INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Arts Desk MAY 31, 2020 - by Kieron Tyler
EDIKANFO: THE PACE SETTERS
The reappearance of the Brian Eno-produced Ghanaian band's sole album
Ghana was visited by two British musicians in the early '80s. One was Mick Fleetwood, who recorded the Visitor album in Accra during January and February 1981. The other was Brian Eno, who came to the country in late 1980 to attend the National Festival of Arts and Culture (NAFAC). While in Ghana, he also produced The Pace Setters, the first and only album by local band Edikanfo.
In the reminiscence Eno contributes to the new reissue of The Pace Setters, he says "having spent the previous few years immersed in Fela Kuti's early albums and the previous few months stuck into John Miller Chernoff's book African Rhythm And African Sensibility, I was very keen to hear some African music in situ."
Eno's enthusiasm for West African music had already found an outlet in July and August 1980 when he produced Talking Heads' Remain In Light album, issued that October. Kuti's 1973 Afrodisiac album was a big influence: an unissued-at-the-time track from the sessions was titled Fela's Riff. As one may have fed into the other, it's disappointing that in what he's written Eno says nothing about Talking Heads or Remain In Light and how they relate to The Pace Setters.
The Pace Setters was originally issued in 1981 by EG and its parent imprint Polydor (i.e. Eno's label) in Canada, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, the UK and US. It's not an obscure or rare album, but until he worked with Uganda's Paris-based Geoffrey Oryema in 1990 it was the only non-European, non-American record Eno had produced.
This is is a straightforward album, melding highlife with a light funk. Bassist Gilbert Amartey Amar is quoted saying "from afrobeat there were records of influence. But we were mostly playing highlife. Our sound was very Ghanaian. And we were also playing jazz." He also says "Disco music [was being played in the clubs]. And lots of reggae."
Opening cut Nka Bom is an instant winner. It drives. The pace does not let up. A six-minute fusion of highlife and Lalo Schifrin/Streets of San Francisco dynamics, it brings a jazz-rock sensibility to West African music. It is the album's highlight, though the similarly soundtrack-ish Gbenta is almost as good. The band were a six piece and the songs are individually written by five of the members, which explains the lack of a unified sound - exemplified by the melodic and moody Moonlight Africa, which is more about its soaring chorus than anything else. The only misfire is the wandering Blinking Eyes, the least dynamic cut.
It's not possible to detect an Eno involvement in what's heard. He says "the actual recording sessions were joyful - the band played with such verve that you couldn't resist. What they'd given me was finished - there was nothing else I could add." Although nothing is said about it in the cursory liner notes, Edikanfo's producer must had a role in getting the band their record deal.
In Ghana, the mover behind Edikanfo was the ex-pat Lebanese entrepreneur Faisal Helwani, who formed the band in late 1979 from members of other outfits. He invited Eno to Ghana. Helwani had recorded E.T. Mensah and, in 1980, would discover Onipa Nua. He also ran Accra's Napoleon Club, where Kuti played. Edikanfo was Helwani's first brush with the European market, a venture curtailed by Jerry John Rawlings' coup d'état of December 31, 1981. After this, Ghana's culture was effectively cut off from the outside world. Edikanfo couldn't capitalise on the release of their album.
A year earlier, Eno was in Ghana working with Edikanfo. He recalls "During my visit (which lasted about a month) I was staying in Faisal's house... Faisal was very generous with food - we had huge African meals each night - but I came to feel more and more like a prisoner since I wasn't allowed out without a bodyguard, and even then prevented from going very far." Happily, no such restrictions applied to Edikanfo's The Pace Setters.