Ghana's Highlife Music Collection
Interview with Oscarmore Ofori (2003)
Kwame Sarpong © 2003 rev. 2014 FDL
Mr. Agyare Twumasi A. Ofori, alias Oscarmore Ofori, was born on September 2nd 1930 at Odumasi Krobo in the Eastern Region of Ghana to Opanin Kwabena Twumasi Ankrah Ofori of the Royal House of Juaben in the Asante Region. His father was the grandson of Nana Juabeng Boateng. His mother, Madam Victoria Tawiah Asare was born in 1900 also to the Royal Houses of Odumasi Krobo and Begoro. She was the daughter of the 1st queen mother of Odumasi Krobo. She died in 1979 at a ripe age of 79 years. His wife is presently domiciled in the United Kingdom with his two grown up children (girls).
On the 12th day of May, 2003 upon hearing of the deteriorating health of Oscar whom I have known for the past 10 years, I rushed to his hometown of Odumase Krobo in the Eastern Region of Ghana to make sure that the history of this great son of Africa was documented before any unforeseen situations happened. Fortunately for me I met him sitting on the porch of his house resting and truly recovering from a serious bout of malaria fever. He was as happy to see me as I was. We chatted for sometime about life and all the new happenings in the music industry of late. I told him about my mission and what I had set myself doing in the area of Highlife music and the support I had just received from the Daniel Langlois Foundation to make it all become a reality. I noticed that his eyesight had deteriorated with age. For this I had to invite him to Cape Coast to see an optician so his eyes could be fitted with a pair of glasses to enable him see as well as read. Oscar, as I always called him, arrived in Cape Coast on Friday 16th May, 2003. The following day we met at the museum and this part of Oscar was revealed to me.
On his childhood and early music experiences, Oscar said that he started as a child with a Konkoma group at Bisa, a village near Asasewa in the Eastern Region. This was in 1943, when he was in Standard 3 at the local primary school. He was also a chorister at the local Methodist church. Oscar had this to say about his father:
“As a young boy, my father asked me to join him in Kumasi, in the Ashanti Region where he was a court registrar. He was a church organist so we had our own organ at home. After our mid-day break from school I played “Yaa Amponsah” at the organ. Because my father was a devout Christian he was strictly against me playing this type of music thinking that the song will not have any positive impact on my future upbringing”.
In 1945, his father was transferred to Old Juabeng in the Ashanti Region and Oscar had to come over with him. Here he became the leader of the school band and played the drum. Soon after, he was made the drum major, in other words, he became the leader of the band. Here again, his music teacher, the late Mr. Kwesi Baiden introduced him to the rudiments of church music on the guitar. This is what he had to say about this music teacher who was so very instrumental in his formative years as a musician:
“Mr. Baiden had an accordion and I accompanied him with my guitar. He formed a brass band between 1945 and 1946 and had me play the drums. He had a cantata group that won a prize in Kumasi in 1946. I sang in the group and also acted as the role of the dead in the play. I played it so well that the audience wondered how I could stay still for so long a time”. It was Mr. Baiden who taught me the rudiments of music. On completion of my education in 1949, my father again stopped me from playing the guitar, this time the excuse was that guitar playing was meant for drunkards.”
Kwame Sarpong: Oscar, what happened to you after the school years?
Oscarmore Ofori: After successfully completing my elementary school education I trained as a surveyor. I successfully completed this after 4 years. I was posted to the Agricultural Draftsman’s College in Accra as a topographical student for further courses. My unquenchable appetite for music was still in me. I began to take comprehensive correspondence courses in music with the School of Dance Music in London. I joined the Koforidua Royal Orchestra in 1951 and played the Hawaiian guitar. The Koforidua Royal Orchestra was the first band in the country to use the Hawaiian guitar in its music. I was therefore the first person to play this instrument in the country. The band was called “Royal” as it was meant for royals to play in it and as I was a royal myself (a grandson of Nana Juaben Boateng, the son of Oheneba Ntaherahene - the Chief of the Royal Hornblowers, who was my grandfather).
