Highlife is Ghana’s musical soul. It is a uniquely Ghanaian invention that emerged alongside the campaign that gave birth to Ghana as the first independent African nation in 1957. The antecedents of Highlife predate the 1950s but not as far back as the 1890s, as claimed in some historical accounts.
In Prof Kobina Nketia’s groundbreaking book, The Music of Africa (1979), he presents a fascinating survey of African musical traditions that made an impact on Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast. This is particularly relevant to the origins of Highlife which in the historiography has been wrongly attributed to colonial regimental bands. Prof Nketia provides a broader, if not more historically accurate backdrop to the “prehistory” of Highlife.
British Colonial bands
The Dutch left the Gold Coast in 1874, formally ushering in British rule which excluded the Asante Kingdom till it was defeated during the Yaa Asantewa wars in 1900. During the colonial period, British styled regimental bands were imported into the Gold Coast and stationed in Cape Coast and other coastal towns. They were mostly marching bands but also played Waltz, Foxtrot and other ballroom favourites. Most of the musicians were black conscripts from the Caribbean or recruited locally as in the case of the famous British Military Band of Kumasi. They made an impression on the local scene, especially at marching parades. They were also known to “tackle” the classics of European ballroom music with an “African” feeling.
The Caribbean conscripts may also have been familiar with the distinct West Indian rhythms that affected early New Orleans Jazz. The impact of Jazz on Highlife however came much later, during the late 1940s and 50s.
As a distinct fusion of traditional rhythms, initially played on box guitar and percussion, Highlife emerged after the mid-1920s. From its early beginnings, It was distinguished by indigenous vocalisations drawn predominantly from Ghanaian languages and the musical syntax of local folklore.
The box guitar was the one musical instrument that came to symbolise Highlife as a new musical genre. It proved to be not just handy but also most adept in facilitating the adaptation of the complex nuances that defined what was essentially an indigenous musical aesthetic.
Inventors of Highlife
The honour of invention must go to Kwame Asare, also known as Jacob Sam and composer of “Yaa Amponsah”, the first Highlife song recorded in London in 1928. “Yaa Amponsah” is a Guitar Band classic and serves as a default template for most Highlife composers. Kwame Asare’s guitar style was influenced by the two-finger technique of playing the Seprewa, the traditional Asante harp-lute.
Born in Cape Coast in Central Region, Kwame Asare was also a talented goldsmith. He was introduced to the guitar by a Kru Liberian seaman who worked on a shipping vessel that sailed up and down the Atlantic coastline. Kru seamen are known to have successfully adopted African traditional melodies on the stringed guitar. It seemed a meeting of great creative minds. Kwame Asare mastered the box guitar in no time, combining the cross-fingered playing style of Kru musicians with the two-finger technique of the Seprewa. He further developed this innovation when he moved to Kumasi to form his famous Kumasi Trio.
<This is the original recording of “Yaa Amponsah” by Kwame Asare’s Kumasi Trio. He is accompanied by H.E.Biney and Kwa Kanta on percussion>
“Yaa Amponsah” is the “DNA” of Highlife music. The melody lines recorded by Kwame Asare in 1928 can still be heard in most Highlife songs.
Highlife’s enduring legacy
Here, Linguists’ interpretation of “Yaa Amponsah” illustrates Kwame Asare’s enduring legacy. Over time, Highlife has been able to integrate a broad range of musical forms and styles without losing its core identity. These have included Jazz, Soul, Funk, Reggae, Disco, Samba, Rock and Calypso and hybrids.
Osei Korankyi plays the Seprewa, a traditional instrument that highly influenced the guitar playing style of Kwame Asare, the known inventor of Highlife.
The other notable pioneer in the Highlife story is Kwaa Mensah. He was taught how to play the guitar by Kwame Asare, his uncle. Kwaa Mensah initially formed a band that specialised in Adaha dance music, played on flutes and brass trumpets. The rhythms were accentuated for dancing by brisk uptempo beats rattled on side drums. During the 1940s, he joined a group that became popular for what is remembered as an “ecstatic” variety of Konkoma, another exciting precursor to Highlife. In Ahanta towns such as Sekondi and Takoradi, where I was born, Konkoma became one of the highlights of the Kundum festival. For several days, the twin city was taken over by teeming revellers, acrobats, dancers and masqueraders in traditional fancy dress costumes.
In the clip below, Nana Kwame Ampadu, plays OBRA, highlighting the significance of Kwaw Mensah in the history of Highlife.
