Ghana is best known in the international music community as the historical home of highlife, the rollicking, guitar-based dance music that provides the literal soundtrack of much of West Africa’s public space.
Highlife is rollicking dance music that arose in the coastal towns of Ghana in the 1920s and fused, as Alisdair.com’s brief introduction to highlife explains it, “indigenous dance rhythms and melodies with Western sounds began in the coastal towns of Ghana, including regimental brass bands, sea shanties, hymns; European foxtrots and Caribbean kaiso, with African rhythms of Liberia (dagomba), Sierra Leone (ashiko and goombe) and Fante (osibisaba). In the 1940s Ghanaian band leader E.T. Mensah and his musical contemporaries, reacting to the proliferation of foreign genres like the waltz and rumba in the big band music popular with whites who lived in Ghana, consciously sought out syncopated African rhythms (now known as Highlife rhythms) to underlie their own compositions. In the ’50s Mensah and his Tempos band traveled about West Africa spreading highlife to nations like Nigeria, which embraced it wholeheartedly and soon came to rival Ghana as the most prominent home of the genre. Today’s highlife blares from what seems like every car stereo in the region, becoming an indelible part of the natural environment, almost as ubiquitous as air.