Music and Highlife in Ghana

Posted: March 3, 2013 in All Posts, Ghana

by Jamin Shih

A significant part of culture in any country is the musical tastes of the people and Ghana has played a big role in popular music of Africa. The genre of “highlife” is a type of music that originated in Ghana itself and slowly spread to other countries in West Africa, such as Nigeria. It is characterized by jazz influences and guitar melodies mixed with complementary synthesized sounds. It has since become an important aspect of Ghana’s cultural presence. Highlife has also since split into several interesting sub-genres of music that have become popular in their own right, demonstrating the malleability of culture.

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Koo Nimo, a Highlife artist

What is Highlife? Highlife is a genre of music that utilizes uptempo beats and mixes a variety of culturally traditional and new instruments to form an interesting amalgam of sound. Utilizing horns, guitars, harmony, and traditional instruments such as the prempensua and the nnawuta all together creates a unique sound.

One particularly well-known Highlife artist is Koo Nimo, a native of Ghana from Ashanti. At the astounding age of 79, this artist has been releasing records for 45 years and his most recent album was just released in 2012.

A wonderful facet of his music is the tradition of passing on stories and tales of the culture of Ghana. Nimo passes on traditional stories through his music in his native language of Twi and uses a variety of interesting instruments to complement his guitar skills.

This blend of new music and traditional storytelling made him a popular and important artist in the genre of Highlife and also in the popular culture of Ghana as a whole. In addition, he also went on to teach in America for quite some time, in the University of Seattle and at the University of Michigan. He was also the president of the Ghana’s Musicians Union for an entire decade.

Koo Nimo

A website based on traditional cultural music describes Koo Nimo’s art as “a pulsating mix of melodious and intoxicating guitar patterns, harmonious vocals, and mesmerizing percussion. It brings to life the meaning of the Sankofa image, a symbolic bird of the Asante people of Ghana, looking backwards with one foot forward to the future.”

His lyrics similarly reflect this duality by referencing traditional stories in a new light. One verse of a song from his first album tells the story of the hunter Ampon and his love.

Mansa told people her husband was lost
Whilst his body rotted where it was tossed.
His funeral was held. Then Mansa said
That she and Ampon planned to be wed.
They were quite happy together at first,
But soon it was plain their marriage was cursed.

She remained barren, and Ampon could tell
That in his new home, all was not well.
He came back quite late from hunting one night,
And seated himself in the fire light.
Mansa fanned the fire, to make the flames blaze
And Ampon remembered her cunning ways.

He cried: “Is someone hiding behind the big tree?
Is your lover hoping he can kill me?
I suspect you, Mansa, when you fan the flames
For then I remember your devilish games.
The threat of vengeance hangs over my head.
I shall not have peace until I am dead.”

A visual and auditory example of some of Nimo’s work can be found here.

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