Nigeria’s ‘Twitterville’ had Mr Eazi on toast today, the “Skin Tight’ crooner is an avid user of the social media platform “Twitter” where he constantly engages his fans. Mr Eazi’s tweets are witty and jovial and as his popularity rose his followers increased. Sourcing for new music , I stumbled on Mr. Eazi trending on twitter, apparently his tweet ‘Ghana’s Influence on present day Naija Sound can not be over emphasized’ got the twitter titans baying for blood. A conversation ensued between myself, Emmanuel Eben a music consultant and a top Nigerian artist who was with us and both asserted Mr Eazi had a point. As a Nigerian with a Ghanaian mother who understands the dynamics of both countries, it is pertinent to set the records straight. Before we crucify Mr Eazi, can we examine how Ghana highlife influenced a lot of music in West Africa particularly Nigeria.
Highlife music is a genre that generates a lot of debate when it comes to the origin and the creation. We would stick with the sounds that grew in the past hundred years. The frequent innovations and modulations that highlife music has undergone over the years has made it difficult to pinpoint the very origin and duration of existence. Did the sound just sprout up all over West Africa because of cultural similarities? In the midst of all these uncertainties, present day Ghana formerly known as Gold Coast gradually emerged as the core of Highlife music.
Ghana highlife music has roots in ‘Adaha’ a Nineteenth century kind of brass band mixed with influences from Caribbean melodies. In those days Cape Coast was the seat of the West Indian Regiment of Jamaica . ‘Adaha’ became the popular music in Ghana of those times and the costly nature of putting a full brass band paved way for sourcing sounds on more attainable instruments like the guitar.
The name ‘Highlife’ is believed to have originated from the glamorous nature of the high society orchestra. Guitar was pioneered by Sailors on the Kru Coast of Liberia and it spread to other parts of West Africa. When the sound now identified as ‘Highlife’ extended to Sierra Leone it became known as ‘Palm Wine Music’ and was the form of entertainment at bars providing the local liquor. Ghana’s Jacob Sam revolutionized the ‘palm wine’ notes around the early Nineteenth century by adding rhythm influences from his Kumasi native. In 1999, he composed the song “Yaa Amponsah” widely viewed as the template of ‘Highlife’ music a genre that gave birth to most of modern day West African music. The genre was associated with the Ghanaian creme de la creme of those times and it was a welcome relief to from the regimented Western dance and ballroom music.
This new sound allowed them to enjoy their dance uninhibited and not regimented in true African spirit. It was a complete change from the old order of Western ball room dance and the wave caught on in other African countries. People gathered around the dancing clubs watching couples enjoying themselves and listening to the music. Bands like Sekondi Nanshamang, Accra Orchestra’s had their songs played at these bars as the elites clad in their fancy outfits partied in the clubs and the people who couldn’t afford the fee to enter watched on. Then came the legendary ET Mensah who introduced styles like calypso and jazz to Highlife and took ti from the elite to the people. His popularity soared and the rest of the region developed a voracious appetite for Ghanaian Highlife popularized by ET Mensah and he performed extensively across West Africa.
Foremost Nigerian Jazz musician Bobby Benson was the first Nigerian musician to sample the new wave popularized by ET Mensah and one of Nigeria’s greatest Highlife exponents, Victor Olaiya follwed suit as the new sound became symbolic of West Africa from Dahomey, to Lagos to Accra to Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone etc.The West Africa region was at the height of independence push when Highlife music blew up and it grew extensively across the continent. ET Mensah became so popular in Nigeria and Nigerian bands had to perform his songs to satisfy a yearning public at many of their shows. As a matter of fact, around the mid Nineteenth century ET Mensah’s songs practically overtook Nigerian radio. Nigerian singers Roy Chicago and Rex Lawson made Highlife more Nigerian with Roy introducing the powerful Yoruba talking drum instrument and Rex infusing ‘Asiko’ sounds from Niger-Delta.
Highlife became the mainstay of Nigerian music until the civil war disrupted the flow. The top ‘Highlife’ musicians of that time who were mostly Igbo had to relocate from Lagos ,the Nation’s music heartbeat and other predominantly Yoruba genres like Juju, Fuji etc emerged to compete with the Highlife genre. However , Highlife did not lose that much dominance in Ghana, although other genres like Reggea , Soul etc gained more prominence over the years, highlife still remained a mainstay of Ghanaian music. With this genealogy traced, we can find the influence of Ghana’s highlife in virtually every genre of music that sprung after it in West Africa.
According to Nigeria’s Highlife legend Victor Olaiya “Every music in Nigeria borrows one thing or the other from highlife,” says Victor Olaiya, still actively keeping the highlife flame alight in his eighties. “Name it: fuji, juju, afro juju, afro anything; they all take or or two things from highlife.” The present day Afrobeats that is gaining worldwide popularity is loaded with plenty of highlife melodies. Highlife influences serve as the spice for most of the hit tunes of Afrobeats just like salt and seasoning to a good broth. Highlife may not be as captivating to the West African region as it was before but the genre lives through many West African genres of music. The current hottest song in Nigeria ‘Mad Over You’ by Runtown has the feel of the moden Ghanaian sound referred to as “Hiplife’. Need I say more? I guess we all can cut Mr Eazi some slack as the influence of Ghana’s highlife on Nigerian music is well documented.