As electronic, dance and bass music becomes more mainstream, producers are going further afield to sound distinctive. Chris Matthews spoke to two young London producers, who found inspiration in Ghana’s music and rhythms.
Under the name, The Busy Twist, childhood friends Gabriel Benn and Ollie Williams have spent three years intertwining Ghanaian highlife – the country’s popular music form – and an array of other African sounds with bass and electronic rhythms from the UK.
“The whole direction of the sound is to fuse the cultures together. We’ve always wanted to create music and beats that people from all over the world can dance to,” says 23-year-old Williams.
The pair, who grew up in Twickenham, southwest London, have been creating music and DJing together since they were 16.
However, it was Benn’s visit to the West African nation in 2010 that opened their ears to the richness of the Ghanaian music scene.
What is Ghanaian highlife?
Popularised in the 1950s and 1960s by the likes of Nana Ampadu, The Tempos and The Black Beats, highlife music is a Ghanaian institution.
Highlife – also prominent in Sierra Leone and Nigeria – was born out of marrying traditional local music with western rhythms from Europe and the Caribbean during the colonial 1900s.
The term, which was coined in the 1920s, is thought to be a reference to parties by the European upper-class.
Originating in coastal towns, the genre started out as the music of elite society – performed by local bands at foxtrots, ballrooms, and waltzes.
It was initially associated with dance orchestras, but soon developed another, more guitar-based style, which was adopted by the rural population and was widely popularised in the mid-20th century.
Teaching in Ghana’s Eastern region, Benn spent six months in the country and met a host of local musicians, including chance encounters with singers Malaika and Eugene at a beach in Accra.
“There was something bringing us together, it was just energies connecting,” he says from his Twickenham studio.
Using a dictaphone, he recorded a raft of local artists. Back in London, he headed the few hundred yards from his home to share the recordings with Williams.
“He was pretty blown away by them and how talented the artists were,” says Benn.
“And so we decided then and there that we were going to go back together.”
Later that year, they made their first trip together and spent three weeks recording with Malaika, reggae musician Yaga Yo and others in Accra.
Inspired by the breadth of music in the country and the “joyfulness and energy” of its people, the pair embarked on their cross-continental music mission.
“Malaika showed us a Fela Kuti track and then he was like, ‘You guys should put your house music over it, one of your English beats.’
“And as soon as he said that, it just opened the door to us,” says Benn. “From then on, we were always thinking about African rhythm and English dance and electronic music.”
The pair travelled during university holidays to record with local musicians, taking inspiration from the highlife, reggae and dance sounds emanating from the country’s streets and clubs.
It was in renowned percussionist Francis Osei’s Accra studio that the group’s Friday Night EP was honed during the Easter of 2011.
The debut release combined the feel-good inflections of Ghanaian highlife with a UK bass-and-funk sound, fine-tuned back in the London studio.
Unlike the readymade samples and rhythms available instantaneously online, The Busy Twist’s sound breaks a digitally driven mould.
“With the energy and rhythm there is in the country there was just a natural connection, and a bridge for us to build between those genres,” says Williams.
It celebrates multiple cultures, rather like highlife itself, which – in the words of musician and University of Ghana lecturer, John Collins – is a “cultural bridge for the modern and traditional, imported and indigenous”.
With a rented boom box, the pair took to the streets to shoot a video for the EP’s title track, filming passers-by in Accra, schoolchildren in Akim and the landscapes of the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park.
“People were just so excited and happy. When people hear music and a beat they want to dance. You don’t have to ask – they will just come and dance and jump in front of your camera,” Williams says.
After the success of the Friday Night EP – released on Soundway Records in 2012 – the duo returned once more to Accra, and it was during this trip that they were introduced to the Labadi Warriors.
A renowned drumming troupe from the area, the Labadi Warriors provided the inspiration for the pair’s latest record.
After months of planning and with clearance from the local chief and head of police, The Busy Twist transformed Accra’s Labadi Park into a Ghanaian rave for their next video shoot.
The video, combining the drumming and chanting of the Labadi Warriors with a more southern African sound, is featured on the appropriately named Labadi Warrior EP, which was released in October.
“It was so much fun being out there making the music and just so exhilarating. A big part of our job was like being half-producers and half-project managers. It is not just like sitting at home and making beats, it is a real project,” Benn says.
Energized by the success of their Ghanaian journey, the pair have recently returned from Colombia, which will be the focus for their next project.
With ambitions for exploring Angola and South Africa as well as a return to Ghana, The Busy Twist and their original beat-making process is far from over.
As Williams says: “Any country you go to, you know you are going to get a whole new sound to be influenced by and a very different output. There will be a next chapter and it will be bigger and better.”