Highlife music digs deep for its roots

Ghanaian guitarist Kyekyeku is bringing socially aware sounds to a new generation, making revolutions in people’s minds.

“Movement is a very important thing in music,” says Ghanaian guitarist Kyekyeku during his visit to Johannesburg for the Joy of Jazz Festival, which took place at the end of September 2019. “The movement of the body when people dance, yes, but also the movement inside the music, between different sources and sounds, and the way it can also make revolutions in people’s minds.”

It was all those kinds of movement that drew the 35-year-old Kyekyeku – he prefers that title (pronounced che-che-ku) over what he dismisses as his “passport name” – to a Ghanaian music style that was already old when he was born: highlife. 

Highlife and the black city elite

The story of highlife parallels the stories of many other African modern popular music, including South African jazz. As the economic imperatives of colonialism moved African workers around in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the practitioners of rich local traditions encountered new instruments and the new sounds of church, military bands and other regions and nations, and wove them into new soundscapes. By the 1930s, urban black South Africans were enjoying concert and dance evenings with ballroom bands, and urban Ghanaians were relishing the sounds of highlife: so titled because it was the music of the black city elite. 

Neither music was cut off from its roots and both had “rough” and “respectable” forms. The South African ballroom bands drew on both intricate rural sounds and the rough-and-ready improvised marabi dance tunes from city shack settlements. Highlife in Ghana’s capital, Accra, had links with the brass band playing of the Cape Coast, shaped by Caribbean troops who had historically served there, and with Akan palm-wine music, born in the eastern coastal bars of fishermen and sailors. 

Related article:

South Africa produced both the refined Merry Blackbirds dance band led by Peter Rezant, and the shebeen sounds of Solomon “Zuluboy” Cele and his Jazz Maniacs. In Ghana by the 1950s the gamut stretched from white-tie and-tails outfits like E T Mensah and the Tempos (Mensah played with Louis Armstrong on his African tour in 1957) to lone palm-wine guitarists still playing the bars, though now further inland.  

Kyekyeku heard them all, and loved the music from his childhood. “My father was an organist for the Catholic Church, my mother loved singing sacred songs – and I guess that’s the path they hoped I’d follow. But my father also had a great LP collection of old Ghanaian music, stretching way back. He taught me a bit of piano, and was happy for me to listen to the records.”

The power of Koo Nimo

At the same time, Ghana TV was giving airtime to a new generation of palm-wine revivalists, including guitarist Koo Nimo, whose performances struck the seven-year-old Kyekyeku hard. As he entered secondary school, his fascination with what he calls “cultures and subcultures” drew him to highlife, “because it dovetails into all kinds of different genres from around the world: Caribbean, American, European. 

“And while there’s sometimes a bit of stiffness around ‘ballroom’ highlife – watch the clip of Queen Elizabeth dancing with Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah in 1961 – the popular version, made by the people who couldn’t get into the ballrooms, just has that joy of working-class people doing the things they love.” 

Eventually, Kyekyeku’s fascination with learning more about his own Akan roots drew him back from Accra, where he’d grown up, to Kumasi, where he had been born. He completed his schooling there, entered university, and began studying with the very Koo Nimo whose brief TV slot had fascinated him more than a decade earlier, and learning the historic West African two-finger picking technique that characterised early palm-wine music. But he says that, like his heroes, he’s also drawn on guitar techniques from everywhere else, from rock to flamenco.

In conversation with history

Learning with Nimo taught Kyekyeku not only about technique, but also about the Ashanti history underlying the music. That fed into his first album, the 2016 A Higher Life on Palm Wine. Kyekyeku was also interested in the history of the genre itself, and why highlife seemed to have disappeared from Ghana’s musical landscape. “As I started looking at those old records again, I got struck by two bands particularly. The Ramblers International are a direct link with people like ET and his ballroom highlife; you can hear the evolution and all the connections. On the other side, the African Brothers Band were that popular sound. 

“As time passed, what the people wanted to express in the popular music changed. At first it was about the joys of life. But with the big migration to the cities in the 1960s, you hear more about death and funerals and – indirectly – politics. Trying to make a living was hard. And up to the 1980s there was a lot of music talking about all these things, questioning the causes of problems. But then there was the [1979] Rawlings coup. Three years of curfews. Artists emigrating. And that was what created that discontinuity that meant my generation and younger no longer knew highlife at all.” 

A socio-politics

Highlife has always talked about society and politics. Mensah and EK Nyame often sang for the party of Nkrumah during the anticolonial independence struggle – often using vernacular lyrics the colonialists did not understand. “As President, Nkrumah always used to tour with a highlife band,” says Kyekyeku. “It was a great pan-African uniting force.” 

It didn’t end there. Nkrumah was warned of impending trouble in Nyame’s allegorical Nsuo beta a (Before the Wind Blows). After the 1966 coup that overthrew him, political songs continued to appear – and were often banned. That quickly happened to the African Brothers’ 1967 Ebi Tie Yie, which used folkloric allegory to criticise continuing inequality, as a poor deer is pushed around by an arrogant leopard. In the same year, SB Arthur’s failed coup took inspiration from Victor Owaifo’s Guitar Boy: the whole band was locked up for a while.

Related article:

After studying highlife, living with its veterans, and scouring record bars for old LPs to augment his collection, Kyekyeku is clear that social commentary is still a vital element in the style. He sees his work of revisioning highlife as enacting the Akan philosophy of sankofa: he’s looking towards the past for elements that can inspire the future. He recorded a track attacking corruption on a 2015 compilation, and the theme of misused religion makes an appearance on his second album, the 2017 Sor.

“I’m indirect. I hate to instruct. I’d rather my songs said: Let’s look at this thing and re-evaluate. But today we have a big negative thing with religion – this thing of pray to get rich. I have no problem with African spirituality, but this has evolved into something else completely that’s exploiting people’s gullibility. I find I can use modern elements – street slang, rap-like passages over vintage instrumentation – to connect with a younger audience: to talk about these issues and also to bring forward this amazing music that we had almost lost.

“My highlife project isn’t alone. Other groups are also touring; even some veterans are getting active once more. Oh yes, we’ve achieved something, I think.”

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.