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Anemoia: Highlife

By 25th February 2021March 19th, 2021No Comments

On the surface, Highlife is a genre that incorporates traditional melodic and rhythmic structures from Ghanaian Akan culture using Western instruments. For me however, that seems far too mechanical a description for a  form of music that produces an energy which is palpable. The spirited call of the trumpet alone is enough to summon theatrical leg work and waist wiggling from even the most rigid of individuals. When I listen to it I am immediately transported to a coastal bar in Accra: the year is 1953, the mood is high yet relaxed and the palm wine is flowing. Though of course as a 23-year-old living in Kent– this is a nostalgia for a time I never knew, an anemoia masquerading as a memory.

Highlife like jazz is the product of a cultural renegotiation spurred by colonialism. Understandably, it may seem odd for someone who perhaps spends too much time in an internal conflict over whether African wax print cloth is a symbol of reclamation or a symbol of oppression to long for a period in pre-independent Ghana. That said, It is not completely unfounded. We’ve seen time and time again how Africans and members of the diaspora have been subject to the material realities, prevalent ideas and social structures within colonial regimes without completely yielding to them. Instead, artists, musicians, writers and many others work within those structures, transforming and reinterpreting them through music and other art forms. Interestingly, even though highlife music seemed intertwined with politics, it had no political agenda and solely sought to spark joy within the nocturnal men and women of Accra.

It’s not just the politics which shape  the genre that happen to resonate with me. It also represents nostalgia for something or more aptly someone that I knew and want desperately to hold on to. My grandfather loved highlife music you see, and sometimes when I picture his face It’s almost there but like a low-resolution camera the image is coarse and grainy. Each time I try to restore the image, it fades further as I struggle to map his distinctive freckles–a feature which my mother has inherited. When I listen to highlife the image doesn’t suddenly become HD, but it is as if he is communicating to me in a different medium where his past and my present converge. It is there that I watch him laughing with friends as they let the music from the bar draw them from the bustling streets into the venue.

When it first emerged in Ghana, highlife music was distinctly associated with Ghana’s aristocracy. The majority of Ghanaians did not have the status or wealth to enter the venues, so the music earned the title “highlife.” Though my grandfather was part of the Ghanaian middle class, I wonder if he would listen to highlife and picture himself as part of the aristocracy or if he began to love the genre when highlife spread and took the more urban areas by storm. At some point I stop thinking all together and just submit to the musicality and sentiment of highlife which birthed the afrobeat genre and inspired the likes of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and many others.

By Sena Nwosu