Highlife legend Samuel Owusu’s social philosophy of music 1

O Wuz Samuel Owusu

Fri, 2 Sep 2016 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

By Kwarteng Francis

“Ghanaian highlife is one of the oldest popular dance-music styles of Africa…”


“Highlife, a musical genre that originated in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, fused African rhythms with Western music.

“The sound, of which there were a few variations, generally combined multiple guitar rhythms with a brass band backing, as well as various percussion instruments.

“Its roots can be traced back to the 1880s to the music of marching bands and sailors' palm wine groups.

“The term 'highlife,’ which was coined in the 1920s, is thought to be a reference to parties by the European upper-class…Professor John Collins—a musicologist at the University of Ghana—wrote: ‘By combining...so-called high-class music with local street tunes, a totally different type of music was born—the highlife we know today’…This music became the soundtrack to the birth of an independent nation in 1957."


What happened to the “Yaa Amponsah” guitar chords and rhythm of our traditional highlife? Ebo Taylor, a distant maternal relative of this author and an influential versatile guitarist, record producer, and songwriter, represented this unique motif of “Yaa Amponsah” exclusively based on guitar instrumentation, namely guitar riffs and licks and fills, during the heyday of classic highlife (Listen to Ogyatanaa’s classic “Yaa Amponsah”).

The “Yaa Amponsah” guitar motif came to dominate the landscape of traditional highlife for a long time.

Are we ever taught in schools that the Cape Coast-born Kwame Asare (or Jacob Sam, born in 1903) was probably “the first highlife guitarist” and that he “recorded the first Ghanaian highlife music known as ‘Yaa Amponsah’”?

Do we even recall the sakyi beats/highlife of Thomas Frimpong, of Dr. K. Gyasi and his band, the Noble Kings?

Or, of the technically complicated guitar-driven sakyi highlife of Eric Agyeman?

Or, of the powerful “odonson-palm-wine” influenced highlife of Francis Kenya who sang in his native Nzema?

Or, of the 19th-entury Adaha brass-band highlife of the Fantis and its drum-and-voice edition (konkomba or konkoma)?

Or, of the 1930’s percussion-, accordion- and guitar-driven Fanti Osibisaaba highlife?

Also a productive highlife and Afrobeat pioneer, Taylor would then go on to influence hip-hop in the West in unexpected ways, including the high profile example of international R&B sensation Usher sampling the former’s classic “Heaven” for his smash hit “She Don’t Know.”

In a nutshell, highlife is just as powerful. No wonder Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, the leading proponent of Afrocentric theory, says Western classical music is not more “classical” than highlife. He was not lying. He was actually stating a position based on the cultural facts of life.

Finally, Taylor’s song “Kwame,” a classic piece he dedicated to the great Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, is a beautiful track, a masterpiece that memorializes or celebrates the world’s “Africa’s Man of the Millennium.” In point of fact, Taylor has been around long enough to know that Nkrumah did more for Ghanaian music that any other Ghanaian leader for that matter.

Some interesting observations

Traditional highlife and palm-wine music count among our most cherished music genres of all time.

In Ghana, gifted folk-guitarist Koo Nimo represents the best tradition of palm-wine music in modern history.

It is unfortunate that these music genres are being overshadowed by new developments. But it is all good if not for the better.

Improvisational melodizing of music on computer-generated formats such as the synthesizer has, no doubt, added enormously to the aesthetic richness of music in general, although the same technology also increasingly stifles creativity and generally makes many a music (record) producer lazy.

All these bring back memories of the dramatic changes that have since taken place in Ghana’s meandering historical musicology, most relatively recently the Burgher-highlife of a number of influential musicians, songwriters, performers, singers and producers, including, but not limited to, George Darko, Charles Amoah, Lee Duodu, Mike Gyamfi, Bessa Simmons, Michael Jackson look-alike Geeman (an ex-convict and now a New York-based pastor married to a woman we know very well, a lady who was once the wife of one of our closest friends, a psychologist, in New York), Ben Brako, Pozo Hayes, and Rex Gyamfi.

These dramatic changes have largely been positively transformational, even lasting well into the long reach of the 21th century.

Even the pioneers of hiplife like Reggie Rockstone cannot deny the enormous influence of highlife and its dramatic transformations on the former.

We also see the contemporary generation of hiplife musicians, producers, songwriters and singers sampling old-school highlife repertoires as well as collaborating with old-school members of traditional highlife.

From Sarkodie and American rapper Ace Hood, from Becca and South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, from Wiyaala and Ghanaian alternative rock band Dark Suburb (see also Wiyaala and Moroccan pop star Ahmed Soultan) to M.anifest and maverick American songstress Sarah White, collaborations based on cross-fertilization between and among music genres are certainly bound to expand the frontiers as well as to enrich the cultural landscape of Ghanaian music in general.

As a matter of fact jazz, funk, soul and other forms of popular music from the West, America and Europe specifically, and other music forms from the Caribbean, such as reggae, merengue, calypso and salsa (and other music forms from Cuba), to mention but a four, have also impacted Ghanaian music in its earlier stages of development, although merengue and salsa have deeper African roots than is commonly acknowledged or accepted.

Perhaps eclectic drummer Guy Warren’s Afro-jazz comes to mind.

