Reliving West African highlife

HIGHLIFE GIANTS: WEST AFRICAN DANCE BAND PIONEERS by John Collins (Cassava Republic)

‘If I died of a man’s love/ I’m nothing but a man’s slave.” These words, delivered by singer Julie Okine on her 1950s recording Nothing but a Man’s Slave, could be considered the first feminist popular music song in Ghana. This is according to a new book that details the history of highlife music.

The book, titled Highlife Giants: West African Dance Band Pioneers, is written by John Collins, who moved to Ghana from Britain at a young age in 1952, a year before Okine began singing with highlife band The Tempos, led by ET Mensah. Collins, now a professor of music at the University of Ghana in Legon, writes that Okine was an instant hit, becoming the first woman to join The Tempos’ ranks full-time.

Mensah had met Okine while she was working in a shop and asked her to join the band. She recorded three highlife-calypso tunes with The Tempos, one of which was Nothing but a Man’s Slave. The song tells of a man courting a woman before delivering its feminist punchline.

“Women rarely performed with popular dance bands due to a prevailing taboo of the times that labelled performing women as ‘loose’,” writes Collins. “However, for Julie, there was little else she considered doing.”

She says: “I think I’d fade away and die if I had to do another job.”

Okine is just one of the fascinating characters that litter the pages of Collins’s book, which has to tread the tightrope of getting the history down while giving the reader a sense of who exactly these giants of West African music were.

So what about the origins of highlife? The word was first used in the 1920s to describe an emerging music in Ghana. But the myriad musical influences that would come together to establish highlife as we know it today had begun fusing more than three decades earlier. Colonial military brass bands, guitar-wielding sailors and high-society ballroom orchestras introduced the source material.

The brass bands, which played polkas, marches, dances, calypso and Afro-Cuban music, inspired a proto-highlife style called adaha, which then inspired another style known as konkoma.

The sailors inspired osibisaaba, which went on to influence what became known as palm-wine guitar. But it was in the ballroom orchestras, which began to play songs in the style of adaha, konkoma and osibisaaba, where all these influences fused to become the genre known as highlife.

Yebuah Mensah, the brother of highlife legend ET Mensah, remembers in the book how bands with names such as the Jazz Kings and the Cape Coast Sugar Babies used to play this music in venues such as the Rodger Club.

“The people outside called it ‘highlife’ as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside,” Mensah says. These evenings of music had a high ticket price and required full evening dress, often including top hats.

“It was these pre-World War dance orchestras that laid the foundation for the post-war highlife dance bands of ET Mensah, King Bruce, Bobby Benson and other highlife giants,” writes Collins.

World War II brought new elements to the mix. Exposure to Allied troops introduced swing and big-band jazz, the jitterbug, jive dances and the zoot suit.

One fascinating anecdote in Highlife Giants tells how Benson, a legend of Nigerian highlife, was stranded on Cape Verde after German forces torpedoed the ship he was on in the Atlantic Ocean. Collins says it was on the islands that he met a woman named Thunderlio, who taught him to play the guitar.

It was the musical foundation on which Benson would build his career.

It’s not only the stories of the music that are fascinating but also those of the racism and exploitation that took place in the recorded and live highlife music scene in Ghana and Nigeria.

Kofi Ghanaba, a percussionist who also went by the name Guy Warren, is a legend of highlife music and was an early member of The Tempos. In a chapter that focuses on his career, Ghanaba recalls why he left Mensah’s Tempos in 1951.

“At this point Decca Records wanted to record us. But their negotiator, an ex-British army officer called Major Kinder, offered us a cash payment,” says Ghanaba. “I advised the band to accept only a royalties agreement.”

Ghanaba points out that Kinder sold Mensah’s music around the world and bought himself a castle in Devon, dying a millionaire. “ET lived in a small estate house in Mamprobi, Accra, and did not die a millionaire,” he says. “In our brotherly relationship, I always advised and warned ET of booby-traps in the music business, but he never listened.”

It’s a point highlife legend Jerry Hansen makes in the book, too, bemoaning the exploitation of musicians in Ghana. “Sadly, however, those who have enough to eat and wear are those who take the poor musician’s recording to the market to mass produce them and make millions,” says Hansen.

Perhaps the most fascinating account of the power dynamics embedded in the highlife scene is one from 1948, when Ghanaba beat up a racist white patron at the European Club in Accra.

Ghanaba recalls that a Canadian man said to him: “What’s an American nigger doing here?”, before pushing him. “I thrashed his arse out,” said Ghanaba. “You see, this was the sort of club where Africans were only seen paddling about gently, dressed in white tunics, and here I came beating this guy up. It was a sensation.”

Ghanaba recalls that the mood in Ghana at the time of the incident was very much “white man, go home” and the British, in a bid to kill news of the event, sent the Canadian man away.

By then highlife had come a long way since the late 19th century, when one of its precursors, adah music, was described as “tormenting” and “objectionable native tunes”.

Another compelling anecdote comes from ET Mensah and a young Tempos band’s 10-week tour of the United Kingdom in 1969, and explains how reggae first came to be played in Ghana.

Arriving in London, The Tempos found themselves playing to a large number of Jamaican immigrants and had to learn quickly how to play reggae.

“We got to know some of the Jamaican musicians in London, such as Desmond Dekker,” says Tempos singer Jacob “Obi” Awuletey in the book.

When the band returned to Ghana, reggae records had started to slip into the country. “We felt that since we had been there, we should bring something new into Ghana,” he says. “We were the first band to actually play it in Ghana. When we played at the Star Hotel, some of our boys demonstrated the dance on stage.”

Anecdotes such as these litter Collins’s book, mapping out how music travelled from country to country, from continent to continent.

Highlife Giants is a fascinating read, which reminds the reader constantly that the ebb and flow of musical influence has scant regard for national borders.

Lloyd Gedye

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