Highlife, dance music played mostly in Ghana and Nigeria, represents one of the century's first fusions of African roots and Western music, and before 1970 it ruled dance floors across much of West Africa. Trumpeter and bandleader E.T. Mensah, born in 1919 in Accra, Ghana, formed his first band in 1930s and went on to be crowned the King of Highlife. The World War II era introduced American swing to the highlife mix, already a blend of Trinidadian calypso, military brass-band music, Cuban son and older African song forms. In 1948, Mensah formed the Tempos whose songs in English, Twi, Ga, Fante, Ewe, Efik and Hausa seduced admirers as far away as England. In 1956, Mensah's career reached a peak when he performed with the great Louis Armstrong in Ghana. With the rise of Congolese music in the 1960s, highlife's golden era ended. But Mensah continued to perform, as did other top big bands, including Jerry Hansen and his Ramblers International and Uhuru.
The glory days of highlife gave many Ghanaian musicians opportunities to move abroad. In the late '60s, the band Osibisa took its "Afro-rock" pop/highlife fusion to a warm reception in England, a harbinger of the world-music phenomenon that would explode there a decade later. Highlife stars like Pat Thomas, George Darko and C.K. Mann have all made the journey from country to city to foreign port-of-call. In Germany, a young singer called Daddy Lumba made his name in the German burgher scene, but now spends half his time in Ghana where his blend of highlife, hip-hop and dancehall reggae has earned him a strong youth following.
Today the city of Accra moves mostly to the sounds of gospel highlife, local reggae and American black pop, while guitar highlife enjoys something of a resurgence. Hard economic times and political instability in the '80s engendered a surge of religious activity, and both resources and artists shifted from nightclubs to churches. The gospel-cassette market boomed and today represents a significant sector in the pop music market with big-selling acts like Carlos Sekyi, the Tagoe Sisters and Naana Frimpong.
Guitar highlife remains extremely popular in Ghana's rural areas where "concert parties" combine music and theater in exuberant celebration that can last until sunrise. Amakye Dede leads Ghana's top highlife act today. Like most highlife bands, Amakye works the concert party circuit, but he also runs a nightclub, the Abrantee Night Spot, one sure source for live highlife in Accra. Aside from popular foreign-based highlife acts like Daddy Lumba and Pat Thomas, highlife veterans like Jewel Ackah and A. B. Crentsil remain active, and new singers like Sammy Orusu continue to emerge. A group called the Western Diamonds was voted the best highlife big band in Ghana at three GBC (Ghana Broadcasting Company) MUSIGA Awards during the 1990s.
In Lagos, Nigeria, beginning in the '60s, guitar highlife bands grew out of older acoustic "Ibo blues" and palm-wine music. As in Ghana, the guitar-based sound caught on as a more rock-informed alternative to the big-band style pioneered by E.T. Mensah, Bobby Bentsen and Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson. Bobby and Jim Rex's bands blazed the homegrown highlife trail in Nigeria, starting in the '50s. In 1976, following the end of Nigeria's civil war, Prince Nico and his Rocofil Jazz scored a huge hit with "Sweet Mother," reportedly the biggest-selling African record ever at more than 13 million copies. Half Cameroonian, Nico sought an international sound influenced by Congolese music, and he remained popular into the '80s, though he never recorded a tune to top his early hit.
Most of Nigeria's highlife groups came from Iboland, and highlife all over the country remains Ibo music primarily. Highlife greats include Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Muddy Ibe and the legendary Oriental Brothers. Originally three actual brothers from the eastern city of Owerri, the Oriental Brothers thrived in the '70s with their complex, buoyant, guitar-and-percussion sound and crying vocal harmonies. Feuds between the brothers ultimately led each to form his own band. Singer Dr. Sir Warrior headed one version of the Oriental Brothers, while guitarist Dan Satch headed another, and the third brother, Godwin Kabaka Opara, started his own group Kabaka International. Highlife goes on, especially in eastern Nigeria, though on the national scene, it remains overshadowed by widely popular juju, fuji and now reggae. One of the first Nigerian musicians to add reggae to the mix, Ibo highlife innovator Sonny Okosun still sells well. Okosun began mixing highlife and reggae in the style he called ozzidi back in the mid-'70s. Banning Eyre, Courtesy Afropop Worldwide: www.afropop.org