Book Review: Highlife Music – Remembering the good ‘old days’ and present mutations
Highlife has become, for those beyond half-a-century old, the music of nostalgia. Its peaked lyrical powers of the 1960s and 70s have turned into historical memories. With the transition from the Gold Coast to Ghana in 1957, pride and the creative arts – more particularly music – became the frame-work of so much Pan-African thought, especially in Anglophone Ghana and Nigeria. The same attended the compositions of Francophone music from Benin to Senegal and the small island nations across the Indian Ocean. One of the elements of colonialism’s overcome was for sure, the musicality of its outlook.
The maleficence of the political class, social malaise of bad marriage, uncertainties of sojourners, proverbial realities of livelihoods – Who Knows Tomorrow, Life is What you Make of it, fate and the many mysterious ways of God engaged the minds of deceased composers. But these social incidents in different, changing scenes, have new interpretations in the compositions of new Highlife into the third decade of the century. It had done tremendous journey from its palm-wine leisure drinking roots (the so-called Palm Wine guitar) of folkloric immemorial.
And much of this is known through the publication of the third edition of Highlife Time 3 written by the music historian and, for years, professor at the University of Ghana, John Collins. The first two editions of the book were published by Anansesem Publications. Founded by Dr. Charles Wereko-Brobby, this publishing house from the late 1990s did so much good with Around Ghana magazine. It documented the tourism economy and leisure as well as biographical accounts of individuals that included ET Mensah’s.
This third edition of 64 chapters under broad-based sections of 632 pages, on occasions a mix of history of music other than strictly Highlife, is a collaboration with a new publication company –DAkapabi & Associates founded by two Ghanaian writers. It takes us to the evolution of this brand of music and its avant- garde composers.
It is most interesting that the prologue to this edition is the present looking into the past and that Ebony (Priscilla Opoku Kwarteng), who passed on a couple of months ago, is discussed as are Shatta Wale, Okyeame Kwame and others before their occupation’s history begins.
Collins reminds us of his own changed thoughts. Between the second edition in 1996 and the third of 2018 he writes:
… a lot of young artists were influenced by electronic disco and hip-hop were no longer performing live on stage with bands….in this third edition, I mention a return to live musical performance by hiplife artists that began from around the year 2000 with free-styling GH rappers and artists like Sidney, Obour, Okyeame Kwame and many others. Live shows are now common, whether performed on stage by hiplifers, or by newer generation of contemporary highlifers, rap poets, dancehall musicians, and also by Afro pop divas, many of whom have been trained in church choirs.
With this proviso starts the historical re-count in ten chapters of guitar band and concert parties, the well-known tune story of Yaa Amponsah from which the fundamental base was established through some of the early masters such as E.K. Nyame, Kobina Okai and Nana Ampadu.
The second section of another ten chapters focuses very much on the 1960s and 70s of ET Mensah the King of Dance-Band Life, The Tempos and travels in West Africa, not to forget King Bruce and The Black Beats and Saka Acquaye to the Republic of Benin where the music of Ignace De Souza is remembered for its French influence.
The third section – Interaction Between Highlife and New Traditional Music – looks at Twi, Ewe and Ga lyrics of the time with the fourth section Back to Roots devoted to the music of Koo Nimo, Kofi Ghanaba, Kwesi Asare, Jerry Hansen, Joe Eyison, Joe Mensah to Gyedu Blay-Ambolley and the Wilomei and the Ga Cultural Group of Explosion.
Section Five Outside Influences from the 1950s features Louis Armstrong in Ghana, pop music and impact as well as soul-to-soul to Afro-music and of Reggae and Afro-Reggae. A whole chapter is devoted to contribution to Highlife but under the inexactitude, The Gospel Explosion and Women on Stage. Today, few of these women including the octogenarian resident of Kumasi, Ama Bonsu (the nobility of her beauty and the evocation of that string of lyrical romance, of the song-track - alomuo se woye swinging safari by The Ramblers Dance Band) are alive.
Section Eight includes Nigeria’s Juju Music, Fela’s Afrobeat and other Nigerian Popular Music Styles with other chapters looking at music of Sierra Leone, pop music profiles of Liberia and Francophone West Africa.
The usefulness of this book lies in its third attempt to deepen the history of Highlife across West Africa and so, apart from its evolution and biographies of some of the composers, there are also some significant producers and investors including the Lebanese Faisal Helwani, who is singularly (not in the book though) credited with making a street beggar with musical talents – Onipa Nua –an international star.
In doing this and because he also knows so much of his subject and worked with some as biographer (Fela and E.T. Mensah among them, or playing the harmonica, curating for the BBC the series – In the African Groove or as the British colonial officer dramatist in Fela Kuti’s film The Black President), Collins becomes ‘too much’; for an uneven historical development narrative of West African musicology; and from one whose British father did so much for historiography in post-independent Ghana at Legon, hence preservation is inborn.
Collins’ discussion getting to the end of the book touches on computerized Highlife, Highlife Imagination and MUSIGA’s role in the creative industry. The first connects to the digital age we live in and how ICT has changed everything including artificial intelligence (not his description) on music production. Not long ago, the BBC World Service did a radio documentary on the best-record of all times in Africa – Sweet Mother from Nigeria. The over hundred million copies sold (not to add the pirated version) saw the travel musical fill stadiums with capacities of 60,000 to 100,000 across the continent in what is described as the most successful musical label ever of its time. But that was pre-digital.
MUSIGA’s role which concerns Collins is how live music is sustained in digital time. In my view, MUSIGA should look into sustainability. They should look into the infrastructure development in the regions and some of the semi-completed building projects it embarked on years ago which are under suspension as litigation, small inconsequential quarrels and, in some cases, extractive fame hold their time. For as today’s ‘youth,’ they will get old tomorrow as one of their kindred says in a song of a toad (not in a sexist contest in this) grows to become a frog.
This human bearing is what has produced history – Anansesem Publications Limited of Dr Charles Wereko-Brobby who is receding in active public service and the transfers of co-publishing rights of records to a new generation – DAkpabli and Associates.
Title: Highlife Time 3
Author: Professor John Collins
Year of Publication: 2018
Number of pages: 632
Publisher: DAkpabli & Associates