From Highlife to Hiplife: A Beginner’s Guide to Ghanaian Pop Music

It’s a good time to introduce yourself to Ghanaian pop music. As its modern incarnations continue to develop — witness the worldwide popularity of Azonto, and the growth of dance-driven music festivals and beach parties on the country’s west coast — a recent wave of well-researched compilations has made it easier than ever to get to grips with classic styles such as highlife and palmwine.

From highlife to hiplife

If you want to explore older music, ‘Uncle’ Ebo Taylor — he is rarely mentioned without that respectful title — offers a great entry point. He was a mainstay of the brass-driven dance highlife bands of the 50s, and spent time in London in the 60s, when he collaborated with Nigerian legend Fela Kuti. That helped him work elements of funk, jazz and afrobeat into his own guitar-based sound, and he continues to make music and tour the world at almost 80 years old.

You’ll have no trouble tracking down his recent albums for Strut Records, Appia Kwa Bridge (2012) and Love and Death (2010), and you also have a decent chance of catching him live while you’re in Ghana – he plays the small outdoor stage at Republic fairly regularly, and has also appeared at Alliance Francaise.

To put Taylor’s earlier career in context, look for the 51 Lex label’s recordings of Broadway Dance Band — which Taylor played in — and E.T. Mensah and the Tempos. Compare those to compilations of guitar-led highlife like The Guitar and the Gun, where you’ll find F Kenya’s bright, intricate melodies (particularly on the superb Nyameco), and slower, reflective tracks from Genesis Gospel Singers and Salaam and his Cultural Imani Group. Finally, have a listen to Soundway’s compilations Ghana Soundz and Ghana Special, which show the growing impact of funk, disco and electric instruments.

Highlife continued to evolve after the afrobeat explosion of the 70s. In the 80s artists like Ben Brako embraced new studio tricks, creating a synth-heavy soul-funk sound. In the 90s, rappers like Jay Q and Reggie Rockstone — the latter now the owner of Accra bar and club Rockstone’s Office — spliced the genre with hip-hop to create hiplife, characterized by verses in local languages and highlife-influenced arrangements. And most recently, artist and musician Larry Achiampong has taken samples from classic highlife records and built them into the fascinating, urgent electronica of his Meh Mogya and More Mogya EPs.

The next generation: Azonto and more

In some ways Azonto and the wider Afrobeats scene are like Nollywood: if you aren’t ‘into’ it, it’s easy to overlook quite how big it is. But Azonto can stake some claim to being the pre-eminent international dance craze of the decade so far. It’s a stylish and syncopated dance that also manages to be incredibly simple and frequently very funny. Moves reference work activities, and watching dancers’ creative takes on ironing, boxing and brushing dirt from the shoulders will have you beaming.

Azonto’s international breakthrough was helped by the Ghanaian diaspora, who took the style to club dancefloors in major European and American cities. Fuse ODG’s infectious ‘Azonto’, while not the genre’s biggest track in Ghana, became its unofficial global anthem, hitting number eight in the iTunes international chart and scoring millions of Youtube views with its London-shot video.

Back in Ghana, the ruling Azonto tracks remain Sarkodie’s immense U Go Kill Me, with a skittering, much-sampled rhythm anchored by an insistent piano chord on the off beat; and E.L.’s pneumatic Obuu Mo, with its unmistakable opening cry of “This is crazy, chale!” (chale is roughly equivalent to ‘dude’). Both are still near-ubiquitous years after their 2011 release.

If you prefer a straight soul sound, look out for Efya and Jojo Abbot. Efya shows some hip-hop influence — think a Ghanaian Mary J Blige. The video for her 2012 hit Getaway is arguably a better showcase of Ghana than the country’s tourist board has ever produced. Less prominent but a regular on the Accra live circuit, Abbot is a tiny powerhouse with gorgeous, jazz-influenced phrasing.

Linking new styles with old — and anything else that takes his fancy — is dizzyingly talented guitarist Kyekyeku. Though he has few releases to his name, he is another live circuit regular, performing everything from intricate solo sets with a guitar and loop pedal to heavy rock in the band Faint Medal. More recently, he has been focusing on palmwine — a stripped-down, guitar-and-voice style that is the core of highlife — and working with legendary Koo Nimo to reanimate this currently somewhat out-of-favour genre.

Alternative sounds

Those who like their music eclectic, iconoclastic and a little skewed will appreciate FOKN Bois, a duo composed of rapper and songwriter M3nsa and self-proclaimed ‘African gypsy’ Wanlov the Kubolor. Their debut FOKN Wit Ewe dances gleefully on the fault line between Ghana’s conservative culture and its commitment to freedom of expression, poking fun at corrupt preachers, idealistic volunteers and entrenched homophobia.

Wanlov’s Romanian-Ghanaian heritage brings a global eclecticism to the music, and the pair switch between serious messages and inspired silliness as frequently as they switch languages — English, Twi and pidgin all make appearances, just as they do on Accra’s streets. Infectious and charismatic live, FOKN Bois’ crossover potential was confirmed with a well-received slot at Britain’s Glastonbury music festival in 2013.

An equally fun — if rather more tasteful — proposition is Oy, a Swiss-Ghanaian songstress who marries soulful electronica with a wry take on the diasporan experience. Bookended with skits set on Ghanaian public transport, her fantastic album Kokokyinaka revels in marketplaces, afro hair, and aunts eager to set her up with an ‘Ashanti man’.

5 essential tracks

The Okayafrica blog and Fader’s Zungu Zungu column are good places to keep up with what’s going on in Ghanaian music, and pick up some streams and downloads to get you up to speed. For now, get started with these essentials:

1. Yaa Amponsah – Koo Nimo: The definitive palmwine standard performed by a giant of the style

2. Love and Death – Ebo Taylor: Originally written in the 70s, this classic was reworked as the centrepiece of Taylor’s first album for Strut

3. U Go Kill Me – Sarkodie and E.L.: The track that defines Azonto in Ghana, boasting that ubiquitous beat

4. Reggie Rockstone – Keep Your Eyes On The Road: A recent release that pits rhyming and scratching against a distinctive highlife sample

5. Help America – FOKN Bois: Typically cheeky track showcasing their wordplay and sparse, original arrangements

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