Highlife legend Samuel Owusu’s social philosophy of music 8

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Sat, 17 Sep 2016 Source: Kwarteng, Francis

Here are a few critical observations made about African music by music scholars, experts, educators and ethnomusicologist:

“There is no single individual who has influenced the course of the development of art music in contemporary Ghana as much as Dr. Ephraim Amu” (Musical scholar J.H. Kwabena Nketia).

“Where rhythm is concerned, the African is ahead of the European” (Philip Gbeho).

“The African is supreme in his mastery of rhythm; we might even begin to speak about contrapuntal rhythm in this connection, since independent voices appear as rhythmic lines and weave a strange pattern of rhythmic excitement and vigour” (Henry Weman).

“The importance of rhythm in the music of Africa is an unquestioned principle; in fact, it bulks so large that African music could perhaps be set off as a musical culture area dominated by this concept and opposed to other equally large musical culture areas” (Alan Merriam).

“Imagery and rhythm [as] the two fundamental characteristics of the African-Negro Style…nowhere else has rhythm reigned as despotically [as in Black Africa]” (Leopold Senghor).

“Rhythmic complexity is the hallmark of African music” (Helen Myers).

“Grandson, I know I won’t live to see the fruits of my labour. Because of you, and children yet unborn, I am planting the coconut tree” (Koo Nimo, track “Old Man Plants A Coconut Tree,” album “Highlife Roots Revival” (2012)).

“It is also suggested that, with historical distance, we will be able to more clearly see Koo Nimo, as a musician, creative stylist, and activist concerned with tradition, change, and the proprieties of Ghana's musical structure, within the greater comparative perspective of contemporary musicians in a changing black Africa, and more generally, in the modernizing third world” (Andrew L. Kaye, a professor of music education and ethnomusicology at Montclair State University and Columbia University).



Has created, and still is creating, jobs for many; has brought and still brings joy to the hearts and souls of millions across the globe; has followed and still follows funeralized passage of the living from this life to the other side of the world; has been and continues to be the active voice of the voiceless; has been and still being used to usher newborns into this life…

Has spawned and still spawning other music genres (hiplife); has imparted and continues to impart knowledge and wisdom and cultural values and traditions across generations; has influenced and continues to influence other music genres not the least of which is Western hip hop…

Admittedly, highlife continues to play an enormous role in shaping therapeutic recreation, psycho-social adjustment activities, and music therapy.

Granted that it is one of the spiritual and cultural cores of the African Personality, highlife remains an invaluable national asset that must be protected from going into virtual cultural extinction!

This takes into account the fact that this genre (and palm-wine music) is not dead, and shall never die anyway. Highlife (and palm-wine music), a genre borne out of the solemn introspection of great cultural and philosophical minds knows no death. In other words nothing from and of great minds dies.

This commentary does rule out the fact that highlife (and palm-wine music) still has an important role (s) to play in our national culture, a central role (s) that covers such subject matters as validating and challenging religious rituals and social institutions, integrating society along ethnic and religious and cultural lines, encouraging conformity to social norms, and so forth.


This is what Senior Eddie Donkor, to mention but one, did with his music. He made the song “D.K. Poison Akofa Aba” to celebrate the first Ghanaian professional boxer to win a world title, a Featherweight Champion. Of course, this Senior Eddie Donkor’s classic does not tell the entire story as the following narrative from the Ghanaian Times:

“D.K. Poison, as he was affectionately called by fans, said as a retired boxer he has been compelled to live on charity since things have not been very good after hanging up his gloves.

“He said the nation could show gratitude for his meritorious service in raising the national flag high while promoting Ghana on international platforms at a time most countries in Africa were suffering from bad global image.

“Speaking with emotion-choked voice, the boxing legend poured out his feelings when he paid a courtesy call on Oblempong Nii Kojo Ababio, Ngleshie Alata (James Town) Mantse who incidentally was a member of the Boxing Board of Control at the time D.K. Poison emerged as world champion.

“Narrating how the country ended up owing him, D.K. Poison said when he was crowned as world champion in a fight between him and Reuben Olivares on September 20, 1975, he suddenly became a national icon, hero, and an asset and was subsequently managed that way.

“He said it was on that basis that he agreed that 45,000 dollars out of his 75,000 dollars purse be used to import tinned-fish after his fight with Fukuyama in Japan.

“D.K. Poison said, he agreed to the deal because then, the tinned-fish was an essential commodity in Ghana while the country was also faced with foreign exchange challenges.

