Dick Essilfie-Bondzie isn’t often mentioned in decolonization stories, but the Ghanaian producer and label boss has a strong claim. He was destined for a life in business rather than music, first training as an accountant in London before returning to Accra to work for the country’s Industrial Development Corporation. But he was fascinated by music and the highlife scene – the high-end brass-led dance music that thrived in sophisticated urban nightclubs.
After trying to start a band, he brokered a deal with Philips to build a vinyl pressing factory in Ghana, the first in West Africa, which meant that locally recorded tapes no longer needed recording. ‘to be shipped to Europe for processing into records which would then be reimported – a godsend for musicians and record companies across the region. Essilfie-Bondzie founded his own labels: Dix for highlife and Essiebons for the funky, electric guitar-driven music that started to win in the late 1960s. Essiebons special compiles music from the heyday of the 1970s from this “house of musical power in Ghana”, both published and unpublished.
Most of these latter tracks come from organist Ernest Honny, best known for the song “Psychedelic Woman”. Honny is represented here by four instrumental interludes. “Kofi Psych”, which launches the album, has several rhythmic lines intertwined with each other, all linked together by a complex keyboard line. “Ernest Special” and “Say the Truth” are harsher, the latter tinged with dark and deep keyboard sounds. The album ends with “Odo Mframa”, a chatty snap of a track with sci-fi whooshes that would have suited this decade perfectly. Doctor Who.
If Honny is the common thread of the album, his most famous contemporaries are its jewels. CK Mann, who energized Osode, the traditional fisherman’s music, with Western instrumentation, is here twice: once as CK Mann and his Carousel 7 with “Yeaba,” a vigorous working song by call and answer; and once again as CK Mann Big Band with “Fa W’akoma Ma Me”, a more conventional highlife number with strummed guitar, chanted lyrics and sad trumpet, less than a million kilometers from the Cuban-accented sound of ‘Orchestra Baobab. Seaboy (the stage name of Joseph Nwozah Ebroni) sings the anthem “Africa” to a rhythm close to reggae and is supported by the group Nyame Bekyere on “Tinitini”, completed by an elastic guitar solo.
The record was compiled by Samy Ben Redjeb of Analog Africa as a 90th anniversary gift from Essilfie-Bondzie. Sadly, he passed away in August 2020 ahead of release, but that’s a testament to his entrepreneurial spirit and skills as a producer.
‘Essiebons special‘is published by Analog Africa