In the late 1970s to the early 1980s, a genre of music was born. It was called the "Burger Highlife." It was a fusion of highlife, disco and funk music styles, resulting from the collaborative efforts of Ghanaian musicians who migrated to Germany and that country's musicians and producers.
After almost three decades of the birth of burger highlife, the German Cultural Centre in Ghana, the Goethe Institut is looking back to assess the impact of Germany's contribution to the music industry in Ghana.
The institute wanted to contribute to Ghana's 50th anniversary and celebrate over 45 years of existence in Ghana.And the idea of celebrating burger highlife arose because it illustrates perfectly how wonderful and inspiring inter-cultural cooperation can be, Eleonore Sylla, Director of Goethe Institut says.
Therefore, a project codenamed "Highlife Made in Germany," comprising of workshops, seminars, lectures, and concerts, has been put together by the centre to retrace the history of burger highlife and deliberate on any future prospects. Produced by World Rhythms and Cage Records, the project would bring together all the burger highlife greats for the first time. The German Embassy, OneTouch, GTV, Hospital Engineering, Universal Motors, Busy Internet, Citi FM, Lufthansa and the National Theatre of Ghana are supporting the "Highlife Made in Germany" project, which took off last week with a lecture series.
Burger highlife derives its name from 'highlife' music, which also traces its roots back to the 1880s; Prof. John Collins, lecturer at the Music Department of School of Performing Arts, University of Ghana said while making a presentation on the historical perspectives of burger highlife on the theme "From Highlife to Burger Highlife."
The first form of Ghanaian highlife music was born during the 1880s, making highlife slightly older than jazz. Its real name was not highlife. It could then be described as philosophical music because of the form it took and the instruments used. But popular among the various kinds were the "Osibisaba" and "Palmwine" music.
Prof. Collins recalls that Appiah Agyekum and E.K. Nyame called themselves "Palmwine musicians" and they used mainly a special local guitar in performing this philosophical music. But before this generation of music was the osibisaba which many Ghanaians actually identified with.
Osibisa came out of the osibi dance. This dance was a recreational one that took the form of wrestling, which was performed by Fante fishermen. This kind of dance necessitated a form of music to correspond with. So when osibisaba was created, it caught on like wild fire.
Subsequently, about 225 guitar bands and concert parties sprung up, performing in compound houses across the country. By the 50s, about 20 dancehall orchestras were also dotted around the country, playing melodies for the Ghanaian elite. Some of the notable musicians involved were E.T. Mensah, whose band was the first to perform on stage; Kofi Ghanaba, Bobby Benson, King Bruce and Saka Acquaye were all involved.
The dancehall orchestras performed solely for the bourgeoisies who ensured that the poor people were not allowed into the halls to enjoy the scintillating rhythms. The poor folks had no option than to name that kind of music as "high class life" music, the short form of which is "highlife."
The transition and exodus:
|Faisal Helwani, Pioneer Music Producer in Ghana
There was now a new image attached to the osibisaba music, due to its new name; "highlife." This drew concerns from various interest groups. Prof. Collins recalls that Ghana's first President, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah tried everything within his power to revert the name of Ghanaian music to osibisaba. But there was stiff opposition from some of the musicians themselves; principal among them was E.T. Mensah.
Indeed, E.T. Mensah is remembered for intensifying Highlife through the adoption of a tempo that won hearts outside Ghana as well - he is credited with introducing highlife to Nigeria.
Consequently, other genre of music like the afro beat and afro rock were born, setting the stage for a booming music industry in Ghana. The Yamoah's band was born, out of which came the renowned Nana Kwame Ampadu. But this was short-lived after the 1966 coup.
Many of the musicians who were considered pro-Nkrumah were persecuted. Prof. Collins says he remembers vividly the arrest of Bob Co who was considered as a pro-Nkrumahist musician. Although these persecutions subsided, the era of 'kalabule' (corruption) and the general decline of the economy during the General Akuffo/Acheampong regime culminated in the mass exodus of Ghanaian musicians. By the time the AFRC regime, then led by Flt. Lt. Rawlings took over power in1979, more than a quarter of Ghanaian musicians had left the shores of the country.
Their destination was Germany, because at the time, the Margaret Thatcher led administration of the United Kingdom had closed its doors to Ghanaians.
Legendary Ghanaian music producer and CEO of Bibini Music Records, Faisal Helwani also attributes the mass exodus to copyright issues. He said in those days, many musicians were unaware of their 'mechanical' rights. They produced songs, which people used without paying anything. Recording studios cannot be absolved from blame because they also exploited the musicians, all because many of the musicians knew next to nothing about copyright.
In short, Faisal Helwani, who was also in the thick of affairs says "people stole funds from the musicians," and adds that agitations then for a copyright law by a few of them only yielded a "useless" law.
The birth of burger highlife:
The mass exodus however did not mean the demise of the musicians involved. They were not curtailed in anyway. Rather, it served as blessing to many of them. One of the artists who made a momentous impact on Ghanaian and African music was George Darko whose "Akoo Te Brofo" took the African music scene by storm. That was the very first impact of burger highlife.
In the ensuing years, musicians like Charles Amoah, Pat Thomas, Rex Gyamfi, Daddy Lumba and Nana Acheampong, to mention a few, also took a shot at burger highlife. Behind many of the burger highlife albums that have been recorded over the last three decades is the man Bob Fiscian, the distinctive keyboard player and programmer.
Of course, somebody might have been doing all the recordings and production. His name is Peter Krick. He established Skyline Studios in 1981, which became the de facto choice for Ghanaian musicians based both in Ghana and Germany.
According to Faisal Helwani, the future of Ghanaian music is bleak. "Burger highlife or no burger highlife, highlife or no highlife, I don't see where the music industry is going," he grumbled.
He said, till now Ghana does not have any international star that can match up to the standards of the Angelique Kijos, the Felas, etc. Besides, the present genre of Ghanaian music, called "hiplife" makes no sense. "The hiplife funk is meaningless. It has no lyrics, it has no composition."