This is the third 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 and 60’s.
ACCRA: THE Swinging 1950’s and 60’s
Born in 1919, Emmanuel Tettey Mensah’s musical talent was spotted early at school by one of his teachers, Joe Lamptey. In the early 1930’s, Lamptey formed the Accra Orchestra and invited the young E.T. to join as a piccolo player. E.T. soon progressed to saxophone and also learned to play the organ and trumpet. The Accra Orchestra became the best-known pre – war orchestra. Later, E. T. and his older brother, Yebuah formed their own Accra Rhythmic Orchestra which won the Lambeth Walk Dance Competition in 1939. The event took place at the King George Memorial Hall which served as Parliament House in Ghana’s first and second republics.
When Highlife Dance orchestras became popular during World War II as a result of the influx of American and British troops, E.T. was in the middle of the action fusing local sounds with Jazz and Swing standards. He jammed at the new nightclubs and drinking bars with names like Weekend-in-Havana and the New York Bar. Accra’s nightlife lit up with multiracial bands playing curious hybrids of music including Jazz infused Highlife. E.T. left his brother’s Accra orchestra to join the Black and White Spots, the first combo set up by one Sergeant Leopard in 1940. Leopard was before the war an accomplished professional saxophonist in England. E.T. said he liked his playing technique. He in turn taught the Scot how to ‘swing to the Highlife’.
Later, after studying and practicing pharmacy in the Ashanti Region and returning to Accra in 1947, Mensah joined the original Tempos band, now a seven-piece band with Joe Kelly on tenor sax and Guy Warren on drums. E.T. doubled on trumpet and sax. The band soon started to make waves on Accra’s night club scene and quickly gained a reputation for their creative interpretations of the Jazz standards. The personnel of the Tempos Band changed frequently but E.T. always managed to assemble some of the best musicians in town.
The Tempos band became a hub of musical ideas with E.T. Mensah, Joe Kelly and Guy Warren leading the way to expand Highlife’s musical frontiers. Guy Warren (Kofi Ghanaba), made trips to the United States during World War II when he was recruited as an intelligence agent for the U.S. Army. He discovered an exciting Jazz scene in Chicago and returned to Accra with the latest records and far reaching musical ideas. Warren also popularized Jazz as a disc jockey on Gold Coast Broadcasting Service. Music differences however led to a split with E.T. In the event, E.T. Mensah took his own direction in 1950 with a band that introduced Ghanaian Highlife to Nigeria and which spread its influence as far as the Congo and East Africa. In 1952, he recorded for Decca Records and made his first solo trip to London in 1953 where he performed with jazz regulars in Soho clubs. Mensah also recorded some 78rpms for HMV’s GV series.
Always the restless innovator, Warren travelled again, first to Liberia in 1953 where his band, the Afro Cubists, played at the inauguration of President William Tubman. He stayed on in Monrovia to work as a journalist and radio presenter, becoming the first African to present a programme on the BBC World Service. Then he went to the United States in 1955, first to Chicago, then to New York where he played with Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Sarah Vaughan. He also rehearsed with John Coltrane and Thelonius Monk.
In 1956, Warren recorded his most famous album for Decca, Africa Speaks, America Answers. The hit track, That Happy Feeling, is a melodious fusion of Jazz and Highlife. The album, eventually sold over a million copies worldwide, indicating the global potential of Highlife infused music from Ghana. Other albums followed. In 1958, he recorded Themes for African Drums, then African Rhythms, Eme
Through the influence of Warren, the bongos, congas, maracas and other Latin percussion items were added to the Highlife line up. The band also incorporated calypsos into their repertoire and composed Highlife songs inspired as much by the Caribbean breeze as by the smoky dives of James Town. Internationally, Calypso was all the rage and songs by Harry Belafonte, the King of Calypso, were regularly heard on local radio. Matilda released in 1953 was particularly popular, not to mention Belafonte’s biggest hit, The Banana Boat Song, with its signature lyric, “ Day – O!” ET’s hit songs, Day by Day, Gbaa Anokwale and Ghana Guinea Mali reflects the impact of the Calypsonians, some of whom, inspired by political developments in Ghana reciprocated. Lord Kitchener wrote Birth of Ghana, a popular tribute to Ghana’s independence in 1957.