“He said when the entourage however returned to Ghana, he was paid an equivalent of 30,000 dollars meaning that the amount used in importing the tinned-fish still remained outstanding.

“D.K. Poison said many attempts to subsequently have his money paid back to him proved futile despite many appeals until the then government was ousted out of office.

“He said, he has since carried his plea to various government leaderships with the latest being a meeting with President John Mahama in March last year.

“He said the President directed his Chief of Staff, which has usually been the routine, to see how best the issue could be resolved.

“D.K. Poison said up to the time of meeting with Oblempong, nothing has emerged out of that meeting, while he continued to suffer the fate of a pauper.

“He said it was worth noting that, no government has disputed his claim, yet no government has either made any commitment to have the matter settled even if it meant being paid in installments…”

One sports writer Papa Appiah, however, has disputed D.K. Poison (David Kotey)’s side of the story (see “DK Posion And His $45,000,” Ghanaweb, Boxing News, April 25, 2014).

In another narrative however, D.K. Poison mentioned a Colonel John Slater, the head of his management to whom the government of I. K. Acheampong allegedly sent a telex with that canned-fish proposal (see George’s Nyavor’s Oct. 17, 2013 myjoyonline piece “Sad: Penniless ‘DK Posion Still Chases After $45,000 He Loaned To Ghana”). The question is: How does one relate D.K. Poison’s sad story to Senior Eddie Donkor’s “D.K. Poison Akofa Aba?

The answer to this simple question certainly leads to the moral and social function of music, one of the many functions of music. In hindsight, the song pricks our national conscience. Certainly, whatever D.K. Poison had brought to the nation, namely global fame, was stolen from him in broad-day light.

It was as though his, namely Senior Eddie Donkor’s “Maye Hot,” was a figurative or indirect allusion to the charged political atmosphere surrounding the crisis that eventually befell D.K. Poison.

But that is overstretching it. “Maye Hot” was essentially about the economic-political crisis in those days, which brought untold hardships to Ghanaians. We would learn more about this interpretation when we came of age. Here is a popular line from the song:

“Wo aye hot, me nso maye hot, hot, hot!...”

This line may subtly approximate Bob Marley’s “Cost of living gets so high, rich and poor they start to cry…” on “Them Belly Full.”

Both Bob Marley and Senior Eddie Donkor were, it seems, describing the harsh political and economic situations in their respective countries, which, among other things, affected everyone alike. This comparison between Bob Marley’s “Them Belly Full” and Senior Eddie Donkor’s “Maye Hot” is very much like that between Bob Marley’s “Who the Cap Fit” and Obuoba J.A. Adofo’s “Akutiabo,” or Bob Marley’s “Who the Cap Fit” and the latter’s “Nya Asem Hwe.” On the latter track for instance, Obuaba J.A. Adofo says “fear the one who loves you” (English translation).

Or Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” on the one hand and on the other hand, Nana Amapdu’s “Agatha” and Obuoba J.A. Adofo’s “Akwanobi.”

Or Bob Marley’s “Zimbabwe” and “African Unite” and Ben Brako’s “Anokum.” Or more specifically between Obuoba J.A. Adofo’s “Nko Ngya M’Akyir” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain”! (see Kwame Dawes’ article “Bob Marley’s Love Songs Express the Deep Emotions Associated With Love”).

There is also an interesting though subtle philosophical overlaps between Obuaba J.A. Adofo’s “Nko Besie” (and “Asu A Meresu”) and Nana Ampadu’s “Kofi Nkrabea” and Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant” on thought-provoking questions about life, destiny and eschatology (also listen to Buju Banton’s “Destiny” to see the striking philosophical overlaps between these songs from another angle).

But, we shall not go over the idea of how the repertoire of Kweku Ananse folklore influenced and shaped the philosophical outlooks and lyrical storylines of some of our profoundest lyricists such as Nana Kwame Ampadu and Bob Marley (see Timothy White’s book “Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley; for an in-depth analysis of Bob Marley’s lyrics, readers should consult Ghanaian-born Jamaican-American poet and scholar, Kwame Dawes’ book “Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius”).

Having said that, let us not overlook the fact while Senior Eddie Donkor’s songs, unlike Bob Marley’s, may give a false impression of philosophical and topical levity, they in fact do not and the conclusion itself may be deceptive, even wrong. This is what usually happens if a listener does not appeal to the sociology of knowledge, music psychology, the sociology of music, ethnomusicology and historical musicology in attempting to unravel the philosophical depths of songs.