Kwaw Mensah’s Career
Spanning decades, Kwaw Mensah made two significant contributions to the early evolution of Highlife; as a leading exponent of Guitar band music from the 1950s and together with EK Nyame and others, integrating the “Concert Party” into the repertoire of the Guitar Band. The Concert Party concept was adopted from the Akan tradition of storytelling, combined with a showcase of improvised comedy. Once the audience is sufficiently “warmed up”, the backing band would switch the mood and tempo to a dance floor frenzy that usually dissipated in the early hours of the morning.
The Concert Parties made Guitar bands popular, especially in rural towns and villages. The frequent tours also produced networks of enthusiastic followers that tilted the balance of political forces at the height of the independence struggle. The role of the Guitar bands proved decisive in the ideological war between the colonial government and the radical nationalist movement led by Kwame Nkrumah. The British scored good points by introducing the mobile cinema van and Charlie Chaplin. However, even the hugely popular comedian proved no match to the Concert Party’s unrelenting dose of agitation and propaganda, delivered by catchy slogans and entertaining comedy skits in local languages.
Constant touring made Guitar band leaders like Kwaa Mensah highly prolific as they had to compose songs and improvise dramatic sketches on the go. By the 1960s, Kwaa Mensah had released over two hundred songs with his band, The Fantse Trio. These were complemented by an equal number of comedy sketches. During the 1970s, he went on a memorable tour to the US with The legendary Wulomei band.
Palm Wine Music
As a result of its close association with the intoxicating beverage, Guitar Band music also became known as Palm Wine music. In towns like Cape Coast and Takoradi, one of the most popular nicknames for palm wine was “Bomkutuku” (Give me a knockout blow). It was that potent! The palm wine ‘spot’ under the tree became synonymous with the music – a place where connoisseurs of the genre gathered to socialise, rehearse, as well as entertain. Kwaa Mensah and friends would take turns to perform, backed by a percussionist or two. On occasions, they would jam together. The sessions were usually highly entertaining, especially when patrons made sure the musician’s calabash was not empty. They would challenge each other in mock battles for best songs and lyrical dexterity, determined by popular acclaim.
New sounds for a new nation
The 1930s to the 50s turned out to be a period of great experimentation as more musicians opted to play traditional melodies on box guitars, accordions and other foreign instruments. It became the fashion trend as new compositions were released, accompanied by traditional rhythms such Osode, Adowa, Kpalogo, Sekyi, Ntante, Kete, Konkoma and Kolomashie.
Guitar Band musicians mostly sang in Ghanaian languages even though there were songs in English, usually of the ‘creolised’ variety. Songs by Liberian Kru seamen were particularly popular due to their seminal role in the early evolution of Highlife music. They were also shapely dressed and became fashion trendsetters. To “Kru” or “Kru your skin” in those days and even today is to be hip and fashionable.
The Kru influence on early Highlife
“Takoradi” was a 1970’s hit by Wulomei, a Ga group from old Accra. The lyrics are sung entirely in Liberian Kru. Nii Ashitey, leader of Wulomei and composer once lived in Takoradi with Kru seamen.
<I recently recorded this live version in Accra>
Highlife and Ghana’s Independence
The struggle for Ghana’s independence intensified after World War II, with nationalist forces making significant electoral gains throughout the 1950s. In 1948, two events dramatically changed the political dynamics in the British colony and emboldened the independence movement; the boycott of European imports by Chief Nii Bonnie and the killing of three protesting ex-servicemen by British Police officers at Osu Castle, the seat of the colonial government.
Highlife and the Independence campaign
Ghana’s cultural sector reverberated with intensive political agitation as Highlife musicians composed patriotic songs and mobilised people against the colonial government at ‘Concert Parties’. In recognition of their vital role, the leaders of Highlife bands were declared national heroes and the music assigned special status by Kwame Nkrumah, then Prime Minister of the Gold Coast. When Independence was won in 1957, ET Mensah released ‘Ghana Freedom; to mark the big occasion.
From Box Guitars to Big Bands
Highlife initially evolved as a homegrown sound for the masses, popularised by Guitar bands and Concert Parties. Towards independence, it was rebranded in the official media as music for the Ghanaian educated elite and colonial civil servants. “Gentrification” of Highlife had started much earlier, from the late 1940s when Jazz-influenced Big bands also specialising in Ballroom favourites started to play more Highlife.
