Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana

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Highlife Saturday Night captures the vibrancy of Saturday nights in Ghana-when musicians took to the stage and dancers took to the floor-in this penetrating look at musical leisure during a time of social, political, and cultural change. Framing dance band "highlife" music as a central medium through which Ghanaians negotiated gendered and generational social relations, Nate Plageman shows how popular music was central to the rhythm of daily life in a West African nation. He traces the history of highlife in urban Ghana during much of the 20th century and documents a range of figures that fueled the music's emergence, evolution, and explosive popularity. This book is generously enhanced by audiovisual material on the Ethnomusicology Multimedia website.

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1 Popular Music, Political Authority, and Social Possibilities in the Southern Gold Coast, 1890–1940

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In January 1909, W. C. Robertson, the Gold Coast’s secretary for native affairs, wrote a letter to Taki Obili, Accra’s recently appointed Ga mantse,1 regarding two dances that had become popular among the city’s young men and women. The letter insisted that the styles in question, osibisaaba and ashiko, were immoral and dangerous because they “produce[d] an excitement” that threatened the city’s fragile semblance of civil and political order. Robertson urged Obili to ban these objectionable dances and to introduce severe punitive measures that would discourage their performance. Two years later, Obili rallied the city’s mantsemei and drafted a series of bylaws that responded to the secretary’s concerns. The laws, which constituted one of Obili’s initial assertions of official authority, read:

1. The dances known as ASHIKO and SIBI SABA or any other dances of a similar nature are hereby suppressed, and whoever takes part or induces any other person to take part in any of the said dances shall be liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds and two sheep.

 

2 The Making of a Middle Class: Urban Social Clubs and the Evolution of Highlife Music, 1915–1940

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In January 1916, Joseph William de Graft-Johnson, a prominent Cape Coast citizen and school headmaster, contacted the commissioner of the Central Province about a group of educated men’s recent effort to “try and raise a public subscription band.” The band, de Graft-Johnson explained, had the backing of Reverend Kowfi at Richmond College and with the commissioner’s kind support and patronage could initiate rehearsals and be ready to stage performances by Easter of that year. The commissioner, however, was hardly enthusiastic about the idea:

I do not understand your proposal. Supposing you collect sufficient funds to purchase band instruments who is going to be responsible for the maintenance of the instruments and the payment of the members of the band? Organized bodies, such as a Regiment of Soldiers, Theatrical Companies and the like have bands which form part of their organizations, but I do not quite appreciate how the band you speak of is to be maintained or for what purpose it is to be formed. If you will be good enough to enlighten me on these points, I will be pleased to further consider your letter.1

 

3 The Friction on the Floor: Negotiating Nightlife in Accra, 1940–1960

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On Saturday Nights in the mid-1950s, a young Alex Moffatt would sneak out of his family house so that he could go to the Tip-Toe, Seaview, or another of Accra’s many nightclubs. To prepare for these excursions, Moffatt would raid his uncle’s closet, select a suit, tie, and pair of black shoes, and inform the other members of his family that he was retiring to bed. When it was clear that everyone else had fallen asleep, Moffatt got up, changed clothes, and quietly made his exit. When he returned home hours later, he took extreme care to open the front door, replace the borrowed items, and enter his room without alerting his unsuspecting parents, uncle, or grandmother. On Sunday morning, Moffatt awoke to a household that had no idea that he had ever left. For the next few years, Moffatt and his equally devious peers used these secretive methods to gain access to one of the city’s most exciting spheres of musical recreation. At that time, many city residents upheld nightclubs as the place to go on Saturday Nights. Within their walls, large crowds gathered to enjoy the offerings of a new generation of highlife dance bands, such as Accra’s Rhythm Aces, the Black Beats, and E. T. Mensah and the Tempos, that had taken the colony by storm. But nightclubs offered patrons more than an evening of music and dance. Like many other residents, Moffatt and his friends sought out these venues not simply to revel in highlife’s vibrant sound; they did so in order to actively participate in a wider struggle concerning the colony’s social and cultural future.1

 

4 “The Highlife Was Born in Ghana”: Politics, Culture, and the Making of a National Music, 1950–1965

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On July 1, 1960, the independent nation of Ghana became a republic, enshrined with a new draft constitution and office of the president, which was assumed by the prime minister and leader of the CPP, Kwame Nkrumah. That same day, his government made two important announcements concerning dance band highlife. The first was that highlife was Ghana’s “national” dance music: a pronouncement that many listeners interpreted as either a confirmation of its wide popularity among individuals of different ages, ethnicities, and occupations or recognition of its prominence in the years surrounding the country’s independence. The second declaration was that this national form needed to change. More specifically, the government called upon dance band musicians and patrons to relinquish their embrace of international elements and make the music into something that was more “Ghanaian” in composition and character. Nkrumah asked performers to enhance the genre’s local meaning by utilizing a regular tempo, by limiting, and over time eliminating, foreign numbers, and by encouraging a standardized set of dance steps that all residents could adopt. He also insisted that the music needed a new name. As an English-language title, “highlife” did not befit a musical genre that was essentially “Ghanaian in character and African in content.” Although he ultimately charged the National Association of Teachers of Dancing with the task of selecting a new moniker, Nkrumah proposed rechristening the music osibi, an Akan term that made explicit reference to osibisaaba, the proto-highlife that had flourished many decades earlier.1

 

5 “We Were the Ones Who Composed the Songs”: The Promises and Pitfalls of Being a Bandsman, 1945–1970

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In 1950, a young Charles Kofi Mann left his hometown of Cape Coast for Takoradi, a rapidly growing city that served as the locus of the colony’s rail and harbor works. Like a number of young men before and after, he made the move in hopes of finding employment, earning money, and charting a future.1 Unfortunately, Mann’s arrival in Takoradi was marked not by opportunity, but by obstacles and hardship. Without friends or family to lean on, he spent his days searching for work and a place to live. After scouring the city center without much success, Mann descended on the harbor, where he secured a steady stream of odd jobs, found friends, and became immersed in his new urban environs. For the next year he loaded and unloaded cargo, cleaned ship decks, and assisted with various maintenance tasks on and off the docks. One day a British captain impressed with Mann’s work ethic and array of skills offered him a position aboard a ship bound for Nigeria. Convinced that he had finally found his lucky break, Mann eagerly accepted the offer and began a four-year stint at sea.

 

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