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.
“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.
“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!
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.