Sunday, 3 March 2013

Kiki Keeps On Dancing

British label Soundway (re)colonized the afro-beat market in 2004, when it launched its inaugural album, the two volume setGhana Soundz.  The lush collection of impeccably remastered 7 inch singles, from the obscurest of that nation's bands, was singular among the other African dance records internationally available at the time.  The other afro-beat albums out there tended to focus on neighbouring Nigeria, and I for one knew very little of even those records, apart from a handful of Fela Kuti represses.  Ghana Soundz, however, initiated a mass immigration of sub-Saharan rhythms into western ports, not only coming from Soundway itself but from a bevy of new labels jumping on the bandwagon.

From Ghana Soundz Volume 2, the standout track for me was The Ogyatanaa Show Band's "Disco Africa." Its combination of plodding breakbeats, elastic bass lines, hypnotic organ vamps and vocal incantations were exceptional, even when measured against the high standards established by the other cuts.

As luck would have it my continuing safari for further african disco recently landed me some big game with Soundway's newest compilation, Kiki Gyan: 24 Hours In A Disco 1978-82.

Born Kofi Kwarka, Ghanaian multi-instrumentalist Kiki Gyan is the archetypal musical Wunderkind.  He picked up piano at five years old and before eyes had been batted he had abandoned secondary education to play keyboard with bands in local Accra and further afield in The Republic of Benin. These early outfits included The Avengers, Ebo Taylor's Blue Monks, Boom Talents and The Pargadija Band.  But it was while touring in England with Santiagos that Gyan fortuitously met Mac Tontoh of London's internationally-revered Afro-Caribbean ensemble Osibisa. Not more than a year later Kiki replaced Robert Bailey as that band's keyboardist.

With Osibisa he toured the globe, played before the Queen of England and shared festival stages with Marvin Gaye, Peter Tosh and Stevie Wonder.  Gyan is often compared to Wonder, as both soul men were named in a 1975 poll of the world's top keyboardist.  Merited accolades aside, I feel however that Gyan's inexhaustible grooves bare a closer musical resemblance to those of Bunny Sigler, the producer and arranger behind the Garage classic, “By the Way You Dance,” as well as countless Philadelphia International and Salsoul joints.

Feeling under-appreciated, under-acknowledged and under-compensated as a member of Osibisa, Gyan embarked on a solo career and fronted several of his own bands towards the end of the 70s.  When not performing before crowds of hundreds of thousands, steady gigs as an in-demand session musician at London studios helped top up his net worth to £5 million.

By 1977 Gyan was big in England and huge in Nigeria, which was experiencing an economic and cultural upswing ensuing from its oil boom.  His musical and celebrity status was solidified when he married Fela Kuti’s daughter Yeni Anikulapo-Kuti.  

Gyan’s fairy tale of fame and fortune unfortunately soon begat the quintessential cautionary fable of living fast and dying young.  The early 80s saw him living in New York City, cutting records with members of Larry Levan’s Peech Boys.  But his narcotic experimentations with Osibisa guitarist Paul Golly had fully spiralled into a $5000 a day drug habit by the time he hit the tail-end of Manhattan’s disco scene.

Not much is written about Gyan’s life between the mid 1980s and the early 2000s, except that he clocked more hours in rehabs than in studios. 

In 2004, a few hours before his 47th birthday, Gyan passed away in his hometown of Accra, having finally succumb to tuberculosis, complicated by AIDS and his crippling addiction.  Although he never fulfilled his newly-found wish to become a United Nation’s ambassador against drug abuse, he parted with these words: "Stay away from drugs and beware of women."    

The title 24 Hours in a Disco is borrowed from one of Gyan's songs, yet it also serves as a poetic summation of the musician's hedonistic and all-too-brief life.  The playlist itself is similarly short, containing only seven tracks culled from a mere four years of recordings, but the mesmeric rhythms on each track seem infinite.  So much is done with so little.  With that in mind, this compilation pays a pitch-perfect tribute to Kiki Gyan.

"Sexy Dancer"

"Disco Dancer"

"Disco Train"

"Keep On Dancing"

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