What is more, Ghana’s cultural richness and ethnic diversity add to the nation’s compelling musical aesthetics.

The agbadza and borborbor of Ewes, with its konkoma highlife hybrid; the kpanlogo of the Gas; and folk music from Northern Ghana make the landscape of Ghanaian music truly entertaining. For instance, the musical repertoires of King Asiyoba, Koo Nimo, and Nii Tei Ahitey’s Wulomei, to name but three, are just great and aesthetically magnificent. Seriously, one wonders what has become of Asabea Cropper, Ewurama Badu, Nana Kwame Ampadu, J.A. Adofo…!

It is important that we all encourage creative hybridization of music genres across ethnicities and cultures and regions.

Finally, musicologist Prof. John Collins has done some important works with many highlife bands and musicians, studied the genre for decades, and written extensively about and published widely on the sociology of music, especially of traditional highlife and neo-traditional highlife, in a number of technical papers and books. Readers may consult his body of works on the subject.

Music and the human experience

Music is an essential part of the human experience and for this reason one wonders if there truly exists any species of human beings that lives without it. Even gods and spirits cannot survive without it. Let is just add that any pantheon of gods does supposedly enjoy the rich rhythm of paeans dedicated to them.

Even the cosmos appears to be shrouded in the mystery of music because it seems to operate on the basis of sound mathematical and scientific rhythmicity. String theory is one way to look at this very complex question.

As may be expected thunder and lightning have rhythm, are musical. The roaring waves of the oceans and seismic waves that are the bases of earthquakes and landslides and volcanicity…all have natural rhythms or musicality to them, are musical.

So, too, is the complex out-of-the-ordinary activity of love-making musical in that orgasm has a rhythmic sensation of intense pleasurable electricity which courses through the cosmic soul of human anatomy and physiology.

It is such an interesting case that the human experience uses different “languages” to articulate the same natural rhythmic experiences which are life and death. No doubt life and death, like peace and war, are a form of storytelling with an underlying complex dimension of rhythmic ontology.

Stated in a different way, life and death are merely natural rhythms of the human experience.

If we may take this idea a step further, we shall have to advance the thought that both experiences are musical in their spiritual and material dimensions. For instance:

A coffin being lowered into the bowel of the earth follows the proverbial rhythmic patterns of gravitation.

A newborn’s first cry at birth is sentimentally musical and follows a certain impulse based on a framework of natural rhythmicity.

One human being dies, another is born. This phenomenological instance of the human experience is rhythmically poetic, the same way lullabies and dirges and obituaries and eulogies and libations have rhythm, are musical.

This bold philosophical statement takes care of Bob Marley’s “once a man and twice a child” (“Real Situation”).

Human suffering, laughter and joy, a frown, sadness, and cry all have a natural rhythm which clearly defines the phenomenological musicality of the richness of human experience, so too is carnal knowledge.

Music and rhythm are an indispensable component of music therapy and therapeutic recreation activities. They also feature in palliative and hospice care (“oncology”). How right then Bob Marley was:

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

It therefore comes as no surprise that developmental psychologist Howard Gardner will make musical-rhythmic a core fixture of his “intelligence modalities” as part of his “theory of multiple intelligences.”

Music is indeed the universal soul and mind of the human experience. It is god itself. Yet, it requires freedom of the indomitable human spirit and of thought and of creativity to underwrite its aesthetic articulation and to sustain its cultural formulation. Music is therefore the death that never dies.

Food for thought

Those who think traditional highlife, neo-traditional highlife and palm-wine music are for villages and illiterates are wrong.

Music is a higher power; it is greatness and beauty. The intrinsic greatness and beauty of music are complex spiritual languages that transcend the bounded carnality of perception.

In other words, the greatness and beauty of music overlook the complex epistemology of perception and conception such as illiteracy.

Music therefore occupies a higher ontology in the hearts and minds of men. It is probably the only truth that is innately self-evident and thus has no formidable enemy of lies, of falsehoods as part of its complex language of universality.

Perhaps the greater irony is that truth may not be real after all, though music verifiably is. The reality of music is its complex language of universality.

Yet truth appears to have no universal existence in the complex vocabulary of ontological reality.

The simple fact is that neither illiteracy nor literacy can sufficiently explain the mystery of music.

In other words truth merely bears the conceptual or perceptual weight of subjectivity. Music on the other hand is real, objective, concrete, and factual in the human spirit.

Everything taken together, music therefore appears to occupy a higher ontology than truth in the cosmic body of human cognition. It is music and not religion that is the opiate of humanity.


Of course, the music genre of highlife is better understood and appreciated in the contexts of its historical evolution (historical musicology), the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of music and the aesthetics of music in general, and the different human beings behind its production.


We shall return with a concluding installment, Part 2.

Part 2 takes a look at the contributions of Samuel Owusu to Ghanaian highlife in particular and Ghanaian music in general.

He deserves to be celebrated.


Robin Denselow. “Ebo Taylor review—Lend Your Ears To An Afrobeat Story Of Love And Death.”October 14, 2014. www.theguardian.com.

Alexis Akwagyiram. “Timeline: Ghana's Modern Musical History.” BBC. March 3, 2007. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6289763.stm

Prof. John Collins. “The Story Of Ghanaian Highlife.” BBC. September 28, 2004. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3695260.stm

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis