Monday, February 09, 2009

The Gold Coast's golden age of highlife

(Consider this an unofficial companion piece to John B.'s great post on the golden age of Ghanaian highlife over at Likembe.)

When Ghanaian trumpeter E.T. Mensah arrived in Lagos with his Tempos band in 1950, he introduced Nigerians to a brassy and vivacious new dance sound that had been developing back in Accra since the late 19th century, combining the rootsy flavor of various street rhythms of the West African coast with the urbane elegance of Western ballroom music. Highlife, they called it back in the Gold Coast.

Within a few years, all the top Nigerian ballroom orchestras had ditched their waltzes, swings, foxtrots and quicksteps and hitched their wagons to the highlife train. From that point on, highlife would develop in parallel between Ghana and Nigeria, with the Nigerians devising quite a few innovative permutations of the genre through the 1970s and 80s. Still--for this listener at least--the definitive highlife sound will always be the jaunty, opulent music plied by the Ghanaian dance bands of the 1950s and 60s.

Stars of Ghana was an influential compilation featuring a sampling of these Ghanaian bands as represented in Decca West Afrca's bestselling series of highlife recordings in the mid-to-late-60s.

The King of Highlife, E.T. Mensah with his Tempos; the Black Beats, led by the great King Bruce; the Stargazers, featuring saxophonist Teddy Osei and drummer Sol Amarfio (both of whom would go on to found Osibisa) and led by legendary trumpeter Eddie Quansah; and the Broadway Dance Band, led by Nigerian trumpeter Sammy Obot.

As much as I love the big brass brands, some of my favorite Ghanaian groups from this era were the guitar bands such as King Onyina's and Akompi's. Working with much smaller combos and without the added volume of horns, trap drums or (in some cases) even bass, they managed to approximate the voluptuous texture of the orchestras with just nimble fretwork, chromatic chording and wailing vocal harmonies.

The guitar playing on all these records is quite colorful, actually... Over the summer I was fortunate to attend a seminar on highlife at which Stan Plange of the Broadway (later Uhuru) Dance Band and guitarist Ebo Taylor both asserted that Ghana always had the best guitar players but suffered a dearth of decent trumpet players and and so always looked to Nigeria to recruit trumpeters.

The Ghanaian guitar bands also laid the template for the Eastern Nigerian guitar bands such as the Peacocks (whose "Eddie Quansah" is linked above) that would come to dominate the highlife scene after The War. (The Nigerian guitar bands would later take more inspiration from East and Central Africa, particularly The Congo.)

One band featured here that I know nothing at all about, though, is the African Tones. Does anybody know who they were? (And while we're at it, who were The Republicans?)


1. Srotoi Ye Mli - Black Beats Band
2. Obi Nkabi Mmami - Stargazers Dance Band
3. Odo Ye Owu - Onyina's Guitar Band
4. Gyae Su - Broadway Dance Band
5. Odo Misu Fre Wo - Akompi's Guitar Band
6. Owo Ko Ni Fe - Black Beats Band
7. Me Da Ho Gyan - African Tones

8. Wonma Menka - Black Beats Band
9. Odo Akoda Agyame - Onyina's Guitar Band
10. Keyere Mon - E.T. Mensah & His Tempos Band
11. Black Bra - Akompi's Guitar Band
12. Bu Duru Mana - Black Beats Band
13. KonKonsa Ni Be Bere - Onyina's Guitar Band
14. Nkae - Broadway Dance Band



Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, Uchenna. I've been on such a Naija kick lately I'd totally forgotten about all the great Ghanaian stuff out there.

I've got a post coming up of Ga Cultural Highlife, & I might do a post of '80s stuff also.

Comb & Razor said...

Great... I look forward to that! Lately I've been trying to get more into the post-70s Ghanaian stuff. (I'm hoping the Highlife Haven starts updating more frequently...)

[G@ttoGiallo] said...

Nice place for West Africa music lovers.
(Thanks for yr visiting...)

Comb & Razor said...

No doubt, G@ttoGiallo... I love your pics!

Anonymous said...

really thanx!
nice work!

Anonymous said...

very nice record (again)
many many thanks

linkwheel said...

Daniel, yea I can see what you probably did there. I really appreciated that part, however hehe I am not that harsh like my dad with these things. He at all times tells me crazy stories again in the day and calls me a loser. I guess it's time I move out of my dad and mom' basement LOL. Aaanyways, what about you? what does your dad think xD" Anyway, in my language, there are usually not a lot good source like this.

Elliott Broidy said...

How exciting.

Anonymous said...

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