Old School Highlife

Your ancestors breathed life into your past, your present, and your future. Their genetic makeup forms not just the curve of your nose and the hue of your skin, but your cultural history and the texture of your daily life. It’s easy to forget this in the modernized society we find ourselves in. Technology,  immigration, displacement, language loss, religious shifts, the internet, and globalization have dramatically re-imagined the way each of us engages with our respective cultures. It can be hard to stay in touch with the past. But there is unimaginable value to being connected to one’s heritage, and being rooted in the language, spirituality, customs, and the music of the people you are descended from. As people of African descent, the aftermath of the transatlantic slave trade puts obstacles in the path of connecting to one’s culture. It can seem impossible to reach the past, but it’s not–it is necessary.

My older sister knows this with her entire spirit, and she uses social media to record her learning of our traditional Akan culture. She is the anthropologist, cultural historian, and classic music connoisseur of the family and as such, the first person I came to for guidance on this mixtape mash up, which samples the music that defines our family’s experience with Ghanian music, most notably High Life and Adowa. Although a lot of highlife is sung in Fante, Ewe and many other Ghanian languages, as well as Igbo, this selection of music is primarily by artists who sing in Twi, as that is my mother language.

As background on the song selections, think of Highlife as the musical throne of Ghana. It is a complex genre that has had a profound influence on African and world music over the last 70 years. Adowa is a style of dance accompanied by drumming and song that was originated by the Akan people of Ghana. Adowa is performed at cultural ceremonies like funerals, festivals etc with traditional musical arrangements.

1. Ghanaian Old School Highlife (Grandparents + Parents’ Generation) | Various Artists

During the 1920-30s in Ghana, Highlife emerged from the synthesis of calypso and jazz. It uses the melodic and rhythmic structures of traditional Akan music and is played with a fusion of African sounds such as trumpets, palm wine music, drumming, Congolese Sokous and choirs. Highlife is influenced by western instruments such as Cuban guitars, saxophone and synthesizers as well, which are heard most often in modern songs.  One of the genre’s most influential artists E.T. Mensah suggested that it was lower class outsiders who secretly enjoyed the music who gave it the name, stating, “people outside [the clubs] called it highlife as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside, who not only had to pay a relatively high entrance fee…but also had to wear full evening dress, including top-hats if they could afford it.” Today, Highlife has spread from Ghana into neighboring Nigeria, all over West Africa, and all around the world. This is a collection of some of the absolute classics that really enrich the Highlife genre.

2. Iron Boy Song | by Amakye Dede

Highlife artists like Amakye Dede influence all aspects of Ghanaian, African, and global music and culture (indie punk bands like Vampire Weekend draw from him as inspiration) and local contemporary artists use it as a source of Hiplife (which is West African hip-hop) as well as a number of beat derived musical expressions. My mother told us she went to an Amakye Dede concert in the 1980s. “Dabi dabi ebeye ye (the future, future will be well)” is her favorite song. When Loretta first translated the lyrics for us, she confused dabi (future) with debi (no) because it sounds the same but not really.

3. Daddy Lumba Mix | by Daddy Lumba

You can’t make an mixtape of Ghanian music without including Daddy Lumba. He is a highly prolific artist who has been emulated by almost every imaginable Highlife act, and has been active for over two decades. His music is the kind that can be sung word-for-word by your grandparents, your parents, and your youngest cousins or nephews, because he just makes endless hits, and his old music is still poppin’. Rather than one specific song, here is a sampling of his greatest jams — look out for “Dangerous” and “Poison”, my personal favorites.

4. Adom | by Mama Esther

Adom  is a throwback song from the legendary Mame Esther. We first heard it from our Auntie Mabena’s (our small mother who is married to our mother’s younger brother) CD player, when she told us the meaning of the song “Waaye Lucky”, and about the many ways God delivers blessings in times of adversity and, also in peace. She then bought us a copy of the album, also called Waaye Lucky (You are Lucky!) and we played it so much it began skipping. This is another song on the same album, about God’s grace and mercy.

