E.T. Mensah, Day By Day

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Ghanaian bandleader, vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emmanuel Tettey Mensah was one of the biggest stars of the '50s and '60s, and a half-century later it's clear why: Everything on this superb 15-song distillation of his early '60s work oozes ease. By then, he'd had plenty of experience: Mensah had led bands since the late '30s and after World War II helped forged the highlife style from then-dominant swing bands by beefing up the percussion, giving the horns jazz-like voicings and freedom and adding calypso to an already broad repertoire.

The easeful early-’60s peak of a Ghanaian highlife pioneer.

How broad? Mensah sang in six languages, all superbly, in a slightly grainy low tenor that could sound upright ("Ghana-Guinea-Mali," which celebrates the three nations '"strong union") or excitable ("205," featuring one of the snazziest horn charts ever written — by Mensah, of course). He was, in short, a total smoothie, and he had rhythms to match: it takes so little time for a shaker-led number like "Onipa" to sink into your hips or brain that rehearing it after a long period can seem uncanny — is a musical sense-memory taking place, or do you really recall the song that well? The answer, of course, is the latter — you've been zinged by a master. Eventually, highlife would fade as greater Africa's leading pop style, replaced by the trickier rhythms of Congolese rumba, and Mensah would retire in the early '70s. (He died in 1996, aged 77.) But time has only intensified the glow of the man in his prime.