One cannot imagine Ghana without music. You may also notice (if you haven’t already) that Ghanaians like their music loud. Music can be heard almost anywhere at any time in Accra, and even though there are many genres present in everyday life, highlife music in Ghana is definitely the soundtrack of the country.
Highlife music is a particular music genre which has been very influential and which remains as strong as ever despite having gone through many changes. If you want to learn about the history of highlife music in Ghana, keep on reading!
What is highlife music?
Highlife is a music genre that originated in present-day Ghana early in the 20th century, played on instruments from Europe and the United States. It borrows from the melodic and main rhythmic structures of traditional Akan and Kpanlogo musical traditions of Ghana and Nigeria.
It incorporates other genres such as jazz, rock, hip-hop and Afrobeat. More recently, it has picked up an up-tempo, synth-driven sound.
The origins of Highlife Music
We can trace its origins back to the late 19th century with its roots in the original Ghanaian palm-wine music. Palm wine music (which reminds us of the palm wine drink), featured more traditional and indigenous instruments played by musicians in the rural parts of Ghana.
Highlife as is known today, transformed in the early 20th century during World War 1.
Ghanaian soldiers returning from WW1 would bring with them a unique dance inducing Highlife type influenced by musical elements of Europe and the Caribbean where they had fought.
It is also important to highlight its trace to the “Gold Coast” times, particularly during the War of the Golden Stool where the Ashanti people expressed themselves through songs – they fought for freedom and this shared objective gave rise to musical union using traditional African instruments such as the seperewa harp-lute and the gankogul bell, combined with European harmonies and guitars.
During the Gold Coast time, the upper class (local aristocracy, politicians, top civil servants, wealthy businessmen, and other citizens with social standing), would spend their weekends at expensive nightclubs – living the “highlife”. Most Ghanaians did not have the wealth or social status to enter these concert venues, so the music earned it the name “highlife.”
Highlife music after World War II
In the years following WW2 (around the 1950s) the music genre saw another major transformation that divided the genre into two major distinct groups—guitar band highlife (more popular in rural areas of West African countries, emphasize guitar and other string instruments), and dance band highlife (more popular in urban areas, combining West African Traditional music with calypso, swing, and Afro-Cuban dance music imported from North America and the Caribbean).
Between the 1960s and 70s, highlife flourished. After attaining undefended in 1957 from the British colonies, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah advocated African music and transformed it into a cultural symbol and a tool of political propaganda.
In the 1970s, Highlife suffered a heavy decline in popularity when Western pop music began to take dominance. The spectacular popularity of other musical genres, like gospel highlife and hiplife – a fusion of highlife music and hip hop – transforms the cultural scene at the turn of the 21st century.
Ghanaians who migrated to Europe during the 1980s also played a role in the transformation, creating what was popularly known as “borga” music which was a take on the German city, Hamburg.
Ghanaians also coined the term to refer to someone who has traveled abroad, dresses, or “speaks” as someone who lives abroad. This new highlife sound had funk and disco due to the advanced production with synthesized elements.
And then, hiplife came to life
As Highlife reached various corners of the world, it was also given a twist, giving life to Hiplife – computer-generated music. It is a genre that drew particular attention to the younger generation because it incorporated hip-hop beats and rap with the classic highlife rhythm. An emerging new party scene filled the clubs and bars, influencing the fashion and lingo.
Notable Highlife Artists
E.T. Mensah (1919–1996), is regarded as the ‘King Highlife’ as it is believed that he popularized the genre in the 1950s and 60s. His hit songs ‘All For You’ and ‘Ghana Freedom’ are still very popular songs.
(1927–1977): Along with his Akan Trio, Mensah tapped into longstanding string music traditions in rural West Africa and went on to cut over 400 highlife recordings.
Fela Kuti (1938–1997), was a Nigerian highlife artist who helped create the Afrobeat genre by combining highlife with jazz, funk, and Nigerian jùjú music.
Awurama Badu (1945-2017), was the first ever female to gain mainstream success as a highlife artist. Having started as a singer with the Ghana Police Band, she managed to establish herself in a male-dominated music scene. Check out some of her songs: Medico Adaada Me, Konkom or Odo Tie.
Benson (1922–1983), was born in Nigeria but spent several years in Europe during World War II. Benson’s “Niger Mambo” caught the ear of New York-based jazz pianist Randy Weston, who included it on his 1963 record appropriately titled Highlife.
Regarded by many as one of Ghana’s greatest musicians ever, Nada Ampadu (1945-2021), was crowned as “Singing Chief” in the early 90s after winning a nationwide competition. He has many hit songs including Ebi Te Yie, Agartha, and Drivers.
George Darko (1951-76 years currently), started the burger highlife movement with his Ako Te Brofo hit in 1980.
(1936 – 86 years currently): one of the highlife musicians who marked Ghana music globally in the 1960s. He had a collaboration with Flea Kuti in 1962. In 2009, Usher used a sample from his song Heaven, for his “She don’t know” track.