History of Ghana Music

by 09/11/2012 13:17:00 0 comments 1520 Views

Ghana has many styles of traditional and modern music, due to its multiplicity of ethnic groups and its cosmopolitan geographic position in West Africa. The best known modern genre that originated in Ghana is Highlife.

Traditional music

The northern region of Ghana lies in the sparsely vegetated Sudan and Sahel grassland belts. The Dagomba peoples of this region focus of a wholesome mix of both melodic composition on stringed instruments (like the Kologo and Gonjey), wind instruments and voice, with various poly-rhythmic compositions clapped, or played on a variety of drums like the talking drum, gourd drums or brekete. The tradition of gyil music (known as a Balafon in neighbouring French-speaking countries) is also shared throughout the northern and upper regions of Ghana bordering Burkina Faso. A long history of griot praise-singing traditions exists in northern Ghana. Music in the northern styles are mostly set to a minor pentatonic scale, and melisma plays an important part in both melodic and singing styles.

The fertile, forested southern coastal region is inhabited by African Ghanaian groups speaking Kwa languages such as Akan and Ga. Their music is in the Niger-Congo tradition, associated with social or spiritual functions, and relies on complex polyrhythmic patterns played by drums and bells as well as harmonized song. An exception to this rule is the Akan tradition of praise-singing with the Seperewa harp-lute, a now dying genre which had its origins from the griot traditions of the north.

Colonial period

During the colonial era, Africa's Gold Coast was a hotbed of musical syncretism. Rhythms from across West Africa, especially gombe and ashiko from Sierra Leone, Liberian guitar-styles like dagomba, mainline and fireman, Fante osibisaba, European brass bands and sea shanties and Christian music, were all combined into a melting pot that became high-life.

Early split: guitar-bands and dance high-life

Mid-20th century and the invention of Ghanaian pop

While pan-Ghanaian music had been developed for some time, the middle of the 20th century saw the development of distinctly Ghanaian pop music. High-life incorporated elements of swing, jazz, rock, ska and soukous, and saw its first inroads into the culture of its neighbours in West Africa and across the rest of the continent. To a much lesser extent, Ghanaian musicians found success in the United States and, briefly, the United Kingdom with the surprise success of Osibisa's Afro-rock in the 1970s.

Guitar-bands in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s

In the 1930s, Sam's Trio, led by Jacob Sam, was the most influential of the high-life guitar-bands. Their "Yaa Amponsah", three versions of which were recorded in 1928 for Zonophone, was a major hit that remains a popular staple of numerous high-life bands. The next major guitar-band leader was E. K. Nyame, who led the Akan Trio and sang in Twi. Nyame also added the double bass and more elements of the Western hemisphere, including jazz and Cuban music on the recommendation of his producer and manager E. Newman-Adjiri. In the 1960s, dance high-life was more popular than guitar-band high-life; most of the guitar bands began using the electric guitar until a roots revival in the mid-1970s.

Dance high-life in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s

Dance highlife evolved during World War II, when American jazz and swing became popular with the arrival of servicemen from the United States and United Kingdom. After independence in 1957, the socialist government began encouraging folk music, but highlife remained popular and influences from Trinidadian and Congolese music. E. T. Mensah was the most influential musician of this period, and his band The Tempos frequently accompanied the president. The original bandleader of The Tempos was Guy Warren, who was responsible for introducing Caribbean music to Ghana and, later, was known for a series of innovative fusions of African rhythms and American jazz. King Bruce, Jerry Hansen and Stan Plange also led influential dance bands during the 1950s and 60s. By the 1970s, however, pop music from Europe and the US dominated the Ghanaian scene until a mid-1970s roots revival.

1970s: Head revival

By the beginning of the 1970s, traditionally styled highlife had been overtaken by electric guitar bands and pop-dance music. Since 1966 and the fall of President Kwame Nkrumah, many Ghanaian musicians moved abroad, settling in the US, UK and Nigeria. High-life bands like Sammy Kofi's (also known as Kofi Sammy) Okukuseku recorded in Lagos or Nigeria's eastern Igbo region. In 1971, the Soul to Soul music festival was held in Accra. Several legendary American musicians played, including Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner and Carlos Santana. With the exception of Mexican-American Santana, these American superstars were all black, and their presence in Accra was seen as legitimizing Ghanaian music. Though the concert is now mostly remembered for its role as a catalyst in the subsequent Ghanaian roots revival, it also led to increased popularity for American rock and soul. Inspired by the American musicians, new guitar bands arose in Ghana, including the Ashanti Brothers, Nana Ampadu & the African Brothers, The City Boys and more. Musicians such as CK Mann, Daniel Amponsah and Eddie Donkor incorporated new elements, especially from Jamaican reggae. A group called Wulomei also arose in the 1970s, leading a Ga cultural revival to encourage Ghanaian youths to support their own countryman's music. By the 1980s, the UK was experiencing a boom in African music as Ghanaian and others moved there in large numbers. The group Hi-Life International was probably the most influential band of the period, and others included Jon K, Dade Krama, Orchestra Jazira and Ben Brako. In the middle of the decade, however, British immigration laws changed, and the focus of Ghanaian emigration moved to Germany.

The Ghanaian-German community created a form of highlife called Burger-highlife. The most influential early burgher highlife musician was George Darko, whose "Akoo Te Brofo" coined the term and is considered the beginning of the genre. Burgher highlife was extremely popular in Ghana, especially after computer-generated dance beats were added to the mix. The same period saw a Ghanaian community appear in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada. Pat Thomas is probably the most famous Ghanaian-Canadian musician. Other emigres include Ghanaian-American Obo Addy, the Ghanaian-Swiss Andy Vans and the Ghanaian-Dutch Kumbi Salleh. In Ghana itself during the 1980s, gospel and reggae became extremely popular. The Genesis Gospel Singers were the most widely-known gospel band.


By the late 1990s, a new generation of artists discovered the so called hip-life. The originator of this style is Reggie Rockstone, a Ghanaian musician who dabbled with hip-hop in the United States before finding his unique style. Hip-life basically was hip hop in the Ghanaian local dialect backed by elements of the traditional High-life. It was dominated by the Akans until Ace music producer Hammer of The Last Two unveiled artistes like Tinny and Ex-doe who popularized the Ga languages respectively. Hip-life has since proliferated and spawned stars such as Reggie Rockstone, Obrafour, Akyeame, Tic Tac, Lord Kenya, Kwaw Kese, Obour, Tinny, Ayigbe Edem, Asem, Samini and Sarkodie. Producers responsible for steering this genre to what it is today were Zapp Mallet, Jay Q, Panji Anoff, Hammer of The Last Two, Morris De' voice, Richie Mensah, Appietus and Killbeatz.