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Ghana's Highlife Music Collection

Ghanaian Traditional Music

Wulomei, Kunta Kinte (1978)
Ghanaian Traditional Music

Ghanaian traditional music is essentially organized and performed as part of a living drama as an essential component of everyday life. There are types made for festivals, worship as well as the various annually celebrated ceremonies. There are those performed exclusively by men and women as well as a combination made up of both men and women.

Vocal music receives great emphasis as these songs offer the best platform for group participation at ceremonies, be they social or solemn funeral occasions. With a single drum to provide a background of rhythmical accompaniment, a bell or hand clapping to outline the pulsation of the music, a community will go on singing and dancing interminably.

The following Ghanaian traditional musicians, Osei Bonsu, Kramo Seidu, Vinoko Akpalu, Kwaa Mensah, Jacob Sam, Kwesi Menu and Mireku are among the numerous artists whose works are at the Museum.

Roots of Highlife Music

Highlife Music is essentially vocal. There always has to be a vocal interlude even when played with varied instruments. These songs are based on a variety of subjects: political, topical, humorous, songs about individuals, morals and death. The tunes are often catchy, sentimental or gay, and simple enough in outline to be readily grasped by the ordinary person.

The cultural importance of Highlife Music is the fact that it is “inter” tribal or ethnic and standardized as a song type. It serves as a type of popular music, which may be heard on the lips of the cross section of the people (the bread seller, the workman, students as well as the professional musician) – a popular music that may be sung by virtually anyone.

As Calypso Music is indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago and Reggae is to Jamaica, so is Highlife Music to Ghana. By the 1920’s Highlife Music had spread throughout the southern part of Ghana and played by three main types of ensemble: brass bands, dance orchestras and guitar bands.

The Regimental Bands of the West Indian soldiers stationed on the coast during the late 19th Century inspired local brass bands. In addition to marches and western music, they played a type of music known as “Adaha”. In the 1920’s local brass bands and fife bands were established in many provincial towns. They even influenced indigenous Akan (an ethnic group in Ghana) recreational music, which resulted in a version of brass bands known as “Konkoma” (marching groups) in the 1930’s. The type of music played by these “Konkoma” marching groups became very popular, and spread to Nigeria.

The second type of Highlife Music ensemble was the dance orchestra. The first dance orchestra, the Excelsior Orchestra, was founded in Accra in 1914. The music played was ballroom, ragtime and highlife. The group performed mostly at cinema and dance halls in Accra and Sekondi for the upper class Ghanaians who dressed in evening dress with top hats. By the 1930’s a number of similar orchestras of almost symphonic composition but playing popular dance tunes, came into existence. Among these were the Winneba Orchestra, the Sekondi Nanshamang, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies, Professor Grave’s Orchestra, the Asante Nkramo Band, The Koforidua Casino Orchestra. There were also Teacher Lamptey’s Accra Orchestra and the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra.

The third type of Ghanaian Highlife ensemble was those that played in local drinking bars. This earlier ensemble utilized sailor’s instruments; namely the guitar, local drums, claves, castanets also known as the Akan “apreprensiwa” or the Akan hand piano.

Kwame Sarpong © 2006 rev. 2014 FDL