My introduction into the world of highlife music came incidentally through my love of the distinctive, jangly sound of Johnny Marr’s Rickenbacker 330. You can often see the associations online, even though Marr himself says he never himself was really aware of the genre when he started experimenting with his signature tone. Nonetheless, the obvious comparisons still persist, providing an introduction to the diverse, political genre.
It’s difficult to pin down the precise origins through the multitudes of sub-genres, but most sources seem to agree that highlife began in Ghana in the early 1900s as a mix of local Ghanaian musical traditions with European instrumentation and a distinct jazz influence, which itself at the time was reaching its peak popularity. The term itself came from the idea at the time that, going to certain clubs and other establishments to listen to bands playing this type of music was indeed “living the highlife.”
Listening to renditions of classics of the early highlife era such as Jacob Sam’s “Yaa Amponsah,” one can hear the influences on Anglophone works that would appear several decades later, from Paul Simon to The Talking Heads. Highlife itself takes most of its rhythms and structures from the folk music of the Akan people, the predominant ethnic group in the Gold Coast area of West Africa. Musicians who were familiar with traditional instruments such as the seperewa, a harp-lute transitioned easily to guitars, a representation of this type of synthesis of new instrumentation and traditional motifs.
During the postwar period, and especially during the time when Ghana gained its independence from England, highlife became not only the country’s most popular form of music, but also a symbol of national unity and a mode of celebration, even though the genre in its early stages heavily catered towards the wealthy and colonial elite in the urban centers of the country. Even Louis Armstrong came to Ghana to perform alongside the “King of Highlife” E.T. Mensah and his band The Tempos.
During the 1940s and ’50s, the genre spread from its origins in the coast of Ghana into neighboring countries, becoming especially popular in Nigeria. Fela Kuti, arguably the most famous Nigerian musician ever, was heavily influenced by highlife when creating the style of music he dubbed “Afrobeat.” In both countries, the genre consumed influences from funk and reggae as well, yet again blending new elements.
Some of the genre’s best tracks came out of this period of popularity in Nigeria in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the genre declined in popularity (albeit with a short revival) in Ghana, including Celestine Ukwu’s sunny “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi.” Even until the 1980s, classics such as “Osondi Owendi” were being released by artists such as Stephen Osita Osadebe, who aimed to further “Africanize” the genre rather than take most of its influences from external forms such as jazz.
Highlife is a difficult genre to precisely define since it resists all such attempts. Yet its influence has been felt far and wide, and has lent itself to both political and nonpolitical movements.