try out. There isn't much in terms of diversity of sound, but there is diversity in style which prevents the record from becoming samey. The inclusion of female chanting to accompany the main vocals on many an occasion helps the album to come across as authentically tribal. There's everything you could hope for on here, beautiful vocals, sang in a beautiful exotic dialect, amazing guitar and bass work, an array of amazing percussions, all layered with brass sections and cool organ work. It truly is a work to check out.


No comments:

Post a Comment