Ghanaians listen to hiplife, highlife, Gospel, Raggae and other African music. Musical trends have reflected changes in Ghanaian society over the last half-century. (1950s – 2000s)
A musical genre that originated in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, fused African rhythms with western music. The sound, of which there were a few variations, generally combined multiple guitar rhythms with a brass band backing, as well as various percussion instruments.
Its roots can be traced back to the 1880s to the music of marching bands and sailors’ palm wine groups.
The term ‘highlife’, which was coined in the 1920s, is thought to be a reference to parties by the European upper-class. Local bands played the musical accompaniment to the lavish events to which people aspired.
Two main forms of highlife had emerged by the middle of the 20th Century. Dance orchestras played at the parties of the elite, while poor, rural musicians played a guitar-orientated version of the music.
The guitar-based style of music rose to prominence in the 1950s and became associated with a pre-independence sound as it came to incorporate elements of swing, jazz and Cuban rhythms with the emerging guitar styles of West Africa.
During World War II swing was introduced by UK and US servicemen based in Ghana, giving way to smaller highlife bands.
Describing this melting pot of sounds, Professor John Collins – a musicologist at the University of Ghana – wrote: “By combining…so-called high-class music with local street tunes, a totally different type of music was born – the highlife we know today.”
This music became the soundtrack to the birth of an independent nation in 1957. During that time trumpeter E.T. Mensah became the most famous proponent of the sound – first with his band The Tempos and later as a solo artist.
In the early years of Ghanaian independence the popularity of highlife was maintained.
A number of guitar highlife outfits formed following the success of The Tempos, including Nana Ampadu and his band the African Brothers and A.B. Crentsil.
E.T. Mensah continued to perform, as did other highlife bands such as Ramblers International and the Professional Uhuru Dance Band.
The rise of Congolese music in the 1960s resulted in a decline in the popularity of the genre.
President Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana into independence, was overthrown by a military coup in 1966. The upheaval saw many Ghanaian musicians that had flourished in the 60s emigrating. Many moved to the US, UK, Nigeria and Germany, among other countries.
By the end of the decade pop music from the US and, to a lesser extent Europe, had come to dominate Ghana’s music scene.
By the start of the 1970s, highlife had been overtaken by pop music and electric guitar bands.
The music produced by African Americans began to exert a heightened influence over Ghanaian music.
In 1971 a musical festival called Soul to Soul was held in Accra featuring performances from a number of US artists, such as Wilson Pickett as well as Ike and Tina Turner.
Subsequently, US-inspired musicians such as the Ashanti Brothers and the City Boys rose to prominence.
Afro-pop band Osibisa, became the country’s biggest export.
The band, whose name means “criss-cross rhythms that translate with happiness”, was formed in London in 1969 by three Ghanaian musicians and the same number of Caribbean artists.
The Ghanaian band members were highlife artists in Accra before moving to London after Nkrumah’s regime was overthrown.
Osibisa originally produced instrumentals which were interlaced with African chanting amidst a backdrop of percussion instruments and a horn section.
The band’s rise to prominence created an interest in African music among European and American listeners, raising the profile of Ghanaian music worldwide in the process.
Political instability and an economic downturn prompted a surge in religious activity in Ghana.
Music resources and artists shifted from nightclubs to churches.
Gospel music became increasingly popular, with the Genesis Gospel Singers the most popular band of the decade.
The gospel cassette market flourished and developed into a sector which continues to play a significant role in the nation’s pop music scene to this day.
Reggae also grew steadily more popular during this decade, prompting some highlife acts to crossover.
Highlife did not disappear during this decade with many acts, such as Daddy Lumba, remaining popular.
Meanwhile, the heightened interest in ‘World’ music in the UK and the US saw the focus of Ghanaian music spread away from Africa.
Much of this was due to Ghanaian musicians emigrating in large numbers.
Hi-Life International was probably the most influential band produced by the country in the 80s.
Other notable acts included Jon K, Dade Krama, Orchestra Jazira and Ben Brako.
A musical change of direction in the middle of the decade arose as a consequence of changes to British immigration laws which meant Germany became the focus of Ghanaian emigration.
The Ghanaian-German community created a form of highlife called burgher highlife.
This sound, which used synthesizers and drum machine beats instead of the percussion instruments traditionally used in highlife, became extremely popular in Ghana.
This decade saw the emergence of hiplife – an amalgamation of highlife and US hip-hop.
Hiplife became massively popular in the capital, Accra, and was pioneered by Ghanaian-born, US-raised rapper Reggie Rockstone.
The creation of the musical hybrid showed the increasing influence of African American culture on Ghana’s youth.
Rockstone, known as the ‘godfather’ of hiplife, was born in Britain but developed his music in the US before returning to Accra.
He was the first Ghanaian artist to rap in his native language, Twi, as spoken by the Ashanti people of the country. He has cited this as one of the main reasons behind his success.
The 90s saw the hiplife scene grow and other acts followed such as VIP (Vision In Progress) and Obrafour, ‘The Executioner’, who is probably Ghana’s most successful rapper alongside Rockstone.
Meanwhile, the popularity of Caribbean music led to the emergence of a new genre called Raglife.
This sound fuses Ragga and Reggae with hiplife.
The star of Ghana’s raglife scene is a multi award-winning artist called Batman.
As hip-hop became an increasingly popular musical genre worldwide, with artists such as Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Eminem reaching a global audience, hiplife continued to grow in popularity among Ghana’s youth.
Artists such as Tic Tac, Mensah and three-man group Buk Bak ensured that the genre became the most dominant sound in the country’s mainstream music scene. Other hiplife artists include Bollie and Tinny.
Some argue that African nations like Ghana are the spiritual home of hip-hop. “The source of hip-hop is an African tradition, an ancient African tradition of freestyling, which is spontaneous poetry to a rhythmic pattern,” according to Pangie Anno, who runs the oldest music studio in Ghana.
“This is an African tradition which is thousands of years old. “You can say American hip-hop is an evolution of an African tradition.”
Similarly, a member of Accra hip-hop group VIP says hiplife is a means by which Ghanaians have reclaimed and remade hip-hop in their own style. “We take some of the old in-touch, highlife music, and make sure we make good use of it and do our own things in an African way,” he said.
The country’s reggae scene, which came to prominence in the 80s, also continues to go from strength to strength.
Artists such as Rocky Dawuni attract a devoted following.
Meanwhile, guitar highlife remains extremely popular nationwide, particularly in Ghana’s rural areas where “concert parties” combine music and theatre.
The continued popularity of hip-hop worldwide, particularly within the African Diaspora, has led to links between Ghanaian artists and British musicians.