Interview: Ebo Taylor

Time Out has an audience with Ghanaian musical royalty

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The modern buzz that continues to develop around Ghanaian music-makers is largely as a result of the scene’s more urgent, contemporary sounds – the part-spiky, part-smooth beats of hiplife being a case in point – so it’s refreshing to see some of the industry’s elder statesmen drawing plaudits too. Ebo Taylor was born in 1936, making him more than two decades older than the Ghanaian Republic itself, but he remains one of the country’s leading proponents of authentic highlife and Afrobeat. Just as pertinently, he’s currently enjoying one of the finest periods of his career.

Despite a past that has seen him work with some of the most notable composers and musicians that the region has ever produced, it was only last year – months before his 75th birthday – that his first international solo album saw the light of day. Released in October 2010 on the well respected Strut label, Love and Death is a warm, groovy, deeply atmospheric record, the kind of listen that has you sensing the thrum of the city and the smoulder of West Africa from the moment it starts.

We should have seen it coming. In recent years, Taylor’s influence has shown itself large enough to cross international boundaries – American megastar Usher used a sample from a Taylor song named Heaven on his track She Don’t Know, boosting the Ghanaian’s global profile (not to mention his bank account) in the process. Any suggestion that Taylor might have moved away from his roots to capture a more on-trend sound, however, are roundly dispelled by Love and Death, which melds jazz, funk and Afrobeat to superb effect. The record shares much with the uplifting music he fell in love with as a young man.

“I got first into music professionally when I was about twenty,” he explained on the eve of the album launch. “I had started playing piano at the age of six and I converted myself into a guitarist when I was at college. In the late 50s it was so exciting. I was a kid and I had the chance to play for audiences who were much bigger than myself.” Moving to London to study music in 1962, he began sharing stages with some remarkable performers, most notably the legendary Fela Kuti, who persuaded him that a cross-genre repertoire was the way forward. “Fela was my friend. He used to say ‘Taylor, why are we always playing jazz? Jazz is for the Americans. We should be doing our own thing.’”

It proved sage advice for Taylor and a generation of West African musicians. Listeners keen to explore the music Taylor has made since would do well to seek out another recent Strut release, Life Stories, which acts as a definitive collection of his seminal recordings in the 60s and 70s. He also appears on a number of compilation albums released by Soundway Records, including the superb Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds, Ghanaian Blues 1968 – 1981.

For now, however, attention is chiefly focused on Love and Death. Recorded with members of Berlin’s Afrobeat Academy, it serves up a mixture of new material and freshly recorded older tracks. Brass features heavily, as do noodling jazz guitars, but the over-riding sound is a powerfully African one, and the musician at its centre offers proof that age is no barrier to making a great album.

The first half of 2011 saw Taylor playing live in various parts of Europe, including a performance at the highly respected WOMAD Festival in England. Our advice? Should the chance arise to see him in concert – in Ghana or overseas – don’t turn it down. They don’t make septuagenarians like this too often.

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