This is the second essay in a three-part series on Ghana’s Highlife music, documenting the story of how highlife music blew up in the heady days of the 1950’s.
ACCRA: THE Swinging 1950’s
Originally built around a port, Accra became the capital of the British-ruled Gold Coast from 1877 and the new Ghana from 1957. During the 19th century, the city gradually transformed into a modern metropolis and an economic and administrative hub. Accra also attracted migrants and became a cultural melting pot where music styles from various origins met.
There was the colonial expatriate community, shuttling backwards and forwards from Europe and America and migrants from across the West African
sub region. Kru Sailors from Liberia for example visited the city regularly. They used to travel the whole length of the West African coast, usually as hired crew on European and American vessels and transported instruments like the guitar, concertina and tambourine from place to place. They also came with their music which was fused with local Ga rhythms like as Kolomashie and Kpanlogo.
From the 1950’s onwards, Accra saw a proliferation of dance bands, choral groups, church musical groups, funeral groups and traditional recreational groups. This incidentally also became a rich source of musical talent for the Highlife bands. Their successful use of western instruments to play African tunes mirrored the fact that a western socio-political structure was also becoming rapidly Africanized. Like Takoradi, Accra was a coastal city and strategically placed as a cross cultural
meeting point. The capital city also gave to Highlife a certain respectability
as the bands adopted formal evening wear to play at government functions,
sherry parties and dances.
The spectacular success of E.T. Mensah
If one musician and his band typified the excitement of the Highlife scene in Accra during its golden years between the 1950’s and 1960’s, it was E.T. Mensah and his Tempos Band. This immensely talented musician and his band literally owned the popular franchise for Highlife in Accra throughout his career spanning the post
war years and the optimistic days of Ghana’s independence. And if one event came to symbolize his dominance of the scene, it was the visit of Louis Armstrong, the legendary Jazz trumpeter, popular known as “Satchmo.”
Everybody remembers the momentous welcome at Accra Airport in May 1956. It became one of the most talked about events leading to Ghana’s independence in 1957. James Moxon, Director of the Colonial Department of Information Services had invited and provided transport for thirteen of Accra’s Highlife bands, including E.T. Mensah and the Tempos Band. Invariably the crowd was kept waiting but shortly before the plane touched down the bands took up their positions and the crowd, which would reach 15,000, slowly began to build.
In his fascinating book, Black Star in the Wind, Robert Raymond, one of Moxon’s colleagues describes the scene after the plane landed , when the bands stuck E.T. Mensah’s song, aptly improvised for the occasion – “All For You , Louie, All For You.”
“Then the spirit took charge. The crowd suddenly swarmed over the fence into the
prohibited tarmac area, and the two cultures met with explosive zest. The
police and customs officers watched helplessly. A dozen trumpet players swung
in behind Armstrong. They blew their hardest in his ear as they marched along.
The Americans, now with the tune between their teeth, blew as hard as anyone, led by Armstrong’s swinging, driving trumpet. As the animated mass of players and singing people moved across the tarmac, gathering strength and impetus all the time, the noise and the clamor rose to the skies in the greatest paean of welcome Accra had ever known.”
Following the exuberant welcome, Armstrong and his party were taken by motorcade to their quarters in Accra. The band later played at the Old Polo Grounds in Accra where independence was declared a year later. This concert also turned out to be a sensational event by all accounts. The crowd was so huge Raymond
described it as “an overwhelming, almost frightening sight.” As the
band began to play amidst wild cheering, the crowd tried to spread out to
dance. Eventually, the speaker system was disabled and the band stand and
camera equipment came into danger. It was necessary for the band to depart.
E.T., Satchmo and all that Jazz at Paramount Club
That evening, Armstrong’s All Stars played at E.T. Mensah’s Paramount open air club in Accra. By all accounts, it was also a great work out. ” The atmosphere and the music were so infectiously happy..The American musicians spent hours on the bandstand playing with the local men. Trummy Young who must have had an unquenchable enthusiasm for music, played every number.He was the comedian of the group, and occasionally finished a frantic solo lying on his back, working the slide of his trombone with his foot.” 
At midnight, Armstrong and his wife left for home. But not before Armstrong is rumoured to have grabbed the microphone and made his famous request in Ga, “ ET, twaa me beatii !” ( E.T., play me the beat!) He certainly must have benefited from some language lessons. The rest of the band went to another club – Weekend In Havana – where they apparently jammed till the morning.
During the 1950’s “Satchmo” became e hugely popular in the Gold Coast as a result of Jazz and more Jazz on radio. GuyWarren, ex drummer of the Tempos as crusading DJ of Gold Coast Broadcasting Corporation always talked about him and played his music, not least When the Saints Go Marching In, All of Me, and Bye and Bye. These became listeners’ favourites.
Armstrong’s visit assumed greater significance because of its timing. Politically, it was a tense year before independence. Preparations were underway for another set of general elections and a British royal visit was pending that summer. Both the British authorities and the transitional government led by Prime Minister Nkrumah were keen to defuse the tension with a unifying event.
Armstrong’s popularity and easy going personality lent themselves to this. “By
jove, Louis is as great as his instrument”, E.T. Mensah waxed lyrically
about his idol and new found friend and earned a headline quote in New York
Herald Tribune’s report of the visit. (5/24/56)
Coincidentally, Pepsi Cola had also placed an Armstrong headshot inside bottle
tops in a popular competition with cash prizes for winners (people with the most tops). The innovative marketing campaign, complete with barefoot marketers and mobile cinema vans contributed to making “Satchmo” a household name in the Gold Coast.
Armstrong’s visit made an impressionable impact on Accra’s Highlife scene by drawing global media attention to it. Armstrong’s entourage included a filming crew from United Artists that flashed back to the world images of a happy and relaxed Armstrong blowing his trumpet on the Accra beach and enjoying time in his “ancestral homeland”. At a traditional durbar held in his honour, Armstrong sighted a woman that he said looked exactly like his mother and sent exciting telegrams to his friends in America.
His presence on the local band stand, not to mention the ease with which he played
Highlife helped consolidate the music’s progressive relationship with Jazz. And if local musicians needed a seal of approval, it could not come from anyone better than Armstrong, then establishing himself as one of the most popular Jazz acts in the world.
For the king of Highlife, E.T. Mensah, the visit consolidated his position as the leading songwriter of Ghana’s independence movement. He wrote the Ghana Freedom to mark the historic occasion in 1957 and followed it in 1958 with Ghana – Guinea – Mali, tribute to the political union of the three West African countries.
E.T.’s popularity throughout West Africa, especially in Nigeria also played well with the nationalist political emphasis on African unity at the time. As a result of his visits there, Nigerian bands had started to play Highlife . E.T. performed “Nike Nike” and “Okamo” on his return. E.T. even trained quite a few Nigerian musicians and brought under his creative influenced others like Rex Lawson, Victor Owaifo, and Roy Chicago. The Tempos visited Abidjan in 1955 and toured Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in 1958. Songs like “Nkebo Baaya” (I’ll go with you in the Ga language) and “Medze Medze”, ( I’ll eat and eat in the Akan language) a delightful but coded song about making love also became a Pan African anthem on the new external radio service of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation.
*All photographs in this article are from the Ghana National Archive.
Dr Kwesi Owusu is the CEO of Creative Storm and Director of The Environmental Film Festival in Ghana.