I was originally hoping to feature a lot more cultural and musical aspects of Ghanaian life on this blog, as they were among the main reasons why I was excited to live in West Africa. I haven’t done much to this end so far, but hope to share a little bit of the amazing history of Ghanaian music and beyond piece by piece from now on.
Over the past few years (before I had any plans to visit Africa), I had been amassing a sizeable collection of African music (also borrowing inspiration and material from my dad, whose collection achieves sizeable and proceeds undeterred from there). Most of this material originates from the golden age of post-colonial, West African music in the 1960s and 70s. Nigerians like Fela Kuti, Tunji Oyelana, and Sir Victor Uwaifo, (to name only a few) were pioneering the Afrobeat style and Beninese groups like (Le Tout Puissant) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou were releasing unfathomably quantities of amazing stuff based on their traditional Vodoun rhythms. Ghanaians, meanwhile, were blending their homegrown “high life” sound with influences from America, the Caribbean, the Congo, and other West African countries. Beyond West Africa, similar booms were happening across the continent from Angola, South Africa and the Congo in the south to Ethiopia and Kenya in the North.
It was not that the music suddenly appeared, (it has always been a central part of life and indivisible from history), but the favourable confluence of cheap recording technology, FM radio, relative post-colonial/post-war social freedoms to stay out late and party, and the extremely high competition between night club owners to attract the biggest and best bands created the ideal environment for sustained, high volume production of music and musicians.
“To keep up with the demand, every club had to invite bands from other parts of Ghana and also from abroad to stand a chance of surviving the fierce competition.” – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo
“The 60s & 70s generation of Ghanaian musicians had birthed unique sounds based upon principles of excellent musicianship and recording techniques, with deep respect for traditional music. They had excelled to such an extent that the new hybrids of music they created still command respect all over the globe 40 years later.” – Samy Ben Redjeb, Analog Africa
As the hey-day of the sixties and seventies began to die down and the optimism and glow of the post-colonial era began to fade, government coups and instability led to clamp downs on the arts and frequent curfews. This had a devastating effect on the music scene in places like Benin City, Cotonou, Accra and Abidjan, and effectively killed the music scene.
“…in 1979 we were hit by a second curfew. It was serious. The first one, which took place in 1966, didn’t last too long. It didn’t hit us too hard, but it was the third that knocked us out. It killed social life and the music industry in this country. Everybody had to be home by 10pm: no parties, no concerts, no boogaloo, no Miss Tip Toe. When after two years that crazy curfew was over most of our musicians had already left the country and DJs had replaced the bands. Live music was dead.” – Sam Pobee, Modern Photo
Throughout the 80s and 90s there have been many revivals and tributes, but much like “classic rock” in North America and Britain, the blurry-eyed nostalgia for the good old days has fossilized an entire cultural movement into its most salient essence of a few key bands, faded photographs and hazy memories.
“If I hear highlife now, it will remind me of the past…But highlife can’t come to change Ghana again. We can’t play it like before because life is different now. The things that they used to sing about would change people’s lives! – Felicia Kudiah, June 19, 2009 (From the book: Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana, by Nate Plageman)
Amazingly, only a fraction of what was produced was ever recorded, (live music was where it was at), and an even smaller amount of that is still available for purchase today. Thanks to the efforts of a few key labels such as Analog Africa, Soundway, Strut-Records, Nonesuch, and Honest Jon’s, old records and master tapes are being dusted off from years in forgotten storage rooms and other places and are once again being discovered by people around the world.
“It doesn’t surprise me that our music is finally travelling because, you know, if you do something good, it will be remembered forever. That’s right, brother.” – Gyedu Blay Ambolley
By far the best online source for most of this music is through the subscription service emusic, which has an ear-boggling collection of every sort of weird, rare and random music you could hope for at about half the price of Amazon and iTunes. The Smithsonian also has a great collection of traditional and early forms of music for the more seriously ethnomusically inclined and, per usual YouTube is a great source of clips and video.
Over the next few months, I’ll attempt to dive into more detail about the traditional forms and instruments used in Ghanaian music; the palm wine music of the colonial era; the birth of Ghana’s most famous musical export, “high-life”; The post-colonial highlife music scene that was not only the soundtrack to the independence movement, but a major driver and, in fact, cause; the fascinating three-way ping-pong match of styles, rhythms, influences and culture between the American south, the Caribbean, and West Africa; and finally the current state of music in Ghana and where it might be headed.