Highlife: The dynamism of Ghana’s music legacy

Reinvention is the hallmark of Highlife music and probably the reason for its ongoing endurance even in the face of shifting musical tastes in Ghana. 

Abena Serwaa charts the genre’s history almost a century on through the eyes of one platform looking to preserve and promote this iconic sound. 

Live performances from some of today’s contemporary musicians are testament to the power that Highlife music still has to innovate despite being almost a century old. 

Image credit BiQo of LaLa Sessions

Kyekyeku and the Super Opong Stars and BiQo and Nee Mantse of LaLa Sessions, are among the musicians that have succeeded in capturing the essence of Ghana’s vintage sound while still infusing their own contemporary style into it. And this ability to reinvent is why vestiges of Highlife are still present in today’s popular African music. 

Inspired by the richness of Ghana’s musical heritage, three Highlife music lovers established the HighLife Music Deconstructed (HMD) Series – a platform designed to amplify the global contributions of African music starting with Highlife.  

Since September 2020, co-hosts Bernard Johnson-Tackie and Abena Serwaa, and technical producer Patrick Ofosu, have created an interactive livestream series. The show discusses Highlife’s musical evolution; highlights the impact social and political change has had on the genre, and what influence Highlife has globally. 

Outside influences 

Highlife music emerged out of Adowa, Kpanlogo and other indigenous Ghanaian rhythms in the early 19th century. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the guitar, and external influences such as American Jazz, that the music evolved into the Highlife that we know today. 

“Kru merchants from Sierra Leone and seamen from Liberia and the Caribbean were the first to probably bring the guitar to major ports in present-day Ghana, and this was a game changer for many indigenous musicians,” says HMD co-host and vinyl record collector DJ Bernard. 

“Although stringed instruments have always been part of indigenous melodies in Ghana, these instruments did not include a fret – a feature that allowed musicians to be more experimental with the sound,” he says. 

The female muse 

Guitarists soon became a staple in bars where palmwine was the tipple. And as a result, the rhythms became known as Palmwine music. And with it, the cornerstone of the Highlife sound – the iconic Yaa Amponsah riff – was born.  

The Yaa Amponsah is a sequence of finger-style guitar picking notes created as an ode to Yaa Amponsah – a married woman of unmatched beauty (so the story goes) that the unknown originator of the riff fell in love with.  

Jacob Sam (Kwame Asare) and the Kumasi Trio became the first to record this guitar-band classic in 1928. The vinyl record featured on the Zonophone label on London’s Kingsway Hall EZ Series, propelling Jacob Sam and the Kumasi Trio band to new heights. 

Image credit: Josie Ngminvielu

Ghana’s golden age 

Highlife continued to evolve, influenced by American Jazz in the 1950s, and the orchestral-style Big Band music that featured brass band sounds. They were a hit with the Gold Coast elite who clamoured to hear the likes of the Excelsior Orchestra, the Jazz Kings and the Cape Coast Sugar Babies that played at venues across the country. But only those meeting the formal dress code of a top hat and tails for men and ballgowns for women, were allowed entry. This earned the music its iconic ‘Highlife’ title. 

The period between Ghana becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to secure independence from colonial rule in 1957 through to the 1970s, is fondly regarded as the Golden Age of Highlife. 

“Leaders like Ghana’s first president Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah would travel on foreign trips with bands like E.T Mensah and The Tempos, who would compose music specifically for the occasion,” says Bernard. “Music and politics became intertwined and was used as political leverage to create a restored sense of pride about one’s culture, traditions, and African liberation.” 

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong famously visited the country a year before independence and with the rise of Black Consciousness in the 60s, the country became a magnet for the likes of civil rights activist Malcolm X, writers Maya Angelou, and W.E.B du Bois. Ike and Tina Turner were among many musicians who performed at the 1971 Soul to Soul concert in Accra, and these external influences shaped Highlife once again.  

This Golden Age of Highlife was also a time when female voices also flourished with names such as Christy Azumah, Doris Brobbey, Julie Okine – a trumpeter for E.T. Mensah and The Tempos – and Mum Bea, also known as the Golden Voice of Mother Africa.  

Funk, soul and more 

Musicians in Ghana such as the award-winning Ebo Taylor and the Uhuru Dance Band experimented with US Funk, Soul, R&B and continued to draw on their indigenous rhythms to develop unique sounds. Thanks to E.K Nyame, the electric guitar became a fixture in Highlife music as did the keyboard, courtesy of Dr K Gyasi. He is also credited with introducing Sikyi Highlife – another form of Highlife designed to keep partygoers on the dancefloor for longer by seamlessly knitting multiple songs together. And in 1973, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley’s seminal Simigwa-Do album was released. This fusion of Highlife and Funk featured the Simi rap, which is considered to be the first rap in the world to be released. 

Migration and music 

Highlife music was also the training ground for artists like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti who went on to pioneer Afrobeat. But the true test for Highlife’s endurance came during the 80s when a military coup in Ghana put an end to live performances. Twelve-hour long daily curfews obliterated Ghana’s night life as did the exorbitant import taxes, which made buying basic provisions – never mind musical instruments – prohibitive. As a result, musicians still dedicated to the craft, left for Nigeria, the USA, Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany.  

Highlife greats including Pat Thomas and Nana Acheampong became the pioneers of a new more electronic Borga Highlife sound that evolved out of Germany. The sound drew influence from House, Techno, Boogie and Disco, Ghana’s Highlife sound, and the technical skills of engineers such as Bodo Staiger and Ullie Weigel.  

Reinvention 

This spirit of reinvention continues to this day. And in spite of Afrobeats’ global appeal and advances in music production that have pushed live music performances to the fringes, Highlife still has its niche. 

Names such as Santrofi and Pat Thomas and the Kwashibu Area Band, are testament to Highlife’s enduring and global appeal. 

Image credit: Nii Mantse of Lala Sessions and plays for the Kwashibu Area Band

“Almost a century on since the Yaa Amponsah riff was first created, we are seeing a younger generation of Ghanaians like Kyekeyeku – classically trained by Palmwine guitar maestro Agya Koo Nimo – and Lala Session, breathe new life and a contemporary take on these classics,” says Bernard. “And this is reflective of Highlife’s ability to reinvent. We aim to showcase this talent through our platform in the hope that others will be inspired to keep the art of live indigenous music alive.” 

Watch Season 1’s five-part series below to learn more about Highlife and see exclusive performances.  

Episode 1 

#HMDSeries Episode I| 1920s to mid-1950s|HighLife Music Deconstructed|(timestamps) – YouTube 

Episode 2 

#HMDSeries Episode II| 1940s to 1960s|HighLife Music Deconstructed|(timestamps) – YouTube 

Episode 3 

#HMDSeries Episode III| late 60s-1980s| Highlife Music Deconstructed| – YouTube 

Episode 4 

Episode 4 (early 1980s – mid 90s) – Borga Highlife | HighLife Music Deconstructed (#HMDSeries) – YouTube 

Episode 5 

#HMDSeries Episode IV| late early 1980s – mid 1990s|HighLife Music Deconstructed| – YouTube 

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