77-year-old Ebo Taylor could be described as one of the last men standing in the highlife music genre. The Ghanaian highlife musician, guitarist, composer, producer and band leader, who has spent almost 60 years of his life as a professional musician, has stayed true to his love for highlife music. In doing that, he has also been able to keep alive a genre which used to be one of the favourites for most Africans in time past, before the popularity of reggae, Afro Hip-Hop and its other derivatives.
When he became a professional musician at 19, he continued a family tradition. “My father was a choir organist and my mother was in the choir and all my brothers could play the piano. My uncles could also play the piano so it’s like everybody in the family played the piano and had access to the piano. There was a piano in the family house,” he told Sam Umukoro Interview.
In this piece, we usher you into Ebo Taylor’s exciting musical world.
The influence of highlife music in shaping Africa’s music history cannot be overemphasized; it is an exquisite cocktail of indigenous dance rhythms and some bit of jazz and kaiso accompanied with the melodies from African drums, accordions, harmonicas and guitars.
It also birthed African music legends, such as Ghanaian Ebo Taylor. Born in 1936, a period when highlife music was arguably the favourite genre of music for most Africans, Taylor grew up drunk on it like almost everyone else in his generation.
He also grew up in a house where music lived. His father was a choir organist while his mother sang in the choir, and all his brothers knew how to play the piano. Consequently, he learnt to how to play the piano when he was 13, but he later had to channel his passion for playing instruments to guitar at 16. In 1956, as he matured into adulthood, Taylor decided to take the path of music after he was encouraged by those around him who noticed his unique gift for playing the instrument. During that time, he joined the Stargazers and the Broadway Dance Band, prominent highlife bands in Ghana, to further explore the world of music.
Taylor later left Ghana for England to study music at the Trinity College of Music in London where he met Fela, and struck a friendship with him. When asked about what drew him to Fela, Taylor simply replied, “We both liked Jazz.” Thus, music cemented their friendship. Taylor said, at the time when he was in London, “Fela would call me when he had a gig and I would call him when I had a gig and we would play at several places together, sometimes at Nigerian-organised dances.” Fela would later leave England to brew a new genre of music; Afrobeat, a fusion of highlife, jazz, traditional Yoruba music with funky rhythms and chants laced with percussion instruments, especially the unique blast of the saxophone. Taylor described Fela as “an inspiration to anybody in Africa.”
Fela’s ingenuity rubbed off on Taylor. He later discovered his own music style by meshing traditional Fante songs with Fela’s Afrobeat and jazz to create a distinctive sound in the 1970s. Some people have called him the James Brown of Ghana. However, Taylor still recognises the immense influence of Fela’s Afrobeat on his own music that he opined that when Fela ‘went into Afrobeat, it wasn’t for Nigerians, it was for Africans’. “So, I thought I should also continue to play Afrobeat so that it will cause African music to go forward like he wanted,” he said.
Taylor’s album, Love and Death (Strut Records, 2010), was his first internationally acclaimed album among others such as Appia Kwa Bridge (Strut Records, 2012), Life Stories: Best of Ebo Taylor 1973-80 (Strut Record, 2012), Ebo Taylor & Uhuru Yenzu – Conflict (Essiebons, 1979).
Apart from Fela, Taylor drew some inspiration from other musicians both from Africa and outside of Africa. When he was growing up, he said that he liked E.T Mensah, a Ghanaian trumpeter. He also listed Miles Davis as one of the foreign musicians that inspired him. Taylor has had memorable encounters with some top highlife musicians like Victor Olaiya, and Bobby Benson amongst others.
“I met Victor Olaiya, when I came to Lagos in 1960, during the independence, and the musicians were very popular in Ghana. I also met Bobby Benson in Nigeria, he was my friend, these people were professional musicians and (then) they were ahead of the Ghanaians in terms of instrumentalists,” he said.
Even at 77, Taylor still enthuses about music with the exuberance of a youth. When he was asked to give an advice to upcoming musicians, he replied, “I always tell them that they should go to school and learn music academically. Music is a subject; it is not something that you can just take. You can be born with it, you can have the talent; but like Fela, you have to go to school and learn more about music as a subject. If you do that, you’ll go far and deeper in your music.”
Taylor listens to songs by contemporary African musicians. He said P-Square’s Chop My Money is his favourite song, and that they (P-Square) remind him of “the days when we had Bobby Benson.” The nostalgia for the old tunes still resonates within him.
Ebo Taylor, who put up a stellar performance at the Afropolitan Vibes, which held at Freedom Park in Lagos, Nigeria, recently, was enthusiastic about his first visit to Nigeria since 1992. “I love to play with Nigerians. I have always told my fellow Ghanaians that Nigeria is ahead of Ghana in social activities as far as music is concerned. Nigerians are about 20 years ahead of us because that is where it is happening,” he said, adding that he owed Nigerian-German artiste Ade Bantu a lot of regards for putting him back “on the map of music.”
When asked what he would want to be remembered for, the African music legend simply said, “I would want to be remembered for my part in the role of African music in terms of Afrobeat. I would also want to be remembered for my desire to be a musician despite all opportunities to be something else.”