The other point is that Senior Eddie Donkor, late, may not have been privy to this sensational D.K. Poison story.

This is where the older generation (A.B. Crentsil, Nana Kwame Ampadu, J.A. Adofo, etc) can choose to come together with the younger generation (Becca, Bisa Kdei, Kwadae, M.anifest, Obrafour, Sarkodie, etc) and work on producing a musical piece which we call here “D.K. Poison Buried Alive Under the Crushing Weight of Illegal Judgment Debts!”

In conclusion, we may advance the idea that the genre merely appears to be in transition, it’s merely being driven into seeming technical, philosophical, spiritual and cultural hibernation by a new generation of musical productions based on a largely foreign-derived sound(s) and indigenized orature, hiplife.


Hiplife on the other hand represents the paralyzing decadence and emotional, intellectual, and spiritual vulgarity of what rather seems like the creation of weaker cultural, spiritual and philosophical minds, perhaps the notable exceptions being M.anifest, Obrafour, Kwadee, and a handful of others. Here is the position of E.L., perhaps one of the most important influences on the genre:

“It’s become so much about commercialization of the music and it’s lost a lot of its soul regrettably…you have rap artistes these days…who are not talking about anything but just use beats and that is not the way to go.”

The irony? Look who is talking? E.L. and his music are exactly what his objections and reservations represent.

This is not necessarily the case when one listens to M.anifest and his classic repertoire and watches his music videos, perhaps his being one of the few if not the only influential hiplife artiste to consistently produce a rich repertoire of “authentic” African music videographies quite apart from the stale Western hip-hop formula.

No wonder Kwaku Sakyi-Addo, CEO of the Ghana Chamber of Communications, has called him “a thinker.”

M.anifest’s powerful music videographies profoundly tell entire stories on their own while also complementing the message (s) his lyrical prowess carries to listeners of good music. His craft stands out in the barren jungle forest of copycats.

Moreover, his latest album “No Where Cool,” a chapter from Ama Ata Aidoo’s short story collection “The Girl Who Can,” is already making waves on social media yet it is his creative collaboration with South Africa’s Afro-Soul Alternative songstress, Nomisupasta (Nomsa Mazwai), on the track “Cupid’s Crooked Bow” and its accompanying music video that, once again, elevate his repertoire to an art form. Author Cina Soul is also featured on the album.

Mazwai holds a master’s in economics, was an ex-president of the Students’ Representative Council of University of Fort Hare University, a Fulbright Scholarship recipient, a singer, and a social activist.

Then also, the album even features writer Ama Ata Aidoo just as Beyoncé “featured” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (courtesy of Chimamanda’s “We Should All Be Feminists”) on her single “Flawless” (Album: “Beyoncé”), or rapper Common featuring writer and poet Maya Angelou on the track “The Dreamer” (Album: “The Dreamer, The Believer”), though Maya Angelou would later regret collaborating on the song because Common did not let her know in advance that he was going to use the N-word on the track. The two would eventually come to an understanding of sorts, however.

Having Ama Ata Aidoo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Maya Angelou on a track probably speaks to the high social, “intellectual,” and artistic caliber of the artiste on whose track or album such dignified personalities appear. It is probably why M.anifest comes up with high quality music and music videos. The concepts for his music videographies are one in a million on the continent.

M.anifest is indeed a great apostle of the art form we shall prefer to call “musical intellectualism.” This is not quite surprising, which is that the level of sophistication of his philosophical and topical ideation in matters of musical and lyrical prowess is understandable given his noble musical pedigree which identifies with Africa’s foremost ethnomusicologist, J.H. Kwabena Nketia.

This comparison is somewhat similar to Fela Kuti and his grandfather, the Reverend Josiah J. Canon Ransome-Kuti (1855-1930), a music composer who was also the first Nigerian to release a series of records of Christian songs in Yoruba in the early 1920s for the British company EMI (Michael E. Veal). Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Fela Kuti’s cousin, is a musician and a guitarist (see Bernth Lindfors’ book “Early Soyinka”).

