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Highlife is a music genre that originated in present-day Ghana early in the 20th century, during its history as a colony of the British Empire. It uses the melodic and main rhythmic structures of traditional Akan music, but is played with Western instruments.


Highlife is characterised by jazzy horns and multiple guitars which lead the band. Recently it has acquired an uptempo, synth-driven sound.[1][2][3]

The following arpeggiated highlife guitar part is modeled after an Afro-Cuban guajeo.[4] The pattern of attack-points is nearly identical to the 3-2 clave motif guajeo as shown below. The bell pattern known in Cuba as clave is indigenous to Ghana and Nigeria, and is used in highlife.[5]

Top: clave. Bottom: highlife guitar part ( Play ).


In the 1920s, Ghanaian musicians incorporated foreign influences like the foxtrot and calypso with Ghanaian rhythms like osibisaba (Fante).[6] Highlife was associated with the local African aristocracy during the colonial period, and was played by numerous bands including the Jazz Kings, Cape Coast Sugar Babies, and Accra Orchestra along the country's coast.[6] The high class audience members who enjoyed the music in select clubs gave the music its name. The dance orchestra leader Yebuah Mensah (E.T. Mensah’s older brother) told John Collins in 1973 that the term 'highlife' appeared in the early 1920's "as a catch-phrase for the orchestrated indigenous songs played at [exclusive] clubs by such early dance bands as the Jazz Kings, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies, the Sekondi Nanshamang and later the Accra Orchestra. The people outside called it the highlife as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside, who not only had to pay a relatively high entrance fee of about 7s 6d (seven shillings and sixpence), but also had to wear full evening dress, including top-hats if they could afford it."[7] From the 1930s, Highlife spread via Ghanaian workers to Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Gambia among other West African countries, where the music quickly gained popularity.

An invitation to a concert featuring Louis Armstrong "from America" and E. T. Mensah and his Tempos Band "of West African Fame"

In the 1940s, the music diverged into two distinct streams: dance band highlife and guitar band highlife. Guitar band highlife featured smaller bands and, at least initially, was most common in rural areas. Because of the history of stringed instruments like the seprewa in the region, musicians were happy to incorporate the guitar. They also used the dagomba style, borrowed from Kru sailors from Liberia, to create highlife's two-finger picking style.[6] Guitar band highlife also featured singing, drums and claves. E.K. Nyame and his Akan Trio helped to popularize guitar band highlife, and would release over 400 records during Nyame's lifetime.[6] Dance band highlife, by contrast, was more rooted in urban settings. In the post-war period, larger dance orchestras began to be replaced by smaller professional dance bands, typified by the success of E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. As foreign troops departed, the primary audiences became increasingly Ghanaian, and the music changed to cater to their tastes. Mensah's fame soared after he played with Louis Armstrong in Accra in May 1956, and he eventually earned the nickname, the "King of Highlife".[6] Also important from the 1950s onward was musician King Bruce, who served as band leader to the Black Beats. Some other early bands were, the Red Spots, the Rhythm Aces, the Ramblers and Broadway-Uhuru.


Highlife in jazzEdit


  1. ^ "Igbo Highlife Music". Pamela Stitch. 17 July 2011. Archived from the original on 1 October 2014. Retrieved 1 October 2014. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  2. ^ Oti, Sonny (2009). Highlife Music in West Africa. African Books Collective. ISBN 978-978-8422-08-2.
  3. ^ Davies, Carole Boyce (2008). Encyclopedia of the African diaspora: Origins, experiences, and culture. ABC-CLIO, Inc. p. 525. ISBN 978-1-85109-700-5.
  4. ^ Eyre, Banning (2006: 9). "Highlife guitar example" Africa: Your Passport to a New World of Music. Alfred Pub. ISBN 0-7390-2474-4
  5. ^ Peñalosa, David (2010: 247). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  6. ^ a b c d e Salm, Steven J.; Falola, Toyin (2002). Culture and Customs of Ghana. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 181–185. ISBN 9780313320507. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  7. ^ Collins, John (1986). E. T. Mensah: King of Highlife. London: Off The Record Press. p. 10.

Further readingEdit

  • Collins, John (1985). Music Makers of West Africa. Washington (DC): Three Continents Press. ISBN 0-89410-076-9. also Colorado:Passeggiata Press.
  • Collins, John (1992). West African Pop Roots. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0-87722-916-3.
  • Collins, John (1996). E. T. Mensah King of Highlife. Anansesem. ISBN 9-98855-217-3.
  • Collins, John (2016). Highlife Giants: West African Dance Band Pioneers. Abuja (Nigeria): Cassava Republic Press. ISBN 978-978-50238-1-7.