Living the “High life”
At official receptions and dances for civil servants, lawyers, businessmen and scholars, the music was provided by Big Bands like Jazz Kings, Cape Coast Sugar Babes, the Sekondi Nan Shamang and Accra Orchestra. The dress code was strictly evening dress for ladies and tailcoats and top hats for gentlemen even though the hats usually came off when the bands played their best imitations of Konkoma and popular Highlife hits. The lower classes were not allowed in even though, at some dance halls, it was possible to peep through the windows to observe the exuberant proceedings.
The 1950s and 60s were fabulous years for the Big bands. Those were optimistic days when with the coming of independence, most people looked forward to better lives and a brighter future for their country.
ET Mensah, King of Highlife
ET Mensah and his Tempos band, Ramblers, Broadway and Uhuru Bands held sway at high society dances. They played Jazz standards by Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Cole Porter and other leading lights of American Jazz, with a local twist – Highlife! This fad became more pronounced from the late 1950s. On record, the Jazz elements were toned down in order to produce Highlife hits for the home market. At the high society dance, however, the musicians were in their element, dressed in impeccable American tailored tuxedos, imitating their Jazz heroes, their mannerisms, modes of presentation, stage etiquette and of course the music.
Highlife and all that Jazz
The Big Bands rebranded Highlife with Jazz. Formally educated musicians were pivotal to this transformation – ET Mensah, Jerry Hanson, Stan Plange, George Lee, Joe Mensah, Eddie Quansah, King Bruce and Ebo Taylor. ET Mensah was a pharmacist by profession. He later became a sanitation and health officer. Ebo Taylor led the Broadway Band after studying music in the UK. Jerry Hanson was an optical mechanic. The rest were also graduates or trade professionals of sorts.
Highlife Big bands and Guitar Bands
Guitar bands continued to be hugely popular with the masses but nationally, the Big Bands took centre stage. They played at official events and social occasions. Significantly, their leaders became cultural ambassadors of the new nationalist government and frequently travelled with President Nkrumah on his African tours. Big Band Highlife was also the first to be made popular outside Ghana and internationally. ET Mensah successfully toured Nigeria during the 1950s and made a huge impact on most of the countries on the Atlantic coastline. Consequently, some foreign media reports have wrongly attributed Highlife’s invention to him or other Big Band leaders.
“Can you read music?”
The ability to read music became an important requirement for Big Band membership during its heydays. CK Mann is one of Highlife’s greatest icons. However, he was neither formally educated nor could read musical notes. He explained to me he had to rehearse the Jazz standards by playing the records repetitively on turntables or tune into Jazz programmes on Voice of America, BBC or Radio Ghana.
Generally, Big Band’s formalistic approach to Jazz tended to downgrade the instinctive approaches to music-making and improvisation which informed Guitar Band music and incidentally Jazz, to a great extent. Jazz was predominantly, aurally learnt as learning by ear was always the primary method.
It may be worth noting that John Coltrane, West Montgomery, Buddy Rich and other Jazz greats did not read or write music. This extends into the later years of Jazz with guitarists like George Benson. The most famous artist in Soul and RnB that could not read or write music is possibly Michael Jackson.
Highlife and All That Jazz
Guy Warren AKA Kofi Ghanaba was the most well known and accomplished Jazz devotee to emerge from the Ghana Highlife scene. His musical journey, partly told in his autobiography, “I Have a Story to Tell” is one of the most fascinating in music history.
Guy Warren studied music theory at Achimota College in Accra but dropped out of formal education. He arrived in New York in 1943, possibly as a seaman via South America and worked with Jazz trombonist Miff Mole in Greenwich Village. He returned to Accra soon afterwards and formed a quartet that included the saxophonist, Joe Kelly, playing for allied servicemen. After World War II, he formed the original Tempos Band with Kelly, joined subsequently by the trumpeter ET Mensah, who re-formed the band under his own name.
In 1950, Guy Warren joined Von Cofie and Eddie Yeboah, pianist and guitarist in London and played the bongos alongside Kenny Graham, a saxophonist inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s experiments with Afro-Cuban rhythms. He also broadcast a London jazz scene series for BBC radio’s Calling West Africa.
Guy Warren returned to the US in 1954 and met Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and Billy Strayhorn. He also introduced “talking drums”, playing them with the saxophonist Lester Young. In 1955, Charlie Parker had invited him to play his ‘talking drum’ at an all-star New York Concert but that never happened. Parker died within a month.