M.anifest is like the African version of Nas, Common, Chuck D (“Public Enemy”), Mos Def, KRS-1, Wise Intelligent (“Poor Righteous Teachers”), Kendrick Lamar, Stic.man/M-1 (“Dead Prez”), Talib Kweli, Speech (“Arrested Development”), Black Thought (“The Roots”)…In other words M.anifest shares a lot with these rappers in terms of conscious lyricism. Listen to Nas on

“I Know I Can”:

“I know I can be

“Be what I wanna be

“If I work hard at it

“I’ll be where

“Like, I met a woman who’s becoming a star

“She was beautiful, leaving people in awe

“Singing songs, Lena Horne, but the younger version hung with the wrong person

“Got her strung on that: Heroine, cocaine, sniffing up drugs, all in her nose

“Could’ve died, so young, now, looks ugly and old

“No fun cause when she reaches for hugs, people hold their breath

“Cause she smells of corrosion and death

“But so young boys you can use a lotta help you know

“You thinking life’s all about smoking weed and ice

“You don’t wanna be my age and can’t read and write

“Read more, learn more, change the globe

His flawless lyricism and the rich tapestried background feel of jazz, neo-soul and soul, coupled with choice elements of Afrobeat, highlife and hip-hop, to his musicianship places his music genre in a class of its own, of course a high class of eclectic exceptionalism.

This takes into account the fact that both synthesizer and live instrumentation define his unique soundscape, including the soundscape of “No Where Cool.”

Even the album art was done by Zimbabwean artist and activist Kudzanai Chiurai, arguably one of Africa’s greatest artists.

All these facts may probably point to why he enjoys such a wide swath of patronage from an international platform of sophisticated musical audience and listenership. Even more significantly, there is this soft stubborn radicalness of Bob Marley in the body of his conscious lyrical repertoire, as well as of the gods and goddesses of neo-soul from Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Bilal, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, Musiq Soulchild (“Musiq”), Floetry, Anthony Hamilton to...

Likewise, Samuel Owusu’s profound repertoire reminds us of the hortatory lyricism and moral frankness of Nana Ampadu, Obuoba J.A. Adofo, Alex Konadu, Koo Nimo, Amakye Dede…

Indeed, it is quite understandable why some think M.anifest makes “elite music.” Again, this is quite understandable given the highly quality standards of his music. Not many in the industry make the kind of quality music he makes. Of course, the kind of quality music he makes will stand the test of time. That remains to be seen. M.anifest is arguably far ahead of the shoddy lot in Ghana.

The future of this genre therefore lies in the hands of this select few, torchbearers of Afrocentric consciousness! This select few must reach back to the spiritual-cultural reservoir of traditional highlife (and palm-wine music) for moral instruction and inspiration, and what generally seems like resourceful instructions on epideictic rhetoric and rhetorical speech.

Gone are the days when this author and his brothers (Prince and Kwesi), Prince’s studio “Prince Music Cartel,” and their friends (Ded Buddy, now Qweci, etc) organized shows for rap completion at Club 250 (Dansoman) with the likes of Aziziga Jr. before hiplife became hiplife today.


The next installment, Part 9, concludes the series.


Dominic_WMN. (2012) “Highlife Roots Revival.” Retrieved from http://www.worldmusic.net/store/item/TUG1064/

Andy Wagstaff. “Best of Patron Requests: Music (September 2013 edition).” Retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/09/26/best-patron-requests-music-september-2013

Laurence Markwei. “Come To My Rescue…D.K. Poison Cries Out To Government.” January 15, 2015. The Ghanaian Times. Retrieved from http://www.ghanaiantimes.com.gh/come-to-my-rescue-d-k-poison-cries-out-to-government/

Michael E. Veal. (200). “Fela: The Life And Times Of An African Musical Icon.” Temple University Press.

Ghanaweb. “Ghanaian Rappers Are Producing Empty Music—E.L.” September 11, 2016.

Ghanaweb. “M.anifest Is A Thinker—Sakyi-Addo.”September 4, 2016.

Nomsa Mazwai’s Profile. Retrieved from http://whoswho.co.za/nomsa-mazwai-471147

Larry Getlen. “Rapper N-Bombs Poet Pal.” December 18, 2011. New York Post.

Moshood Balogun. “Music People Sample M.anifest’ ‘Nowhere Cool.’” September 6, 2016. Retrieved from http://yoyotinz.com/write-ups/music-people-sample-m-anifests-nowhere-cool/

“A Symposium And Festival Celebrating The Music And Legacy Of Dr. Ephraim Amu.” Retrieved from http://amufestival.weebly.com/#_ftn1

Kwame Dawes. “Bob Marley’s Love Songs Express the Deep Emotions Associated With Love.” Retrieved from http://www.rasta-man-vibration.com/Bobmarleyslovesongs.html

Columnist: Kwarteng, Francis