Highlife music then and now

The legendary musician - E. T. Mensah

When it first hit the shores of West Africa in the early part of last century, principally in the then Gold Coast, and to some degree Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the only name they could come up with for it was a descriptive one: HIGHLIFE.

A fusion of indigenous dance rhythms, melodies and western influences including regimental music. Highlife’s early instrumentation varied from African drums to harmonies, guitars and accordions.

Early Highlife styles included ‘Ashiko’ and ‘Osibisa’, among others which by the 1920s had become collectively known as Highlife music. As time went by, three distinctive forms of Highlife music emerged, namely; ballroom dance band brand which was mainly for the coastal elite, guitar band brand which came complete with ‘concert party’ which was aimed at a less westernized audience, and the brass band variety.

However, it was during the Second World War that Highlife took its ‘swing’ form. It was during this period that it gained its ‘modern’ sound and, therefore, introduced a blend of Trinidadian calypso, Cuban ‘son’ and military brass band music, among others.

In the Gold Coast, one early pioneer of Highlife music was E.T. Mensah and his Tempos Band who came on the scene in the late 1940s. The Tempos’ songs were sang in English, Twi, Ga, Hausa, Fante, Ewe, and Efik. By 1956, E.T. Mensah and his band were at the peak of their career that the Band performed with the legendary trumpeter ‘Sachimo’ Louis Armstrong in newly independent Ghana.

The brand of Highlife music known as the guitar band music grew in popularity throughout the 1950s and its combination with ‘concert party’ assured it of a large and loyal following. Exponents of this brand of music included legends like E.K. Nyame, King Onyina and the Kakaiku Band. This time also saw the emergence of King Bruce and the Black Beats Band out of which came the Ramblers International Band led by legendary saxophonist Jerry Hansen.

Later the likes of Nana Kwame Ampadu and the African Brothers, C.K. Mann and the Carousel 7,  and many others appeared on the scene. Later the likes of bands like Hezdole, Basabasa and Bunzu  Soundz also announced their presence.

Around this same time, groups like Wulomei, using purely traditional instruments with acoustic guitar accompaniment give highlife music a very different flavour. This was in the 1970s. And when in the  late 1970s the group Edikanfo took the scene by storm and even recorded the evergreen album Roots  Of Highlife, the music of Ghana also known as highlife, was loudly announcing its presence on the  world stage.

The military coup of 31st December, 1981, which brought about years of night  curfews negatively affected night life in Ghana. Highlife, and for that matter music, being a mainly night time activity, was the major casualty. As a result, many talented musicians, composers and instrumentalists left the shores of Ghana; some of them for good.

The 1980s saw the birth of the brand of music that came to be known as Burgher Highlife when guitarist George Darko, vocalist Lee Doudou and other Ghanaian musicians then based in Germany came together and released the massive hit song and album of the same title ‘Ako Te Brofo’.

Other musicians of the 1980s were drummer Charles Amoah whose ‘Eye Odo Asem’ became a must-request song at parties and other social gatherings and Ben Brako who even though was based in London had a huge success with his ‘Baya’ album produced by the late Jon K.

This era also saw the rise of Amakye Dede to stardom after he had for years been a member of the Kumapim Royals Band led by the late Akwasi Ampofo Adjei known popularly as Mr. AAA.

Others who also kept the highlife music flag during the period, and to these days, were Gyedu Blay Ambolley, Paapa Yankson, and Jewel Ackah.

The entrance of the Lumba Brothers unto the music scene in the late 1980s probably introduced a new trend in the recording of highlife music which the reliance on programmed rythms without real musicians performing.

After them came the hip-lifers who only rap, American style, in Ghanaian languages. Some highlife musicians like A.B.Crensil have done collaborative works with some hiplife musicians.

Lately, a musician like King Ayisoba and groups like Gonje and Hewale Sounds have firmly given the music of Ghana the authenticity it deserves, what with the rave reviews they have been receiving all over the place.

It is in them and the thousands of other equally talented but yet-to-discovered musicians in the ten regions of Ghana that the future of highlife music lies if it is to go international.

By Baba Abdulai

Email: [email protected]

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