By the late 1950s, highlife had become socially institutionalised as Ghana’s “musical soul” and as a powerful medium to express political ideas.
The music permeated all facets of the society and could be counted on to reach people in ways that newspapers at the time could not.
There were the public radio boxes at market places and lorry parks. During “Listeners’ Choice” programmes, people gathered near these boxes to listen to their favorite songs. Band competitions also attracted a lot of public attention. At football matches and other public events, police and army bands entertained the spectators with highlife.
Highlife songs are entertaining but they also reflect the challenges of daily social life. Significantly, Highlife has throughout Ghana’s history also evoked or reflected major political events or developments. At critical moments, a song is released that sums up the political mood of the country or sections of it.
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In 1967, Nana Kwame Ampadu, leader of the African Brothers Band, released Ebi Te Yie, one of the most politically-charged songs in Ghana’s post-colonial history. In the best tradition of Akan folklore, where allusive speech and well-placed allegories are deployed to avoid political censorship or drive home sensitive social messages, Ampadu simply narrated a story about a meeting in the animal kingdom.
This was a year after Ghana’s first military coup in 1966, a period of heightened political tension after the overthrow of President Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) government. Ampadu’s song was swiftly banned on radio. Apparently, he was also dragged before a military board to explain the true meaning of the song, which was puzzling because every perceptive person in the country correctly interpreted the song to be about injustice and the unequal distribution of wealth and power in post-colonial Ghana.
Ebi Te Yie brought political discussions to a boiling point and became Ghana’s musical equivalent to George Orwell’s authoritarian thesis in his book, Animal Farm. Not surprisingly, and perhaps feeling the heat of a military interrogation, Ampadu allegedly denied any political motive and said Ebi Te Yie was simply a story his father told him. That notwithstanding, Ebi Te Yie, is still a popular phrase used to express feelings of inequality in the Ghanaian society.
The Guitar Boy Coup
That same year, on the morning of April 17, Ghanaians were rudely woken up by the voice of a young Lieutenant, S.B. Arthur, announcing over Radio Ghana that he had taken over the administration of the country.
His operation was code named “Guitar Boy”, after a popular highlife song by Nigerian musician, Victor Uwaifo. As part of the plot, the coup makers had apparently secretly arranged for the song to be played on national radio to prompt their fellow conspirators into action. The hugely popular song suggests that you should not be afraid of Maami Water, the mythical sea goddess. This probably explains why it was chosen.
The ‘Guitar Boys’, a small but fierce band of disgruntled soldiers took great courage from Owaifo’s words of defiance emotively infused with his stirring guitars.
The coup failed and the conspirators were arrested and summarily executed by firing squad. The song was banned but remains one of the most enigmatic highlife songs.
The troubled years
If the 1960s marked the golden years of highlife, it was also the era in which the largest number of songs were banned from the airwaves. K. Gyasi’s song, Agyima Mansa about a ghost grieving for her suffering children was taken off Radio Ghana’s playlist because it was deemed to be an attack on President Nkrumah.
K. Nyame’s song Nsu B to a, nframa dzi kan (Before it starts raining, the wind blows), was quite a mundane song about the vicissitudes of life till it was requested on Nigerian radio for listeners in Ghana by Dr K. Busia, Nkrumah’s political opponent. It was widely interpreted as a warning to Nkrumah that his era was drawing to a close. The ominous lyrics make that quite clear.
Before it starts raining
The wind will blow.
I told you but you did not listen.
What were the composer’s real intentions? Nyame may simply have written a song about the unpredictability of life. He may also have intentionally written a political song or the public may have attached its own meaning to his song.
The folkloric roots of highlife, with its complex interplay of language and meaning, make the intention of highlife composers difficult to read. It is said that there is never one meaning to a highlife song. Significantly, highlife songs assumed their meaning and significance in the public domain.
Dr Busia became Prime Minister in 1969. Barely three years later he was overthrown by Colonel Akyeampong, who ironically also adopted a highlife song to give credence and moral significance to his actions. The song he adopted was by Kofi Sammy of Okukuseku II Band, entitled To Wo Bo Ase (Be careful/humble). It was triumphant in tone with gleeful words for the vanquished:
Be careful, friend.
The one who will beat you
Has not yet come.
So don’t say
No one can beat me
It is significant to note that sometime later this song was no longer played on radio. Acheampong’s military junta was probably also aware that the meaning of the song could well apply to them.
Indeed there were other critical songs that went for the political jugular of his corrupt regime. The most devastating perhaps was Konadu’s song Yede Wo (You were born with it), which was widely interpreted as making fun of the Colonel’s lack of scholarly credentials, his so-called poor command of English and perceived political failure.
Another song which became a “slogan” of public discontent during Acheampong’s rule was Nana Ampadu’s Aware Bone (Bad marriage). Again, this was meant to be a song about bad marriage but was widely interpreted to describe the shambolic handling of the economy and corruption. Mother Ghana was apparently married to a man called Acheampong.
Highlife and independence
If highlife songs expressed social discontent, it was also used to praise political leaders and support political campaigns. It can be said that during Ghana’s struggle for independence, the unwritten alliance between some of highlife’s most popular musicians and Nkrumah’s Party, the CPP was critical to winning independence.
As early as the 1940s, the Axim Trio took the popular campaign for independence to the remotest corners of the Gold Coast, sensitising people to the new Ghana with their stage plays and recorded songs. Most eulogised Nkrumah and extolled the virtues of political freedom. The songs included Independence Now, Nkrumah Will Never Die, and Nkrumah Is a Mighty Man.
E.K Nyame also commemorated Nkrumah’s release from prison in 1954 with his song, Onimdeefo Kukudurufo Kwame Nkrumah (Heroic and honorable Kwame Nkrumah). The colonial authorities did not readily understand the Twi texts infused with coded political messages, which gave the forces of independence a clear advantage.
Likewise, E.T. Mensah’s Tempos played at CPP rallies and composed songs to commemorate independence and Pan African unity. The Tempos highlife band was particularly important as its fusion of Ghanaian dance-melodies and western jazz instrumentation became a symbol of independence.
The political significance of highlife has been sustained to the present. Popular highlife songs still define political discourse and shape opinion, sometimes in decisive ways. No political party will, for example, go into a general election without adopting a Highlife song. The campaign, therefore, becomes a battle between the parties as much as the competing songs.
During the 2004 elections in Ghana, J.A Kufuor’s New Patriotic Party adopted a Daddy Lumba highlife song featuring Borax called Asee Ho (Down there). It was a hit song alright but what really made it work was the fact that Kufuor’s party also occupied the bottom position on the ballot papers.
Was this a coincidence or a stroke of marketing brilliance or both. The true answer lies in the enduring power of highlife and the central place it still occupies in the hearts of its makers and listeners.
Dr Kwesi Owusu is a writer/filmmaker and Executive Director of Creative Storm