The 9 most important things to know about Ghana highlife music
Afropop Season X ’s fourth episode, Ten Days in Africa, offers an insightful and humorous look at filmmaker Regi Allen’s journey to West Africa. Allen, an Emmy Award-winning African-American producer, editor, and media design artist, travels with a group of African-American companions all seeking to learn more about the African continent. In this film, Allen records the group’s movements between the countries of Ghana, Senegal, and Cote d’Ivoire, and shares their cultural exchange experience. One way to draw comparisons between African and African-American culture is to consider pop culture trends across these different societies. The evolution of art, music, literature, and media has always offered one of the clearest views into the changing shape and tone of a country. For instance, jazz emerged in the United States parallel to Ghana highlife music in West Africa. Highlife started in Ghana in the early twentieth century and remains vital to the African music scene today. Before watching Regi Allen’s Ten Days in Africa, check out these nine important facts about the history of Ghana highlife music:
1. Descendant of traditional Akan music
The Akan culture is the predominant ethnic and linguistic group in Ghana, and the influences of this cultural identity and its traditional music styles serve as the backbone of highlife music. Though contemporary highlife has evolved with the trends and technology of today’s Ghanaian pop culture, it retains the melodies and rhythmic structures of traditional Akan music, cementing its importance within the history and indigenous culture of the country.
2. Use of Western instruments
Part of what makes highlife a unique musical genre is its method of melding traditional and contemporary sounds from all corners of Africa and the world. When highlife began to gain momentum in the early 1900s, it was known for incorporating foreign guitar techniques, creating layers of sound and cultural fusion on top of existing brass-band and percussion traditions.
3. Living the highlife
When it first emerged in colonial Africa, highlife music was distinctly associated with Ghana’s aristocracy, because it was performed primarily at exclusive clubs along Ghana’s coast. Most Ghanaians did not have the wealth or social status to enter these concert venues, so the music earned it the name “highlife.”
4. Guitar bands …
Highlife gained the most mainstream popularity in Ghana after World War II, splitting into two major styles and scenes: guitar band and dance band. Guitar band highlife music was most widespread in rural parts of the country. Because traditional music in these regions had a longer-standing history of incorporating stringed instruments, musicians readily accepted and incorporated the guitar into their composition. E.K. Nyame and the Akan Trio became the figureheads of the guitar band highlife style, and Nyame would ultimately release over 400 records.
5. … or dance bands?
In contrast to guitar band highlife, dance band highlife took Ghana’s urban areas by storm. As foreign troops left Ghana in the post-war period, large orchestras were quickly replaced by professional dance bands, and highlife began catering directly to its Ghanaian audience. These dance bands are best represented by E.T. Mensah and the Tempos – after performing in Accra with Louis Armstrong in 1956, Mensah was known as the “King of Highlife.” Mensah’s version of dance band highlife was known and loved for including influences from swing, calypso, and Afro-Cuban music.
6. 1970s roots revival
Following Ghana’s independence in 1956, and the fall of President Kwame Nkrumah 10 years later, Ghanaian highlife music took a backseat to electric guitar bands and pop music, which filtered into the country from Europe and America. This lull in the highlife tradition came to an end with the 1971 Soul to Soul music festival in Accra, in which both popular African and American musicians of color (including Wilson Pickett, Ike, Tina Turner, and Carlos Santana) performed together. This event brought energy back the musical scene in Ghana, leading to the creation of new guitar bands like Nana Ampadu and the African Brothers. During this time, Ghanaian youths led a renewed effort to support more traditional forms of music and stage a cultural revival.
7. Highlife in Nigeria
Following the highlife roots revival, the genre made a noticeable impact on the Nigerian music scene. This movement was helped along by the popularity of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti, who enjoyed international success between Nigeria, Britain, and the United States through the 1990s. Fela Kuti is known for deriving the Afrobeat genre from the influences of highlife, Juju music, funk, and jazz, and was respected for both his musical talent and his political activism.
When British immigration laws changed in the 1970s, the bulk of Ghanaian emigration redirected towards Germany. Ghanaian immigrants brought highlife music with them, leading to a new form of the genre that included both African and German styles. Burger-highlife, as it became known, gained a huge following back in Ghana as well, especially once it added computer-generated beats. George Darko is considered one of the founding musicians of early burger-highlife trends.
9. The birth of hiplife
Hiplife refers to the most recent product of the highlife genre, Taking elements from American hip-hop music, hiplife still uses Ghanaian languages and is backed by traditional highlife styles. Reggie Rockstone, a UK-born Ghanaian rapper, is known as the pioneer or the “grandfather” of the hiplife movement and has enjoyed success as a musician in Ghana since the 1990s.
Learning about Ghana highlife music and other African pop culture traditions is a fascinating way to compare and contrast the richness of musical culture around the world. For more thoughts on Ghanaian and West African culture from the perspective of Regi Allen and friends, watch Ten Days in Africa now.