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From Osibisa through highlife to hiplife (2) 10/31/2007
Last week, Professor John Collins took readers through the history of the development of Ghanaian popular music – from the odonson, adaha and osibisaba days, through the early days of highlife music and the contribution of musicians to the independence struggle.

In Part 2, this week, he explains the impact of other music forms and why Ghana’s music industry all but collapsed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.


The catalyst that sped up Ghana’s move to independence was the Second World War during which time 60,000 Ghanaians saw some sort of military service.

There were also large numbers of British and American soldiers stationed in Ghana and it was their ‘swing’ style of jazz that influenced local musicians like E.T. Mensah, Guy Warren, Tommy Grippman and the other members of the Tempos band , whose brilliant blend of highlife and swing became the iconic sound symbol in Ghana and Africa for the optimistic early independence era.

Many Ghanaian popular entertainers openly supported Nkrumah’s CPP and were influenced by its ‘African personality’ and Pan-African ideals.

The Tempos played at CPP rallies and concert parties, the Axim Trio and Bob Ansah’s concert parties staged pro-Nkrumah musical plays. Bob Vans actually changed the name of his Burma Trio to the Ghana Trio in 1948, the very year of the Christiansborg shooting of protesting ex-servicemen and the consequent boycott of European shops.

In 1952, the highlife guitarist E.K. Nyame formed his Akan Trio and released highlife records in support of Nkrumah, as did other contemporary guitar band and concert party artists, such as those of Kwaa Mensah, I.E. Mason, Bob Cole and Onyina,

As a quid pro quo for their support, when Ghana became independent in 1957, Nkrumah set up government sponsored highlife bands and concert parties attached to the Workers Brigades, state hotels and other governmental agencies, whilst private bands like E.K.’s and the Uhuru dance-band accompanied him on official trips abroad.

Nkrumah also encouraged the formation of popular performance unions, established the State Film Corporation that made films like the ‘Band Series’ (featuring the Tempos, Ramblers and Black Beats), and encouraged the broadcasting of popular songs and plays on state radio.

Besides it role in the independence struggle, another reason why Nkrumah’s vision included a role for highlife performance in nation building was that it is a trans-ethnic creation of the Akan, Ga and Ewe people of Ghana — and so was a particularly useful medium for projecting ‘non-tribal’ national sentiments.


Although Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966, his Pan-African and ‘black consciousness’ ideals continued to thrive in the popular music sphere.

Indeed, they were enhanced due to the Afro-centric sentiments introduced to Ghana by soul and reggae artists who came to the fore after the civil-rights marches in the United States and independence in the Caribbean..

Some even visited Ghana in the early seventies; such as Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, Roberta Flack and Jimmy Cliff. With their ‘Black and Proud’ sentiments, ‘Afro’ fashions, and rastafarian reggae ‘back-to-Africa’ ’ message, there was a creative music explosion in Ghana (and other parts of Africa) during in the 1970’s when young artists blended together imported and local music into various ‘Afro-pop’ music styles.

The Afro-beat of the Nigerian highlife musicians Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Orlando Julius, the ‘Afro-rock’ of Ghanaian bands Osibisa, Boombaya and Hedzolleh Soundz, and from the end of the seventies the local reggae of Kwadwo Antwi, Kente, Felix Bell and more recently Rocky Dawuni.


By the early seventies Ghana boasted over seventy highlife guitar/concert bands, scores of private or state run highlife dance-bands and literally hundreds of pop and Afro-rock/beat bands linked to schoolboy ‘pop chain’ competitions. Catering for these were four recording studios, numerous dancing night-clubs (60 in Accra alone), and two local pressing plants (Ambassador Records and the Record Manufacturers of Ghana) that produced hundreds of thousands of records a year.

Furthermore, during the early seventies, two musical films were produced by Ghana Film Industry Corporation: ‘I Told You So’ starring Bob Cole and the African Brothers band, and ‘Doing Their Thing’ starring the singer Charlotte Dada. From the mid-70’s there was also the introduction of long-running television concert parties series, such as ‘Osofo Dadzie’ and later ‘Obra’. This high point ended in the late 1970’s with the general collapse of the Ghanaian economy that began towards the end of the Acheampong/Akufo military (‘kalabule’) regime.

This was followed by a period of political instability (two military coups by J. J. Rawlings in 1979 and 1981), a two-and-a half year night curfew (1982-4) and the imposition of luxury taxes (160 per cent) on imported musical instruments. As a result, the music industry slumped, live bands collapsed and many Ghanaian artists left the country.

Other factors of a technological nature also helped in the decline of live music bands. One was the appearance of cheap-to-operate mobile discos or ‘spinners’ in the late 1970’s that gradually took over the dance floors. Moreover, it was during the 1980’s that cheap-to-produce local video productions began in Ghana and these, like the ‘spinners’, went mobile and so gradually eclipsed concert parties in the rural and provincial areas.

However, from the late 1980’s Ghana’s economy was liberalised and the country gradually began to move towards civilian rule. But by then, many of the old-time ‘classic’ highlife bands and concert parties had been inadvertently wiped out. Nevertheless, liberalisation had a positive effect on the music industry, as it led to the de-regulation of the airwaves from the mid-1990’s when there was a proliferation of private radio and TV stations which broadcast both live performances and music-videos.

Liberalisation also encouraged foreign tourism and special festivals were established in the 1990’s to cater for them, such as PANAFEST and Emancipation Day. Also, since the 1980’s there has been the introduction of relatively cheap miniaturised and digital technologies which has led to scores of new recording and video studios springing up.

Despite the collapse of live popular entertainment during the late seventies and eighties, three new musical entertainment genres have emerged. One is related to imported techno-pop styles (like disco and rap ), the second is local church gospel music, and the third is ‘folklorised’ performance encouraged by tourism.

John Collins came to Ghana in the 1950’s and has been active in the Ghanaian music scene since the late 1960’s. He is currently a Professor at the Music Department of the University of Ghana at Legon, Chair of the BAPMAF Highlife-Music Institute in Accra and co-leader of the Local Dimension palmwine highlife band.


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