With the pianist Gene Esposito and drummer Red Saunders, he recorded the legendary 1956 album, Africa Speaks, America Answers, spent two weeks as the Duke Ellington band’s featured percussionist before moving to New York. There, in 1958, he took a trio into the African Room nightclub, cementing his reputation in the US.
From 1959 until the late 1970s, he performed as Guy Warren of Ghana. He then changed his name to Kofi Ghanaba and returned to playing traditional African drums, especially Fontomfrom.
ET Mensah – King of Highlife
Amongst the Ghanain Big Bands contesting to capture the excitement of the original Highlife sound on western instruments, ET Mensah and his Tempos Band were miles ahead. Crowned as the ‘King of Highlife’ he was possibly the most adept and successful. ET appeared to have his feet in both social camps, the grassroots music scene in Accra to which he had a strong affinity and Ghanaian elite high society that thoroughly adored him. Hailed as the king of the ballroom sound, he was also praised for “taking Highlife out of the ballroom”. One of the most defining moments for him as King of Highlife was the visit of American Jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong in 1956.
Highlife to West Africa and then the world
ET Mensah did more than any of his contemporaries to popularise Highlife outside Ghana. His visit to Nigeria in 1953 was sensational by most accounts as Nigerian radio stations and bands played nothing but his records to satisfy the public’s appetite for the new Highlife sound. Bobby Benson, whose Jam Session Orchestra typically specialized in Jazz, Blues, Calypso and Mamba was the first Nigerian bandleader to emulate ET Mensah.
Nigeria’s first highlife superstar was Victor Olaiya. By the late 1950s, he was filling his entire sets with songs by ET Mensah, as well as Black Beats, the Red Spots, the Rhythm Aces and the other new Big Bands that had sprouted in the wake of the ET Mensah phenomenon.
In western Nigeria, as a result of ET Mensah’s visit, other Ghanaian bands such as Teddy Osei’s Star Gazers, and Eddie Quansah followed making Highlife a popular feature of Nigeria’s music and entertainment scene. ET Mensah’s West African tour also took in Dahomey, Liberia, and Sierra Leone where the reception was equally impressive.
Fela Kuti invented Afro Beat in Accra
During the late 1950s and 60s, Ghanaian Highlife musicians made a significant contribution to Fela Kuti’s invention of Afro Beat in Accra. That was when Fela transformed Kola Lobitos into Africa 70 in Accra, Ghana Africa 70 Band became Fela’s vehicle for Afro Beat, his powerful fusion of Highlife, Jazz and funk rhythms.
CK Mann’s fusion of Jazz and Guitar Band music
Lord Kitchener and the Caribbean Diaspora connection
One of the most popular songs that paid tribute to Ghana’s independence was ‘Birth of Ghana’ by Lord Kitchener, the renowned Calypsonian from Trinidad. He reconnected the history of Ghana to the Caribbean and the Americas at a symbolic moment in history. The song did very well in Ghana possibly because the rhythmic structure of Calypso was similar to Highlife. Significantly, it drew attention to similar musical developments in the Caribbean, albeit under a different socio-historical context.
Post slavery prohibitions on cultural expression
Forbidden to speak and sing in their own mother tongues, enslaved Africans, replicated rhythms and melodies of their African past on banjos, congas and improvised instruments. The celebrated ‘Congo’ square in enslaved communities was a unique venue where drumming and dancing to entertain was allowed. This explains Highlife’s affinity with Caribbean and African American musical forms that thrived, in spite of the prohibitions on African cultural expression.
End of the highlife Big Band era. Small is funky
During the 1970s, the Highlife Big Bands got smaller and smaller and looked more like British Pop bands. It was claimed the big bands had become too expensive to maintain or to hire – a possible consequence of the 1970s economic downturn. Smaller sized bands emerged, some sponsored by state corporations and hotels. These included Sweet Beans, fronted by Pat Thomas, Super Complex by Ambulley, and Sweet Talks by AB Crenstsil and Smart Nkansah. Uppers International introduced Christie Azumah, their exciting singer. The Ghana Armed Forces, the Navy and Police also recruited some of the best musicians but kept to the Big Band format.
The Pop groups dispensed horn sections and specialised in copyright Soul music, specially packaged for younger audiences. Those were swinging days of Afternoon jumps and bell-bottoms, hipsters, mini Skirts and Afros when groups like El Polos, led by the Todd brothers, PP Dynamite, and Elvis J Brown dominated the local music scene. Classic Handles with Kojo Antwi as a lead vocalist were also popular with their brand of localised Pop Reggae. Some of the bands started as student bands and played “Afternoon Jumps’ at clubs like Wato, Tip Toe, Silver Cup, Prison’s Canteen and EL Paso in Accra. Groups like Magik Aliens, Bisa Goma, led by Lee Doodoo, Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats from Sierra Leone and Paps Toure from the Gambia also made an impression on the scene.
