Picture, for a moment: The port city of Accra, Ghana, in the mid-1960’s. Formerly the Gold Coast, Ghana is the first black African country to become independent from colonial rule. People all across the region rally around new president Kwame N’Krumah and dance to a wildly popular form of popular music rich with polyrhythm, horn parts, vocal harmonies, and pulsating guitar riffs. This music, called Highlife, is the result of centuries of transatlantic cultural proliferation and took the region by storm in the latter half of the 20th century as a rallying call for African independence and unity.
West Africa, with its miles of coastline and relative proximity to European trade routes to the North, has long been a region dominated by transcontinental trade. With this comes a history of musical exchange.
Beginning in the 15th century, slaves taken from the shores of Africa and taken across the Atlantic, brought music with them. This rhythmically complex music fused with European-influenced music across the American continent. What we think of today as the blues, various genres of Latin music, and even jazz, rock and roll, and nearly every iteration of western popular music, find roots in the proliferation of African music brought about by the transatlantic slave trade.
This cultural exchange had an equally profound effect on the music of the African continent. Merchants and sailors introduced European instruments such as guitars, brass instruments, accordions, and banjos. Colonial governments stationed in West Africa established military brass bands. White missionaries brought piano music and hymns. Seamen played their music in sea-shanties. Inevitably, these imported styles influenced the traditional music of the region – rich with polyrhythmic drumming, dancing, audience participation, and call-and-response singing.
This kind of musical exchange continued across the Atlantic through the 20th century. By the 1930’s, brass bands, guitar bands, and dance orchestras performed all across the Gold Coast, often in the form of traveling vaudeville-style concert parties. These performances fused local, traditional music with popular western genres including ragtime, light classical pieces, banjo songs, spirituals, Calypsos, and ballroom dances. They performed for the wealthy and the poor and effectively Africanized a supposedly “high-class,” Western art form.
The WWII era brought radio stations and a recording industry to Ghana. The popularity of swing music initiated a decrease in the size of bands and influenced the music as well. The most important band in this era was E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. Now called Highlife, the music brought more influences from abroad, including Afro-Caribbean and Calypso styles. By the 1950’s, E.T. Mensah and the Tempos were the most popular dance band in Ghana.
Listen: “All For You” by E.T. Mensah and the Tempos.
Highlife helped spread ideas of national trans-ethnic unity through explicit pro-independence lyrical content sung in a mixture of different African ethnic languages, as well as English. This differs from traditional Ghanaian music, which varies by region and features ancient lyrical content. Highlife played a big role after World War II in socializing the Ghanaian public in preparation for independence, urbanization, and the forging of a national unity.
As the push for independence grew after WWII, many Highlife bands began rallying behind Kwame N’Krumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP). Highlife was the perfect sonic metaphor to uphold the ideals of independence – that a system of rule inherited from western Europe was to be Africanized. Furthermore, many of the people listening to, and playing, Highlife were of the same Ghanaian middle class from which N’Krumah drew much of his support.
In the 1960’s, the Highlife band scene changed considerably, stemming from the influx of a new generation of popular music from overseas and the electrification of the guitar and various organs and keyboards. Bands flourished and blended influences including soul music, psychedelic rock, Latin-American music, and new styles from other parts of Africa.
Listen: “Ama Ghana” by Opambuo International Band of Ghana
Listen: “Kyenkyen Bi Adi Mawu” by Alhaji K Frimpong
The period from the 1960’s to the late 1970’s was the high point of the Ghanaian music scene, characterized by the wide diversity of musical genre, “black consciousness” ideals, artistic experimentation, and a proliferation of live music clubs, concert parties, recording studios, record pressing plants, and radio stations.
Sadly, the collapse of the Ghanaian economy in the late 1970’s led to a rapid decline in the music scene that continued throughout the ’80’s. Synthesizers replaced horn sections, and by the 1990’s Hiplife (the Ghanaian interpretation of Hip-Hop) became popular.
Highlife is now remembered fondly in Ghana as the country’s classic popular music. While it does not subvert the dominance of traditional music in daily life, Highlife still thrives within the vibrant cultural fabric of Ghana and can still be heard live and on the radio across the country.