In his review last week of Amanaz’s Africa, Evan Conley describes how record collectors have been relentless in their pursuit of “reissues of obscure African LPs … sprouting from the shelves of in-the-know record shops around the globe.” There’s no question that the popularity of finding the most forgotten, poorest quality, least pressed records from some of the least well-known places on earth (Dahomey, Tanganyika, Ubangi-Shari, take your pick) is continually on the rise thanks to a growing network of amateur enthusiasts and ethnomusicologists alike.
It thus comes as a minor surprise that Soundway, ever the leaders in Dark Continent crate-digging, have chosen a comparatively popular Ghanaian group for their latest reissue. Sweet Talks can hardly be counted as obscure: They were one of Ghana’s biggest groups in the 1970s and made it to a point in their career where they could tour regularly behind a substantial discography and record halfway around the world in Los Angeles. There were a few essential ingredients that contributed to their quick, early success. Jonathan Abraham, the band’s founder, was also manager of the buzzing Talk of the Town hotel in Accra’s main port of Tema. Sweet Talks were in an excellent position from the moment of their creation as one of two house bands for the hotel (the Talkatives were the other). Abraham was also either smart or lucky to bring together established singer AB Crentsil, who had previously helmed the El Dorados, and guitarist Smart Nkansah, who had been in Yamoah’s Guitar Band. The playing time and personnel before they ever released a record cannot be discounted when discussing the quality of their output.
People and practice are nothing without the music, of course, and here is where Sweet Talks were particularly clever. The dozen-strong group blended Ghana’s best known musical export, highlife, with roots folk and contemporary funk sounds of the time — even the youths of Accra bored by guitar highlife’s ubiquity in the 1960s found something fresh in the “Kusum” (“native” or “from Ghana”) beat. Opening track “Akampanye” sums up this blend of the traditional and the modern, from the very basic keyboard opening to the explosion of horns and brisk percussion. “That’s what they call, the kusum beat,” Crentsil intones with a slight accent. “Now here we go with it.”
Those are nearly the only English words on this album, but songs like “Eyi Su Ngaangaa” and “Kyekye Pe Aware” mix Western guitar grooves and brass backing with Fela Kuti-like rhythmic repetition to demonstrate an awareness of what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. The influences aren’t always obvious, partly because they are so disparate — maybe it was jazz horns they tried to invoke, or maybe it was more salsa from Latin dance bands (an early highlife influence). Ultimately, it didn’t matter: Their brand of highlife was successful enough to produce three LPs (The Kusum Beat was the second) and garner acclaim beyond their native Ghana.
The postscript to Sweet Talks is almost as fascinating as the music: Nkansah left in 1976 to form his own group, the Black Hustlers, and Crentsil later fell out with Abraham over allegations of mismanagement. The group’s dissolution was accelerated by Ghana’s growing economic trouble and an 8 p.m. curfew instituted by the unstable, mercurial military rule of Jerry Rawlings. Crentsil later found success as a solo artist, Talk of the Town still exists in Tema, and highlife has recently experienced a resurgence in the updated form of hiplife. Still, it is the collective achievement of Sweet Talks that rings the loudest for each of its protagonists. Soundway may not have scraped the bottoms of Accra’s most mysterious bins for this one, but sometimes there’s a good reason things get popular. The Kusum Beat is a sterling example.