[Oscar’s life as a professional musician began with the Koforidua Royal Orchestra. Even whilst on transfer to Kibi as a draughtsman, he traveled every weekend to Koforidua to play with the band. The band played songs such as “That’s my girl” by Nat King Cole. This famous American Musician inspired him to study the more. Nat King Cole’s Guitarist had the name “Oscar”, and “more” was added to become “Oscarmore” when after any musical show the entire people there usually asked for more. Between 1953 and 1954 he left for Accra to join the Joe Kelley’s Band with a view of finally paving his way into a professional band. In 1954, the manager of Tip Toe Gardens who was nicknamed “Agyankaba” invited him to form the Rakers Dance Band.]
Oscar: Here I started writing my music and what ever came out of my pen became very popular. The early members of the band included Satchmo Korley, the leader, on trumpet, Suzer on alto sax, Big Boy on trombone, Karo on double bass, Opoku on drums as well as vocals for Akan songs, Bill Snowdon as vocalist for Western Music with myself on the guitars. Bill Snowdon is presently the chairman of Accra Turf Club. With Rakers Dance Band we recorded many songs, one being Agyankaba (orphan), to the memory of the manager of Tip Toe.
[The turning point in his life came when he was invited by the engineer of Decca Records, Mr. Crawley to their shop on Club Road for a meeting with the Decca country manager, Mr. Rawaz. In 1956, he was again invited to be the representative of Decca and as this was a full time job he had to leave the Rakers Dance Band.]
Oscar: In my capacity as the representative of Decca, I traveled to Nigeria and Sierra Leone. As a result of my affiliation with Decca most of my works were recorded on the Decca label by such Highlife bands as Black Beats, E.T. Memsah and His Tempos Band, Tommy Grippmann and His Red Spots Band, The Stargazers of Kumasi led by Peter Brembah, Comets Dance Band led by Teddy Osei later of Osibisa fame, and Broadway Dance Band.
Sarpong: Oscar, did you ever play in the vaudeville concert or concert party?
Oscar: Yes, I played with the Appiah Adjekum’s Band. I played the guitar. Appiah Adjekum’s wife was on the mandolin. In fact, she was the first Ghanaian woman to play this musical instrument in Ghana. Appiah Adjekum was on the first guitar.
Sarpong: Did you travel to other countries?
Oscar: Yes. I was in Nigeria as the first Ghanaian Highlife musician and taught many musicians how to play the Highlife music. Included are Bobby Benson’s Jazz Combo and Victor Olaiya and his Cool Cats. The song that became popular was “San Bra” (come back) recorded on the Senafone Label.
Sarpong: How do you qualify your style of music?
Oscar: I think I can boast here a little. My music was and is still the best. There is nothing known in Ghana as “palm wine Highlife music”. John Collins has coined this. I qualify my style of music as “folk”, which some choose to call concert party guitar playing. I am therefore a folk guitarist. I had wanted to turn be-bop into Highlife. This I stopped as I was going the American way. During my stay in the USA I traveled to Hawaii where I picked some of their style of guitar playing. They strum a lot and sing in the same way. In 1960, the late Dr. Ephraim Amu and Professor Atta Anang advised me to stick to my style which was folk music and to concentrate on the Phonic Sofa as the basic of what I intended to do. I am forever grateful to these two great sons of Ghana.
Sarpong: Is there any foreign influence in your music?
Oscar: Yes, in my formative years with the songs of Nat King Cole. Also the late Hungarian musicologist, Professor Kodaly took me as an assistant researcher into folk music. It was while attending Listz Academy of Music in Budapest that I started studying with Professor Kodaly. Together with him, I came to London and studied again under Sir Malcolm Sargeant who was an Advisory Committee Member of the Royal Tonic Solfa College of Music in London. Interactions with great musicians aroused in me the deep interest to appreciate folk music and creativity.
Sarpong: May I know now what inspires you in creating a song and what are your favorite themes?
Oscar: I have been funny all my life and on many occasions tried to pull people’s legs, however, after car accident in 1958, I turned to creating Christian songs. You can rightfully say that my songs were both comical and spiritual.
