Saturday, January 23, 2010

The birth of an African music style: Highlife, Africa’s ballroom music © by Emmanuel Nado

It was in the early 50s, at the time most of West Africa was under foreign colonization, that most of Africa countries developed their brand of modern dance music. In the case of Highlife, the rhythm although not necessary designed for the European and the African elites, became as such, due to the stylistic aspect of the dance clubs and the formal attire worn by those who were coming to the clubs. The rhythm was Highlife. It all started on the Gold Coast of Africa (now Ghana). Ghana is credited as the birth-place of this music genre. The name was given to this new rhythm by people gathered outside the ballrooms presenting this music, as the majority of the population could not afford the high entrance fees they hanged around and outside these ballrooms. Looking from the outside and seeing the high-class citizens, including their European counterparts, dressed in fancy full evening attire, gloved and top hats, these folks outside said “This is high life!” Indeed going out to ballrooms dancing at this time in Ghana was an elegant affair. Thus the term "Highlife" was coined in the 1920s for the festive and elegant atmosphere it created with the upper-class scene.

Highlife dance bands featured a fusion of western brass sound and Africa percussion. The indigenous musical instruments, drums, tin cans, bottles, thumb piano and shekeres were to be replaced with guitars, banjos, accordions, military brass, trap drums, horns and other imported European instruments , brought to the west coast of Africa by sailors from all over the world. After independence, the music grew and became more accessible to the populace, bringing another generation of Ghanaian musicians to the ballrooms.

Thanks to the Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah first President of Ghana, the rhythm sailed beyond the Atlantic. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was a major promoter of Highlife; he often traveled with a highlife orchestra during his official visits around the world. Highlife has been the most enduring from of West African music. It is a sensual sound, a smooth dance rhythm characterized by percussion and dynamic horns. Although originating in Ghana, it spread to Nigeria and was often played throughout West Africa.

It was the visit of E.T. Mensah, the proclaimed king of Highlife and his Tempos dance band to Nigeria that was the turning point for Nigeria Highlife. Nigerian artists who were playing their own brand of music switched to the new rhythm, the styles was picked up by local musicians including these Nigerian artists, Cardinal Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta, Rex William and Roy Chicago all played highlife music. While living in Nigeria for a short period as a teenager I frequently hung around the nightclubs of the bustling city of Lagos. Many familiar highlife tunes became hits so memorable that they became classics, these hits are things of the past now, and the artists who produce them are legends now.

Though, myriads of rhythms and dance styles have sprung from the African continent since the early years of self governance, highlife is still well alive in the heart of all African music lovers including listeners of Africa Mix.

Hear highlife and more of the African music styles every Thursday night on Africa Mix.

—Emmanuel Nado