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POP WEEKEND : Highlife Rhythms Overcome an Unlikely Venue

One might have thought that Orange County could not have come up with a less apropos combination of artist and venue than last year’s presentation of dance-happy zydeco musician Queen Ida in a prim “little theater” in the hills of Yorba Linda.

Well, never sell this county short: UC Irvine’s Arts and Lectures brought African “highlife” music Friday night into the antiseptic reaches of Irvine’s South Coast Community Church.

As a book needs a reader, neither zydeco nor highlife is quite complete without an audience responding to it with dance, and the setting Friday didn’t exactly encourage that response. Despite that, Ghanaian master drummer Addy and his eight-member band delivered an entertaining, if not wholly accurate or inclusive, display of the West African polyglot style.

Though Ghana, once known as the Gold Coast, is a neighbor of Nigeria, Ghanaian popular music is quite different from the Nigerian juju music brought to this country by King Sunny Ade and others. As with juju, much of the action and drama of highlife centers on a complex mesh of drum rhythms (though accomplished without the trademark Nigerian talking drums).

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Though the neighboring countries were both once British colonies, each absorbed Western musical ideas and instruments in a different manner, with brass band music (introduced by British and West Indian troops) having a large influence in Ghana.

Addy opened his performance with a libation chant and a tribal song called “Owu Ye Yoo,” delivered in a traditional manner, with iron bells, shakers, boxlike drums and unison-voiced call and response patterns. Aided by a narrator and two dancers, he and his band traced the history of the music to its present jazz and funk-influenced state.

One of the most engaging points was the pre-colonization “Hulu,” with Addy playing dazzling patterns on a wooden xylophone with gourd resonators.

The presentation of most of highlife’s development through this century, though, was compromised by the band’s use of its modern, electric instrumentation throughout. Hence, there was no example of the popular, acoustic, guitar-based “palm wine” highlife variant, while the array of four drums, two horns, two electric guitars and an electric bass failed to replicate the pre-'60s horn-led sound of the music.

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While it would be unrealistic to expect the show (supported by an educational grant) to tour a full complement of musicians and instruments, the band could have used its instrumentation in a less anachronistic manner. For example, the electric bass--scarcely used in highlife music before the mid-'60s--could have been played in a less busy manner to at least approximate the technique of the earlier stand-up bass.

This quibbling is only necessary when considering the performance in the context of its billing as a “lively education event”; as entertainment it was little short of marvelous throughout. The music grew increasingly exuberant and bold during the second half of the performance, as Addy worked up to his personal interpretation of highlife, involving funk-derived patterns.

Though most of his band members hail not from Ghana but from Addy’s present environs of Portland, Oregon, they lived up to their name, Kukrudu, meaning “earthquake,” on the closing three original arrangements.

The last of those, the encore “Obongo,” was based, Addy said, on his interpretation of British bugle calls and marching cadences. There was indeed considerable interpretation involved, as the number accented the eight-beat measure on the decidedly non-military first, second and fifth beats, before shifting into complex polyrhythmic crescendos.

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Finally, the members one by one switched back to the traditional rhythm instruments with which they had opened the show and marched chanting through the audience.


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