Ghanaian Highlife music is high-key a musical audiobook
Updated: Jan 16
This piece is inspired by a conversation I had with my aunty last Tuesday night. We were in the car heading home after our dress fittings and I heard an Amakye Dede song playing outside. I began to sing it. My little cousin was laughing out of shock that I knew the song. My aunt began to explain to me that it's uncommon for someone like me to know "Adadamu" songs.
Adadamu: old time Ghanaian Highlife music
For your reference throughout the piece:
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 characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars which lead the band.
Hiplife is a music genre which fuses Highlife and elements of Hip-hop. It is often characterized by simple Twi lyrics (with several other Ghanaian languages used later) over Hip-hop beats, with Highlife samples and/or palmwine rhythms.
Definition creds: MusicInAfrica.net, Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture by Carole Boyce Davies
Growing up, I was heavily influenced by my older brother’s taste in music. Jadakiss, 50 Cent, Ciara, Cassidy, Lil Flip, Fab – we were well-rounded consumers of all that the 2000s had to offer. On our humble Dell desktop, we had Limewire and Windows Music Player accompanied by a sound system loud enough to infiltrate our whole floor at Tracey Towers. Thank God for neighbors who had similar musical tastes (or maybe just didn’t have the energy to complain [?]), we never had a noise disturbance issue.
So, you can imagine how annoyed 8-year-old Beverly was on road trips to Pennsylvania, Upstate NY or New Jersey when my father would start playing old time Ghanaian Highlife music. I was like what? Dad? I’m trying to listen to Right Thurr, the remix with Trina to be exact (if it wasn’t the remix with Trina & Jermaine Dupri, I didn’t want it) and all my dad would play were the sounds of Dr. Paa Bobo, Dr. K. Gyasi,
Paapa Yankson, Amakye Dede, C.K. Mann, George Darko, Smart Nkansah, A.B. Crentsil, amongst others.
On Sundays and during evening drives, my dad mostly played Elder Mireku and Kofi Abraham’s music RELIGIOUSLY (pun intended), to the point where I thought he didn’t know of any other artists. Nevertheless, while we were on the road, I sat there quietly, stared out the window, and listened as my parents sang along with the artists.
I always tell people that although my mother primarily taught me how to speak Twi, my father instilled the Ghanaian culture in me. Not always directly, but by merely playing the tracks by these artists every chance he got, he was teaching me about the culture and the Ghanaian way of life, considering that it's what most Highlife artists sang about. Even with gospel artists, their music exposed me to certain struggles and beliefs that existed back home. Indirectly, my dad taught me about Ghanaian history and politics, he taught me Ghanaian proverbs and he taught me about issues that I otherwise wouldn’t have cared to know about.
When I was younger (emphasis on young-er, I'm still young), I didn't fully understand or speak Twi; although I didn't always know what the artists were saying, I knew the words because my father had the tracks on repeat.
I kid you not, at some point in my life, I thought my dad simply just didn’t know of any other artists. Did he not hear my brother and I blasting 21 Questions in the house on the reg? The kids craved versatility!
In addition to the music my dad played during car rides, there was an era where my dad began to purchase VHS cassette tapes and CDs of Ghanaian artists performing Highlife and gospel music live. He had one of Nana Tuffour, Yaw Sarpong, and many others that he’d play on the TV when he got home from work.
He almost always had a new VHS tape or CD. My father wore these VHS tapes out on repeat until they broke apart and there was film from the VHS tape scattered all over our carpet.
Around this time, I started hanging out with our neighbor's kids more and my older brother would go to Tracey Park to ball more — I wasn't about to miss out on Drake & Josh while my dad replayed the same live set for hours. (Thinking of it now, if I permanently moved to GH and there was someone selling live Nicki Minaj concert tapes on the street, I'd buy 10 and watch them on repeat too.)
