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UNESCO’s Intangible cultural heritage and Highlife music

BY: Yaw Owusu-Frempong (PhD)
Ambolley says Highlife music is the ‘mother’ of all ‘danceable’ music

IN recent times, one of the operative concepts that has crept into UNESCO’s jargon and acronyms is “intangible cultural heritage” (ich).

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are three related UNESCO Conventions on Culture and Heritage namely: Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005).

These Conventions allow States to list an element such as Highlife music as an intangible cultural heritage. Intangible cultural heritage according to Owusu-Ansah’s article published in the Entertainment Section of the Daily Graphic on Saturday, May 21st, 2022 titled, “UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage: Making A Case for Highlife’s Inclusion” are “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith - that communities, groups, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”.

Additionally, it is important to note that the cultural policy of Ghana is dedicated to the vision of the people of Ghana to respect, preserve, harness and use their cultural heritage and resources to develop a united, vibrant and prosperous national community with a distinctive African identity and personality and a collective confidence and pride of place among the comity of nations of the world.

Highlife music and identity
First, it is important to note that Ghana’s Highlife music was developed from traditional African roots, such as osibi and adaha, etc. to new genres now christened Highlife, Afrobeat, Hiplife, Gospel Highlife and Jazz Highlife. Highlife music was brewed in the Ghanaian cultural pot.

According to Professor John Collins, the term “Highlife” did not come into use until 1920 even though it existed before then. It consisted of three elements: the indigenous African (Ghanaian), the European and the New World Music of the Black Diaspora.

Highlife music is a trans-cultural popular and the UNESCO representative in Ghana, Mr. Abdourahman Diallo has stated that Highlife music is an integral part of Ghana’s cultural heritage and the sub region and has over the years contributed to dialogue on societal issues.

In modern Ghana, we still play and dance to the different traditional genres of music, such as the Akan adowa, the Ewe agbadza, the Ga kpanlogo and the Sahelian music of the North. Each one of these musical genres has its own polyrhythms and its own particular dance movements and gestures. Hence, it is usually difficult, for example, for a non-Ewe speaking Ghanaian to dance to agbadza rhythm.

However, Highlife music is the only musical genre in Ghana that unites us as a people and invites everybody to the dance floor whenever its rhythmic chords are struck, irrespective of one’s ethnic background. It has no ethnic boundaries.

Highlife music gives the dancer to the music freedom to express himself or herself, on the dance floor with movements, such as Ambolley’s “Simigwado” dance. Highlife is truly a dance of “democracy”.

Not only does it allow free dance movements, “its tradition of proverbial songs, love songs about women and song texts (in our own local languages)are vehicle for free speech, social commentary and are cultural components that Ghanaians cherish”, to quote Owusu Ansah of the Copyright Office.

Indeed, Highlife music presents to the Ghanaian a meaning that is experienced and expressed with the body – that is to say, with his mind, his feelings, his senses, his will and his metabolism.

According to Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, Highlife music is the ‘mother’ of all ‘danceable’ music and like all danceable music that can be recorded in the studio, it has rhythmic, harmonic materials, bass fitting and vocal accompaniment, if needed.

Ambolley has added further that Highlife music has two dominant parts, the female and the male. These are negative and positive vibes that fuse together to create the “flow” of Highlife music. For time signature purposes, the female part consists of 3 beats (ka –ka- ka); whereas the male part which is the more aggressive part contains 5 beats per measure (ka-ka –ka- ; kaka).

Highlife music at risk
Globalisation and technological advancements in the 21st century have brought radical transformations into people’s cultures and traditions and have generally affected the making of music. Over the years, Highlife music has given birth to other music genres such as Afrobeat, Hiplife, Highlife jazz, etc.

Fortunately, the classic Highlife style has remained part of our cultural heritage and has resisted the pull to the middle ground. The present generation has a duty to preserve, protect, safeguard and promote it. The time has come for Highlife music to be listed and safeguarded as “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO.

Safeguarding practices documentation and listing process
For me, it would be hypocritical to list Highlife as an “intangible cultural heritage without giving recognition to the traditional and local Ghanaian sources that influenced its development.

These include, Adowa, Adenkum, Asaadua, Apoo, Kete, Sikyi, Kpatsa, Bosoe, Konkoma, Odonson, etc. The documentation of Highlife must recognise the contribution of indigenous traditional music to the Highlife genre. The publication of Ephraim Amu’s Twenty-five African Songs in 1933 marked the beginning of a new era in the musical practice of Ghana. Before it, African music in Ghana had been practiced largely by oral tradition. The Folk Songs of Ghana was published in 1963 by the Emeritus Professor Kwabena Nketia’s and followed by “reinstatement of indigenous traditional music in contemporary context”.

Apart from these, other efforts have been made by ethnomusicologists and researchers to document the traditional music of Ghana and study our traditional musical instruments.

UNESCO has not prescribed a template for listing an element to qualify as an intangible cultural heritage. However, its “Procedure of inscription of elements on the Lists and of Sel and the Folk Songs of Ghanaection of Good Safeguarding Practices” enjoins Ghana to demonstrate that:
a. Highlife music is in urgent need of safeguarding because its viability is at risk despite the efforts of individuals, the community, the group and the individual;
b. Highlife reflects cultural diversity worldwide and testifies to human creativity;
c. Safeguarding measures to protect and promote highlife must show concern for continuance of the practice and transmission;
d. The widest possible participation and consent of the, community, group or individuals are ensured.

Stakeholders meeting
The Highlife Music Stakeholders Conference, organised by the Ghana Folklore Board and the Ghana Cultural Forum held on March 4, 2022. The conference was meant to discuss plans by which Ghana’s Highlife music can be listed on the UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage database.

Showbiz personalities and academics who attended the conference included Amandzeba, Gyedu-Blay Ambolley, Bessa Simons, Smart Nkansah, Ackah Blay, Prof. John Collins, Nana Asaase and Bosco Ahuma. The Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Mr. Mark Okraku-Mantey was present.

The UNESCO timeline for submitting an element to be labeled as an intangible cultural heritage is only two years. We are therefore proposing that another stakeholder’s meeting be convened to look at the outline and components of the “roadmap” that Ghana will develop to get Highlife music listed as intangible cultural heritage.

The involvement and input of Highlife music practitioners, Highlife music producers, academics, the Music Departments of the various public universities and other stakeholders such as, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, National Commission on Culture; Musicians Union of Ghana, Copyright Office, Folklore Board, Culture Forum, Ghana Tourism Authority is critical for formulating a constructive, inclusive roadmap. The State must lead the formulation of the roadmap.

Author: Yaw Owusu-Frempong - Founding Member of the Highlife Institute and the Executive Producer of Vivivi Music Studios.
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