Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
There may be no better way for a stranger to get me to hop into their unmarked van than to whisper that they have a funky late-’70s African album entitled 24 Hours in a Disco (some candy wouldn’t hurt either). And yet that only became a real thing at the tail end of last year, when the always-attuned Soundways label collected the epic disco-infused workouts that Ghanaian pop star Kofi Kwarko ‘Kiki’ Gyan in the late-’70s and into the early ’80s. In his day, Gyan epitomized the music of his country. As the liner notes state, he was born shortly after that West African country gained its independence from the British. As the country gained its identity, the young Gyan showed that he was possessed by music. At the age of 14, Gyan dropped out of school and ran off to the capital of Accra, where by 1971, the music scene of that nascent country was in full bloom, Ghanaian music in a golden age.
And no one better epitomized the progressive mixing of American soul, British psychedelic rock, and Ghanaian high life than the band Osibisa. Formed in 1969 by the early ’70s, they had moved beyond the confines of the Dark Continent to have their music released in the US and UK (a notable feat for an African act in that era). Stevie Wonder championed their sound, jazzman Roland Kirk jammed onstage with them, the Rolling Stones deployed their mobile studio to record them, and the band toured the world over. But by the mid-70s, the group had splintered, with the original keyboardist, bassist and lead guitarist split. And in stepped the seventeen year-old Kiki Gyan, handling electric keyboard duties. Soon after, Gyan wound up on the band’s US tour, making his recorded appearance on the band’s 1974 album Osibirock. Not yet old enough to drink, Gyan instead found another kick. “The day I tasted cocaine in New York,” he is quoted in the liner notes, “was the baddest day of my life.”
The critical shorthand for Gyan dubbed him “the African Stevie Wonder” and his keyboard work backs that claim up. By 1977, frustrated with his role in Osibisa (not to mention broke), Gyan struck out on his own, recording “24 Hours in a Disco” with fellow ousted Osibisa member Kofi Ayivor. Influenced by the stomp of the Eurodisco craze, this infectious track is chockfull of Gibb Brothers-styled falsettos, stabbing strings, wiggling keyboard lines, spine-bending slap bass, and massive handclaps; It could handily soundtrack the length of a day in the darkness of a danceclub, as could the thunderous “Disco Train.”
Instead of being a promising new start for Gyan though, it instead marked his precipitous downfall. He released the track back home with Kofi’s name scrubbed off the production, and soon after Gyan was consumed by both a coke and heroin addiction. He bounced around to Lagos and even to New York in the early ’80s, recording with members of the Larry Levan-helmed Peech Boys (the mind swoons at the thought of Levan dropping “Disco Train” at Paradise Garage), before winding up back in Accra, broke, skeletal and destitute. Gyan passed away in 2004, well short of 50, but across these seven expansive dance tracks, his sound remains evergreen, pliant, and ridiculously funky.
Gyedu Blay Ambolley also tasted pop success in Ghana circa 1975, via a song about the Simigwa dance craze that raged through the country. YouTube turns up no results for “simigwa dance” but since my only visual cue is the portrait of Ambolley on the cover of his recently reissued debut album, I imagine it must have been a double-jointed, rubbery twitch of a dance. What else could make your lips do that?
It’s one of the iconic African albums of the era and it was booted often. Thankfully, the folks at New York’s Academy Records teamed up with Afro-loving DJ Frank “Voodoo Funk” Gossner and tracked down Ambolley to give it a proper reissue. Considering the fine work the two parties did a few years back with Lagos Disco Inferno, here’s hoping their archival work continues.
While Gyan’s album deals with the popular disco tropes of its era, Ambolley’s album revels in the wah-wah guitar licks of funk and soul, the bright timbres of sax and trumpet, the percolating mix of kit drums with handdrums. With the prevalence of Fela Kuti’s music on the western listening experience of African music, it’s hard not to hear the Afrobeat juggernaut, yet the biggest influence on this sound remains the totemic James Brown and it’s made explicit on “Toffie.” A slinky, simmering love song to his betrothed, Ambolley on the breakdown quotes Brown by name before murmuring some fine lovebird gibberish: “I’m gonna crack you like a peanut, tune you up like the radio, read you like the daily newspaper, until everything becomes about the quagyes of the yebofum.” Exactly.