E.T.’s experimentations went even further. Senorita, combined African and European styles with Spanish vocalization and Congolese rhythms. Daavi Loloto is sung in Ewe but deploys a scintillating beat that is clearly Latin inspired and even includes Bossa Nova – like call and response chants. Songs like Nkebo Bayaa (I shallgo with you), Munsuru, andEssie Nana, also covered the familiar themes of Highlife; romanticlove, the tragedy of death, social implications of being poor, importance of curbing jealousy and greed, promoting personal freedom etc. This time however, the songs were sung with renewed enthusiasm, the music infused with happy criss cross rhythms to reflect the optimistic times.
The 1950’s was generally a period of nationalist agitation for independence. It is also true to say that the social mood was optimistic about the future. The Tempos band evoked this optimistic mood with their big happy sound. E.T. himself always had a happy smile and was ready to ignite the dance floor with his unmistakable saxophone solos and Kpanlogo inspired drum calls.
The line up for the Tempos Band, for example, always appeared to be changing but E.T. was never short of replacements. At any point in time, he managed to assemble some of the best musicians in town. At the height of its fame in the 1960’s, the Tempos band included; Les Brown on guitar, Tommy Gripman, trombone, Spike Anyankor, alto sax, Tom Thumb Ado, drums, Dan Acquaye, bongos, and Duke Hesse, congas. The regular singer was Dan Acquaye, but Mensah also created exceptional instrumentals which always featured his sweet horn arrangements.
During the early 1960’s, Highlife music in Accra came to be invigorated by the sensational drum dance music form, Kpanlogo, reputed to have been originated by Otoo Lincoln. Kpanlogo renewed interest in Ga traditional music and popular creativity in Accra was energized in a variety of exciting ways. Communities like James Town, Osu, Labadi and Korle Wokon came alive with Kpanlogo jamborees and dance competitions at beach parties, weddings and other social events.
Kpanlogo brought back the vibrancy of indigenous dance to Highlife which seemed to be developing away from its popular roots. Once it had been adopted by colonial high society during the war years, the best Highlife bands played at clubs which were not affordable to the poor masses. They usually gathered outside colonial state functions and clubs to watch the couples going inside, usually in their full evening dress including tail coats and top hats. In effect, Highlife Dance music with its big orchestras had become the music of European Ballroom in the colonies. This elitist development gradually changed with increased Africanisation, a political programme advocated by the nationalist movement. The new faces however were members of the Ghanaian elite, mostly lawyers, doctors, civil servants and other western educated professionals.
E.T. Mensah nonetheless caught up with the grass roots popularity of the Kpanlogo craze and transformed his performances into energetic dancing jamborees. His extended live percussion breaks became a huge attraction especially at his Paramount Club. On record, songs like Abele tried to capture the excitement. On the streets of Accra however, Kpanlogo exploded into many sensational variants like Alogodzan and Mma Mma as musical groups competed to create and perform the most popular styles.
Otoo Lincoln composed well known tunes like ABC Kpanlogo, Ayinle Momobiye and Alogoligi. His collaborators from Bukom Square, Kpanlogo’s nerve centre included Frank Lane and Okule Foes. They formed the Black Eagles Dance Group and created many styles, inspired by Ga fishermen songs. These young musicians gave the old songs new relevance and created exciting dances to go with them. In the process, they incorporated highlife and even Rock ‘n’ Roll movements. At the height of Kpanlogo’s popularity, the variety of styles included some risqué versions which were temporarily banned by the Ga traditional authorities for their supposedly ‘indecent’ movements.
The pioneering career of Otoo Lincoln mirrors that master drummer, Mustapha Tettey Addy, who was also a product of old Accra and steeped in the traditional culture. His father was a Ga priest (Wonche) who performed music as an integral part of ancestral dedication and worship. Addy and his brothers learnt to play the Obonu (traditional drum) very young. In their teens, during the early 1960’s they were involved in popularizing Kpanlogo drum and dance all over Accra. Later, Addy was invited to teach at the School of performing Arts, University of Ghana and toured internationally from the late 1960’s, releasing several excellent albums, including the classic, The Royal Drums of Ghana.
