The Highlife of Ghana

Defined as an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony and color. The tones and sounds employed, occurring in single line melody or multiple lines (harmony) and sounded by one or more voices or instruments or both. (dictionary.com).

Ghana has a very rich musical history which reflects the rich traditions and cultures of its people. Its musical history can be traced back many centuries when all West African music styles began to blend together, but “Highlife” was Ghana’s first specific genre of music. Since highlife’s emergence in the 1930’s, there has been a steady revolution of music around West Africa.

Highlife began around the 1930’s, with the blend of African and “Western” music. Highlife features many types of sounds including palm-wine music, church choirs, swing bands, Trinidadian calypso and western classical music and even includes some elements of jazz. It was originally intended for the elite but became very popular among all Ghanaians. Trumpeter and bandleader E.T. Mensah formed his first band in the 1930’s and went on to be crowned the King of highlife. In 1948, Mensah formed the Tempos whose songs in English, Twi, Ga, Fante, Ewe and Hausa seduced admirers as far away as England.

Today Accra, the capital of Ghana, moves mostly to the sounds of Gospel highlife, local reggae, and American black pop. Guitar highlife remains extremely popular in rural Ghana, where “concert parties,” which combine music and theater in exuberant celebrations, that can last until sunrise.

Highlife continued its success well into the 1970’s when there were several musical developments in Ghana. The Highlife genre began to split into different types with several outside cultural influences such as Afro-Reggae, Gospel Highlife and Burgher Highlife. In the 1980’s there was a boom in African music throughout the world and many different artists began to incorporate African elements to their songs. In 1990, the generation coming up in 1990’s didn’t have as much access to musical instruments but they had their voices. The foundations of the tradition are grounded, initially separately, in the north and south of Ghana. The sub-Saharan north has long acted as a cultural catch-all for the traffic of Western Africa at large. The Songnai and Mali empires caused ethic migration and the blurring of cultural borders in West Africa, bringing praise-singing traditions of the Frafra, Ghurunsi, and Dagomba people in the northeast together with that of the Dagara, Lobi, Wala, and Sissala in the northwest. This spiritual identity is tempered by the osmotic folk music of the south. The music of southern Ghana seems historically to have taken a more internal and pragmatic focus; the settled Ashanti south incorporated music as a relief and pleasure in and of itself rather than as a billboard for their identity as a tribal entity. This is reflected in the simpler folk style, which has simmered into existence with a gradual influence from neighboring Benin and Togo. (source ghana web).

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