My favorite songs are “Gyae Su” and “Odo Bra” both recorded by Broadway Dance Band and “Dora” by Stargazers Dance Band of Kumasi. All these I know you have at the museum. Most Ghanaian musicians do not write their own music and this is affecting the music industry in Ghana of late. In this regard I would strongly appeal to the band owners to tap on the experiences of we the older musicians so they can come up with some good Highlife music.
[Oscar plans to have his own Archive of Traditional Music involving recordings, documentation and possibly publishing. Presently he earns his living from royalties from his music. He also has a place at the Palace of the Omanhene of the New Juabeng Traditional Area as the State Hornblower. He also does research work at the International Centre for African Music and Dance at Legon. Oscar’s favourite performing artist is Mr. Suzer who was the alto saxophonist with him in the Rakers Dance Band. His favourite group is the one he formed - Rakers Dance Band.]
Sarpong: Do you keep your early recordings and would you accept to deposit them in the museum knowing so well what we are doing in the preservation of Ghanaian Highlife music of which you are a great exponent?
Oscar: Yes my brother, I am willing to donate these at this institution of yours. Already I have with me two of them here for the museum as a start of this promise.
Sarpong: Thank you so much for your kind gesture. The Centre and Ghanaians will forever remember you and your good works.
Oscarmore Ofori is also a traditional musician coming from a family of musicians. He began his apprenticeship in traditional music a tender age of 12 years. Presently he teaches the youth in cultural education at the Eastern Regional Centre for National Culture where he works at the moment, the type of culture to be introduced to the young ones in schools. He teaches Kete (a type of royal court music of the Akan ethnic group of Ghana) drumming sessions at the Dwabeng Traditional Court and is one of the state horn blowers at the Royal Court or Palace of the Omanhene of New Juaben, Dasebre Oti Boateng. He plays either the atenteben or odurugya to accompany specific designed songs to boost up the image as well as the relationship of the Omanhene and his subjects when he sits in state. One of such repertoire is “Dasebere Aye Ade” which means that Daasebre, the paramount chief has done so much for his people.
Oscar has his own group well into specialized traditional drumming. They play the”Adwubi Kete” which is the actual Kete. The late Asantehene Otumfuo Opoku Ware II commissioned him to write a folk opera during the Asanteman Unification Celebrations (150 years) in 1996. The membership of the group was from the choirs of the Kumasi, Sunyani and Koforidua Adeshema groups under the direction of Brother Pius Agyeman of Koforidua roman catholic dioceses. The title of the song was “Osee yee Asanteman Nkabomuu adi mfie oha aduonum” (Hurray, the unification of Asanteman is one hundred and fifty years).
In all Oscar claims to have composed over 200 songs. Sixty of these are recorded and are all hits, examples being “Gyae Su” which in the Akan language of Ghana means “stop weeping” and “Awo Yi”, which means “this cold” that tells of the hardships of Africans in countries where it gets so very cold. According to him those not recorded are the best in his thinking. These compositions touched on many topics such as comical, political and religious issues.
Examples of comical issues are: “Se ene me beye a” (if you would like us to be lovers then you have to dress well) and “Obroni Wewu e!” (Referring to the advent of used clothing from Europe in the 1950’s). The religious lyrics always brought him nearer to his creator. His first recording was “San Bra Fie” recorded on the Senafone Label in 1954. Some of his recordings are:
- Akwankwaa Hiani: A Folk song – honourable poor man.
- Berebere: A Folk song - softly
- Mekyin or Mebegyaamo – always moving on.
- Abrantie Pa – honourable young man
- Kafodidi – the debtor also eats.
- Odo Sore – my love wake up.
- Odo Ye Owu – love is death.
- Gyae Su – stop weeping.
- Odo Bra – my love come over.
- Me Nye Wo Bewu – I will die with you.
- De Ehuo – inferior quality material.
- Agoodzi or Agoogyi – beautiful
- Mac Special
- Nyame Ayebi – the Lord has done so much for us.
- Dora – name of a girl.