Highlife legend King Bruce managed a group of “B” bands, led by Barbecues with Tommy Darling on lead vocals. The Majik Aliens played their own compositions, as well as stirring versions of Progressive Psychedelic Rock by Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
Soul to Soul Concert
The 1970s kicked off with a tremendous bang at the Soul to Soul concert at Accra’s Independence Square. There were great performances by Ike and Tina Turner, Santana, Roberta Flack, Wilson Pickett, Les McCann and Haris, Voice of East Harlem and a host of Ghanaian stars; Kofi Ghanaba, Damas Choir, Magic Aliens and others.
One of the most exciting musical sensations during the 1970s was Wulomei! They took Ghana by storm with their unique blend of Ga rhythms and acoustic guitars, fronted by female singers. They made a strong impact on audiences, transporting them, as it were to the rootsy early days of Ga Guitar music. When they appeared on the Mike Eghan’s Show in 1975, the ace broadcaster could not hold his excitement. “I sat spellbound throughout the show as Wulomei sang and danced to their popular hits. Nii Ashitey, the leader rattled the drums like a man possessed, conducting the band at the same time. In his inimitable way, Big Boy sat on his traditional bass drum and made it talk beautifully, his heavy frame shaking as he played, his face contorted with intense passion and joy. Naa Amanua was lead singer, an elegant diva with an imposing stage presence and an equally compelling voice to match”
On the British and European music circuit, the most sensational development was the rise of London based Osibisa, led by Teddy Osei and two other founding members from Ghana’s Highlife Scene. Mac Tontoh and Sol Amarfio, all from the Star Gazers Band. Apart from British chart success, Osibisa made a notable impact on British Rock as part of a dynamic movement of London based African musicians from the 1960s and 70s.
1980s Burger Highlife
The 1980s belonged to Burger Highlife, invented by Ghanaian bands in Germany fronted by George Darko Lee Doodoo and other stars from the Pop Groups era in Ghana. Those were the days of Disco when John Travolta and Bee Gees and funky Jazz men like George Benson and Grover Washington ruled. “Ako Te Brofo” by George Darko came to symbolise the new genre – a Highlife disco track with catchy lyrics sang in Twi, and bolted down by George Benson – like guitar solos.
Highlife’s impact on Reggae
Another significant but not well documented is Highlife’s impact on the evolution of Reggae. African People, a band led by Emmanuel Rentzos band, a Ghanaian Highlife musician backed Johnny Nash and is personally credited with “A Look in your Eyes” one of the hits of the Reggae icon (1974) At one point, Johhny Nash’s band also included other Highlife musicians like Willie Cheetham, trumpeter, Eddie Quansah, as well as saxophonists George Lee and Peter Vanderpuije. Willie Cheetham was a member of the Black Beats, Brigade Band, Ramblers and Uhuru before he left for England in 1964.
George Lee, another significant Highlifer also made a big impression on the international scene. He was in Johnny Nash’s band and also played sessions with Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley. The important shift of Highlife’s ever-revolving creative axis to London, Abidjan and the US will be elaborated in my next edited version of this document.
Hiplife emerged during the 1990s, a fusion of Highlife and American Hip Hop beat making invented by Reggie Rockstone, Panji Anof and others from the London and New York Rap music scenes. Hiplife kept the essential elements of Highlife and the proverbial speech-making that soon commanded the airwaves – From Twi raps over Highlife songs by Lord Kenya, Tic Tac, and Obour and Rockstone rapping over Hip Hop beats. One sensational newcomer was Terry Bonchaka who tragically, died in a road accident.
At Hush-hush studios, producer Edward Poku Osei, AKA ‘Hammer of the Last Two, introduced a new crop of Hiplifers to the scene; Tinny, Sarkodie, Obrafour, Kwaw Kesse and Dezmond Tutu, Edem and others.
Several new musicians are now carrying the torch for Highlife. The notable singers include; Kwabena Kwabena, Fameye, Kinnata, Bisa Kedei, King Promise, Kwesi P and others, redefining Highlife, in line with the latest trends and tastes. This will be elaborated in my next edited version of this document.
What does Highlife mean to you?
Highlife is the megaphone of Ghana’s history. The record keeps playing.