E.T. Mensah’s career dipped in the late 1960’s but he made comebacks in the 1970s with the help of promoter Faisal Helwani and even toured in the 1980’s. E.T., the legendary master of Highlife will always be remembered for spearheading the golden years of Highlife in Accra and popularizing the music beyond the shores of Ghana. He also mentored several other musicians who went on to form their own Highlife and Jazz bands. Spike Anyankor, his alto saxophonist formed the Rhythm Aces, Saka Acquaye helped form the Black Beats, and Tommy Gripman formed the Red Spots. Others like Ray Ellis, Dan Tackie and vocalist Juliana Okine all paid their dues in the Tempos before moving on.
Countless other musicians contributed to the development of Highlife scene in Accra. A few deserve special mention. King Bruce followed a similar career path to ET. Also born in Accra (1922) and a great composer, King Bruce wrote some of the most poetic Highlife songs which like E.T. were distinguished by relaxed melodies and swinging beats. His mother sung in a traditional women’s singing group and his eldest brother, Kpakpo Thompson, taught him how to play the piano.
King Bruce attended the prestigious Achimota College where his teachers included the famous Phillip Gbeho, who composed Ghana’s national anthem and Doctor Ephraim Amu, the legendary musicologist. After school, King was initiated into the Accra Jazz and Swing music scene by hanging out with musicians like Adolf Doku, Guy Warren and Joe Kelly. He learnt to play the trumpet but only started playing in a band after returning from England in 1951 where he studied to become a civil servant with the posts and telegrams company, P & T. He jammed with the Tempos playing claves and joined Teacher Lamptey’s Accra Orchestra. King stayed with this group until 1952, when formed the Black Beats Band with tenor saxophonist Saka Acquaye.
King Bruce’s introduced a simple but successful innovation into Highlife dance music. The dominance of the vocals in the instrumental line up. Three or even four vocalists up front complimented by the band, rather than the other way round. Bruce was a prolific and creative songwriter and this was his way of ensuring that his witty and poetic lyrical content was clearly articulated and given prominence in the band’s musical output.
Bruce wrote songs that presented personal and social issues with wit and sarcasm. Laimomo (Old Firewood / Lover), describing the temptations presented by ex lovers became an instant hit. In this song, he deploys the image of blazing (old) firewood that refuses to be quenched to describe the illicit love affair. Srotoi Ye Mli (there indeed are differences) invites the listener (likely e to be male) to consider the wide variety of women, using innuendo to tease out sexual expectation. Agoogyi (slang for cash) was another of Bruce’s popular hit. Composed by Oscarmore Ofori, the legendary Highlife songwriter, a man impresses his woman by telling her to relax because cash is not a problem. The song offered a simple but catchy chorus which young men of the time learnt to sing well.
The dramatic rise of the Black Beats suffered a major setback in 1961 when saxophonist Jerry Hansen and nine musicians left to form the Ramblers Dance band. Not to be discouraged, King Bruce recruited a second-generation band and went into the studio. In no time he bounced back with more hits for Decca – “Se Nea Woti Ara” (1 Love You Just the Way You Are ) and Odo Fofor (New Love) both romantic ballads with poetic lyrics which consolidated Bruce’s position as a great songwriter.
After splitting from the Black Beats, Jerry Hansen’s 15 piece big band adopted a similar line up to the Black Beats. Ama Bonsu, Auntie Christie, and Knock on Wood, a soul Highlife version of the Eddie Floyd song, were mostly catchy with vocal harmony over guitars and percussion. In the late 1960’s, King Bruce, still a civil servant made a dramatic decision to stop playing and turn band manager. In the event he formed a dozen bands, all with names starting with B: Barbacues, Barons, Barristers, B Soyaya and Barons etc. These bands played throughout the 1970’s carrying King Bruce’s torch for great Highlife music distinguished by exceptional lyrical content and melodious baking.
Dr Kwesi Owusu is the CEO of Creative Storm and Director of The Environmental Film Festival in Ghana.