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Ghana — Highlife in Low Times

Can the joyous sounds of Ghana’s highlife music break free from the shackles of the county’s turbulent politics?

April 10, 2004

Can the joyous sounds of Ghana's highlife music break free from the shackles of the county's turbulent politics?

Imagine a thriving musical genre, such as jazz in the United States in the 1950s, or reggae in Jamaica in the 1970s.

In addition to visionary musicians — such as Miles Davis or Bob Marley — the elements that were required for these genres to grow and prosper included robust live music venues and numerous recording studios where artists could create records.

Such factors not only feed the art of music, but its commercial viability as well. Highlife music in Ghana has been an equally influential style of music.

The music has its roots in the late 19th century. But it took its name in the 1920s, when acoustic “palm wine” guitar music collided in urban centers with classic dance orchestras.

The resulting music was an up-tempo and sophisticated sound with an easygoing rhythm — and its influence swept through the entire continent over the ensuing decades.

Through numerous recordings and performances in clubs and concert halls, artists such as ET Mensah and the Tempos, CK Mann and EK Nyame and the Akan Trio spread the gospel of highlife throughout Africa and the world.

Yet, as highlife rode on its wave of success in the era of African independence, few could have predicted that the music of Ghana would eventually be held hostage to its turbulent politics.

As the 1970s drew to a close, the turbulence in Ghana’s already unsteady politics accelerated. They culminated in a 1979 military coup by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, which led to the executions of some of the country’s former rulers.

The next five years saw the nation driven by dissent and attempted coups and oscillating between civilian and authoritarian rule.

The effect of these events on Ghana’s economy were profound. And they affected the country’s music scene as well. Droves of musicians left the country. Recording studios closed down.

The highlife sound was brought low, but not through any fault of its own.

A new collection of Ghanaian music — The Guitar and the Gun — recorded at one of the two remaining studios, captures the sound of a music desperately struggling to survive amidst violence and penury.

As John Collins — the owner of the Bookor Studio near Accra, where the tracks on this compilation were recorded — observes in the excellent liner notes, the difficulties in recording at the time were not merely a lack of money to pay for tape and instruments.

There was a constant military presence near the studio, which led to mistaken impressions.

Collins writes of one occasion when he and a friend were startled by gunfire near the studio. (It turned out to be a salute for a funeral procession.)

“On another occasion,” writes Collins, “one of the soldiers who came to the house saw me in front of a Revox reel-to-reel recording machine with headphones on. He had to be convinced by other soldiers that I was not a spy.”

The music that Collins recorded in this tumultuous period is wonderfully diverse highlife music.

Some of the music is simple and soulful, such as Salaam and His Cultural Imani Group’s “Mama Shile Oga,” sung in a combination of the Ga language and English.

The boisterous syncopation, brassy horns and sweet harmonies of songs such as F Kenya’s “Nyameco” and Wofa Rockson’s “Me Nyame Boa Me” (“God Help Me” in the Akan language) reach back to the ebullient era of highlife music before the revolution.

The latter song also touches on another strong theme running through The Guitar and the Gun — the solace and comfort that many Ghanaians found in religion.

Scattered among the tracks on the compilation are powerful works by highlife-influenced gospel groups, which seek to impart messages of hope, the power of faith and forgiveness in a war-torn time.

The Guitar and the Gun demonstrates the resilience of highlife amidst the strife of that particular moment of Ghana’s history.

The unique balancing act that many musicians faced in that period is summed up by the photo on the cover — a soldier with a gun on his back strumming his guitar.

Of this revealing image, Collins writes that it was a photo taken when one of the groups recording at his studio met a former member who had joined the army.

“Sergeant Yabuah was convinced by the musicians to come and help them in the recording, which he agreed to do — but with the proviso that he would not put down his gun as he was on active service,” recalls Collins.

“So he played rhythm guitar…in full military uniform, World War I style helmet and with his machine gun strapped to his back.”