When it comes to live music sometimes all it takes is a few minutes to realise you’re watching something special. That was certainly the case for the festival-goers assembled at the main stage at WOMAD 2019 to watch young, eight-piece Ghanaian ensemble Santrofi. Their mid-afternoon set provided a perfect musical match for the accompanying sunshine and that sound is now accurately captured on their debut release Alewa.
Santrofi may be a new name to most but a quick check of the acts they have played with over the years begins to offer clues to their musical prowess. Band leader and bassist Emmanuel Ofori previously played with Highlife legends Ebo Taylor and Pat Thomas and other members of the group have appeared with the likes of British Afrobeat veterans Osibisa and rap-Highlife fusion pioneer Gyedu Blay Ambolley.
Alewa draws from this musical education to offer a heady mix of zestful energy and positive messages (the title itself relates to a black and white Ghanaian boiled sweet, here acting as a symbol for their espousal of unity and promotion of racial diversity).
They might not be the first African band to set out with this progressive agenda but there’s more than enough evidence on this debut album to make them stand out from the crowd. Kokrokoo opens the album, a closely entwined build up of vocals and drums, before the melodic title track arrives, radiating warmth and boasting supple guitar lines and uplifting brass amid a fluid, relaxed setting. It sets the tone for the rest of the album with Kwaa Kwaa soon further extending the uncomplicated yet effective formula. Supplementary Caribbean flavours are stirred into the mix on Odo Maba, all effervescent rhythms and lilting brass.
The second half of the album sees them return to their core sound. Cocoase is classic blues-banishing Highlife, Adwuma offers the most Afrobeat-centric moment on the album and Kwabena Amoah swoops with elegance and power (apt given that the word Santrofi in Ghanaian mythology relates to a four-winged, brightly coloured, precious bird). The jazz-tinted Mobo draws affairs to a close proving that if their aim was to take established sounds and imbue them with a carefree freshness then Alewa can only be seen as a resounding success.