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Highlife music digs deep for its roots

“Movement is a very important thing in music,” says Ghanaian guitarist Kyekyeku during his visit to Johannesburg for the Joy of Jazz Festival, which took place at the end of September 2019. “The movement of the body when people dance, yes, but also the movement inside the music, between different sources and sounds, and the way it can also make revolutions in people’s minds.”

It was all those kinds of movement that drew the 35-year-old Kyekyeku – he prefers that title (pronounced che-che-ku) over what he dismisses as his “passport name” – to a Ghanaian music style that was already old when he was born: highlife.

Highlife and the black city elite

The story of highlife parallels the stories of many other African modern popular music, including South African jazz. As the economic imperatives of colonialism moved African workers around in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the practitioners of rich local traditions encountered new instruments and the new sounds of church, military bands and other regions and nations, and wove them into new soundscapes. By the 1930s, urban black South Africans were enjoying concert and dance evenings with ballroom bands, and urban Ghanaians were relishing the sounds of highlife: so titled because it was the music of the black city elite.

Neither music was cut off from its roots and both had “rough” and “respectable” forms. The South African ballroom bands drew on both intricate rural sounds and the rough-and-ready improvised marabi dance tunes from city shack settlements. Highlife in Ghana’s capital, Accra, had links with the brass band playing of the Cape Coast, shaped by Caribbean troops who had historically served there, and with Akan palm-wine music, born in the eastern coastal bars of fishermen and sailors.

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