5. Akwankwaa Hiani | by Abena Gyamfua

This song is a tribute to someone who the singer knew, and died recently, essentially giving acknowledgement that they’ve died: “The Lord who gave wisdom and strength to the land Nyame nkrabeah – God’s blessings, let’s give thanks to Kwatakye (old school nickname meaning the “Brave One” for some warrior centuries ago). He’s done something great for us. Ye dase bre. We give many thanks…He’s done much for us.” All translated excerpts by my sister LA: 0:50 – Hook: If I could turn into a ghost (samayn), I would take the journey to go and see what a wicked person Death is. Death’s Okyame (person in royal court who announces presence) is illness. His brother/sister in law is need (poverty). Sorrow and tears are twins. My sister, depression is just as bad. Death, when I hear your name, I shudder (??). Death, if I could see you here, I would fight you and take my mother back.

6. Ankwanobi | by City Boys International Band

Ankwanobi translates roughly to “Someone’s Left Behind.” The heart of the song is about missing a lover. More like a lover leaving. The singer lists all their potential names (ie Abewoo, Yaya, Rebecca, Angelina, Diana, Jessica (pronounces as “Yessica”) Akobiawaa, Gladys, Elena, Akos, Georgina, Oba Maggie (Lady Maggie), Gifty, + whoever I missed…), and sings, “What did I do to you so you left? Odo en ma, me wou. If love doesn’t come back, I’ll die.” His lovers keep leaving. He thinks it might be because he did something bad. They tell him, “I’m going somewhere. I won’t be with anyone else. I’ll spend like two weeks and will be back in a month (bosomeh). ” He sends someone to get her to come back. The messenger returns and tells him: “It doesn’t look like she wants to get back into the marriage.” My sister thinks the women are leaving because of the singer’s infidelity, but hey you be the judge.

7. Brother Brother | by Bisa Kdei

Brother Brother, with its chords and melodious hook reminiscent of another time was massive in 2015 when it was released in Ghana– and it still is. It is not old school, traditional highlife, in the strict  sense that your elders grew up listening to this song.  But Brother Brother, and most of Bisa Kdei’s body of work is a perfect example of the persistence of tradition, of how when the younger generation really listens to and loves the music of a past era, it can be built upon, remixed, and in some cases, resurrected into the present.

8. Oman Bo Adwo | by Nana Kwame Ampedu 

Nana Kwame Ampedu, often considered the king of highlife music is the last track on this extended playlist. Loretta: “I genuinely can’t know if he’s the all time greatest because I don’t understand any Nigerian languages or any other Ghanaian languages. But for me, Nana Ampedu is the very best when it comes to Ghanaian Twi Highlife.” He’s Kwahu so the dialect of Twi he sings in is Akwapem. Here’s an old school Igbo/Twi collabo. Very first line: “If you’re someone who tells the truth, people don’t like you.” LA: I love how Nana introduced his friend later on: “The song, I’m singing, my friend – an Igbo person – brought it to me. And he’s here. I’ll let him to sing this part in the Igbo language for you. Ogana, make you go.”

Okay, before we dey leave you to spend time with all of this musical treasure, we talked about Adowa in the beginning of this article, and wanted to share some Contemporary Adwoa to close out.  Adwoa originates in the court of the Asantehene – Mankya Palace. With changes in Ghanaian spiritually, more contemporary Adowa has incorporated Gospel music. Prior, Adwoa told stories of the royal family. The third song on this list, Manhyia Tete Nwomkoro Kuo- Funeral Dirge speaks on the passing of the late Asantehene (Asante King) Otumfou Nana Opoku Ware. Many of the lines – metaphors and phrases – are ancient but still relevant for when he passed in 1999. Currently, Adwoa is often used during Asante funerals along with more contemporary highlife and Western music.

Abena Gyamfua — Hu Me Mmobo 

Abena Fosuaa — Meye Tire

Manhyia Tete Nwomkoro Kuo — Funeral Dirge

*all song translations and commentary by Lore Abena.