by AIGERIM SAPAROVA
Photos by Mantse Aryeequaye for ACCRA [dot] ALT.I was first introduced to GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY’s music within the first few weeks of my arrival in Ghana at Accra’s +233 Jazz Bar + Grill. I can hardly fathom a more appropriate introduction into the Ghanaian music scene. After all, he is one of the fathers of rap, the man behind highlife, and a globally-travelled musician.
Even before discovering the constant heat that has surrounded him since the 1973 release of “Simigwado,” I could sense something special about Mr. Ambolley—a swagger that transcends time. Now in his immediate presence, I couldn’t help but feel inclined to recognize this musical mastermind.
We spent a good hour talking about his beginnings in music, his experiences living in the States as a highlife jazz musician, his ability to maintain relevance over the years, and his opinion on the present and future of Ghanaian music.
Did it upset you that you weren’t technically credited for the birth of rap music?
No, it didn’t upset me. I think everything is based on information. They didn’t have that information. Somebody didn’t do his homework because everything has a source, they need to recognize the source. So, I’m reminding them it didn’t start from America, [but] instead from Africa. I want them to know that what [the Guinness Book of World Records] has is already publicized but I think something is wrong somewhere and they need to correct that. I have proof that it started from here.
What was your big break?
My big break was my first record, that is the first rap music…it was released in 1973. That record made Ghanaians know that there is somebody named Ambolley. When I was growing up as well, I used to listen to James Brown. James Brown, in America, for you to be called ‘Soul Brother Number One,’ means that you have something strong to offer… James Brown had his own form of dance, he had his own form of music. He had his own form of lyrics. So that motivated me to put all these in combination.
So I came out with a dance and it was a craze. I came out with a language, it was a craze. I came out with music, it was a craze.
In what ways has your musical style changed and in what ways has it stayed the same?
My music hasn’t changed. I think it has developed. Every dance music in the whole world came from Ghana. We have music here called highlife music. If you play Indian music coming from India right now, there’s highlife in it. Funk music, rap music, whatever—there’s highlife in it. So, it made me see that—yes, this is the source. So putting my music together, I have all this in combination. That’s why my music is still alive, up to today, because the younger ones can feel themselves in it. The older ones can feel themselves in it. Everybody has something to pick from my music. It’s like you’re preparing a soup. If you have the right ingredients, everybody will love it. So that is my way of managing—to make sure that it has the right ingredients so that it can stand the test of time.
How do you make sure that you have all these ingredients in your music—is there a process?
So when I hear the younger generation, I feel myself in there… It’s something that is natural. The gift that God gave me is this music. A whole lot of my comrades who grew up with me– many of them, it’s like they’ve fallen out. There are some things that I don’t think they are doing. At some point in time, they’ll call you ‘old school.’ Any change that is coming, you have to study that change and know how you are going to fit into it. For me, that’s what I do. When I went to America, I experimented. I had a band in America… and when I put in the highlife, it’s like it electrified something…Even if you can’t get up, you see that you’re tapping your feet— you know, something is motivating you, something is moving you. That is the power of this style of music.
Do you think that intensity is unique to highlife?
That power is highlife. That power is jazz. That power is funk. That power is rap. That power is salsa. That power is all in combination…I remember one time, there was a party in Los Angeles and here was Will Smith. Out of the blue, he started rapping and I joined in and put in my African rap. The direction I’m coming from, they don’t know [it], but still they can’t get away from it.
Music is a language. If you don’t know the language, you can’t communicate with anybody. Me, from Africa, to be able to go there and form a band, introduce my highlife to them—they couldn’t get enough of it. Oh man, they couldn’t get enough of it.
Do you think that Ghana will recognize the value of the creative industries to national development?
I think it will take a long time. If my first president were still alive then I would have hope that Ghana can go out there and be recognized because all those that came after the president were looking at music as a form of entertainment, that’s it. They don’t think about ‘Hey, a country is your culture’. So it’ll take a long time. We have been trained to love the westernization more than what we have and that has affected our way of life, our way of thinking. Something has to be done, something has to be shown for musicians to have hope. As of now, musicians don’t have hope.
What about organizations like MUSIGA [and their event Ghana Music Week]? Does this make any difference?
Those that are at MUSIGA right now are younger generational musicians– some came into music not even five or six years ago. If you talk about music, many of them don’t know what its rudiments. Music is an international something—everywhere we go, the laws govern music. MUSIGA has to be there for the welfare of the musicians. They can’t give the musicians jobs. The knowledge and the know-how is limited and when it happens like that, it affects our culture and music, it affects whatever we need to be for us to be recognized.
What do you think the younger generation needs to do now to make the arts industry here more prevalent?
You see, information is very important, and education. The younger generation—they have to learn the rudiments of music, they need to be armed. They need to do seminars, they need to do workshops to educate. [When the older] people help do all these workshops, the younger generation thinks they are ‘old school.’ When they listen to the style of music that we are playing, they think our time has passed. But no, it’s a big mistake. Technology has made it so easy that if you go to the studio, in the computers you have bass lines, you have drum lines, and all that, so they just cut and paste and they say, ‘Ok, I’m going to rap to it’… and they call themselves musicians.
How do we work ourselves into a space where real exploration is possible?
It’s very, very possible. For a space to be created, it has to between the older musicians and the younger musicians. So, if there is collaboration… the older can tell them that ‘this is what it is, this is what we have and this is what is coming from the other side.’ But if there is a big gap it means that experimentation will never happen because everything has a source. We have to know the source. If you don’t know the source, you can’t do anything.
Groove more with GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY | @gyedublay