Originating in Ghana, Highlife music became popular throughout West Africa, especially in Nigeria which produced some great Highlife artists.
Origins of Highlife
Highlife evolved in the late 19th century out of the traditional music of the Akan people, the predominant ethnic group in Ghana. In the 1920s the style reached maturity and was mainly played in the upscale clubs of Accra, hence gaining the name ‘highlife’. The style developed significantly in the 1950s and introduced influences from palm-wine, a Liberian calypso fusion music.
During the 1950s two strands of highlife developed.
During the early twenties, (Highlife) was created by people who gathered around the dancing clubs such as the Rodger Club to watch and listen to the couples enjoying themselves. Highlife started as a catch-name for the indigenous songs played at these clubs by such early bands as the Jazz Kings, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies, the Sekondi Nanshamang, and later the Accra Orchestra. The people outside called it highlife as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside, who not only had to pay high entrance fee of 7s 6d., but also had to wear full evening dress including top-hats. Yebuah Mensah
Instruments Used in Highlife
Highlife involves a range of instruments that are mainly of European origin. One of the distinguishing features of highlife is the playing of African styles of music with European instruments. Early on it was dominated by brass instruments and later guitars were introduced.
The transition from traditional instruments to European was not a huge leap. Players of the Akan seperewa, a harp-lute, easy transferred their techniques to the electric guitar.
Notable Highlife Performers
Born in Accra, Ghana (at the time under British rule and called the Gold Coast) in 1919, Mensah learned to play the flute at the age of 12. He later learnt the piccolo and joined the children’s Accra Orchestra where he was first taught alto-sax.
In 1956 Mensah played with Louis Armstrong which catapulted his fame both in Ghana and internationally.
Mensah died in 1996 by which time he was known widely as ‘The King of Highlife’.
Highlife didn’t stay within the confines of Ghana and the style became very popular in Nigeria. Celestine Ukwu was one of of the greatest exponents of highlife and sang in Igbo. Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1940, Ukwu came from a musical family. Both his parents were traditional Igbo performers and he was taught to read music and play the harmonium by his uncle.
Kings of Highlife: E.T.Mensah and Victor Olaiya – Music in Africa
E. T. Mensah – GhanaWeb