When I thought I was escaping the music in my house to go watch Nickelodeon at Keisha & Wendi’s house, I’d get there and her family would have Ghanaian music videos playing on their TV. Their dad, Uncle Robert, was more of into the Hiplife vibe though (from what I saw), so that’s where I saw most Ghanaian Hiplife music videos. If I had a dollar for every time I watched Castro fake crip-walk (or triple walk h/t Freddy) in his white ups in the Toffee music video?! $$$$$$
Jokes and bratty child behavior aside, what I now better understand is that being an immigrant in a new country, music is one of the key ways to remain connected to your native land and to affix with cherished moments that one remembers more vividly when certain songs play. Through music old and new, our
parents were keeping up with current events, the sociopolitical climate, and what life was like back home. Music is an escape. Yeah, my dad was physically in America, but I’m sure that while these songs played, his mind was in Ghana somewhere. Reminiscing about his heydays at Accra Polytechnic. (Aside: While my dad was in Ghana, he showed me the building where his old dorm was. I was like dang you used to dorm? You had a dorm? And like.. roommates? Crazy world we live in *Future voice*)
Being here in Ghana, I even find myself sometimes playing certain songs that remind me of my friends and of *American* home.
I always wondered why Ghanaian Highlife songs were so long. 20 minutes for what?! 8-year-old Beverly couldn’t comprehend why Chingy and Trina could cut straight to the chase, but C.K. Mann needed 2 minutes for a mere instrumental? In between verses?
Well, Ghanaian artists are storytellers. Ghanaian Highlife music is high-key a musical audiobook. Whole time, they’re singing about real-life situations, historical matters, and that can’t be communicated in 3 minutes and 42 seconds. Even if it could be, instrumental breaks are vital to ensuring that their songs aren’t just delivering a message, but does so with rhythm and beats that capture the sounds of Ghana. There are drums, keyboards, brass instruments, xylophones etc. working in tandem to keep the melody afloat.
Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t American songs which tell stories, with American songs like Stan by Eminem telling us a whole story, whewww, that song is an EXPERIENCE (if you know, you know). Don't get me started on When I'm Gone by Eminem.
Sidetracked, a g a i n ..
Growing up, I didn’t know the names of most of the artists that my dad played, so when I got to Ghana and I’d hear certain songs and just start singing along, the people around me would begin to smirk or laugh, like my cousin did, asking me where I’d learned to sing them so well. My coworkers are always impressed at company functions when I sing along to the Ghanaian classics. Songs I haven’t heard in years, I’d hear and it’d take me back to trips in the car with my family or one of the many VHS cassette tapes that my dad had.
Hearing Dr. Paa Bobo playing on the street and mouthing the words, I knew that onlookers were thinking, “what does this small American girl know about this?!”
Lemme tellllllll you.
Creds to my dad, he really put me on. Love to see it.
As many of you know, my father spent the first few months in Ghana with me acquainting me with my family members and ensuring that my living situation was alright. Well, while he was here, when we’d take car rides places and Highlife oldies would play on the radio, he’d be so shocked to hear me sing the songs word-for-word. I'd just think to myself "Welp this is all you used to play so... yeah I know all the words."
I’m sure he didn’t realize that he used to play the same songs in the car and in the house over and over and over. Come to think of it.. my *future* kids are gonna be 10 years old singing songs by Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and all the aforementioned Ghanaian Highlife oldies, straight confusing everybody. "How old are y'all again?"
A lot of our favorite young Ghanaian musicians actually seek a huge portion of their inspo from old Ghanaian Highlife, so sometimes I'll hear a new song from the likes of Kuami Eugene or KIDI and I'm instantly reminded of a song my dad used to play.
Fun fact: Smart Nkansah was my absolute favorite artist growing up (he grew on me when I was like 16/17, because you know... growth), I can sing all of his hits word-for-word. Akoo Te Brofo was my favorite song because I loved how my parents’ faces would light up when it started playing.
I know some of you are probably wondering: What about the Daddy Lumba era?
Ghanaian outdoorings, weddings and events put me on to those songs. My dad didn't really play his music until SOMEONE sold him a VHS tape of Lumba performing live. Matter of fact, which one of your dads was burning then selling these CDs and VHS tapes to my dad? I just wanna talk.
My musical taste is super versatile. The Apollo taught me to appreciate R&B and Soul, the Ghanaian church I attend taught me to appreciate Ghanaian Praises, Worship and Hymns, the 'hood taught me to appreciate Biggie, Pop Smoke, Bobby and Lil Wayne, Devon taught me to appreciate Nicki, Beverly taught me to appreciate Anita Baker (move I’m stanning), my father taught me to appreciate Ghanaian Highlife music.
I’d never gas my father’s head up by saying this to him in person.. but shout out to you, dad! Thanks for introducing me to the Ghanaian classics, even though all I wanted to listen to was American music. I know I’ll look back at this piece one day and laugh.
Stream George Darko for clear skin.
If this piece is well received, I'll do one similar about the Ghanaian movie phase.