Music of Ghana

West African music
Benin Burkina Faso
Chad Côte d'Ivoire
Gambia Ghana
Guinea Guinea-Bissau
Liberia Mali
Mauritania Niger
Nigeria Senegal
Sierra Leone Togo
Western Sahara

The most well-known form of Ghanaian music is highlife, which has become popular all across Africa and much of the rest of the world. Highlife arose among the coastal regions of Ghana and, to a lesser extent Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and other English-speaking West African colonies. In the 1920s, the word was coined to describe the dancing of the English colonials to the regimented music of native bands. Eventually, the music, originally used only for military functions, began using native songs and kpanlogo rhythms.


Folk music

Ghana is home to numerous ethnic groups, who can be divided into four broad categories:


During the colonial era, Africa's Gold Coast was a hotbed of musical syncretism. Rhythms from across West Africa, especially gombe and ashiko from Sierra Leone, Liberian guitar-styles like dagomba, mainline and fireman, Fante osibisaba, European brass bands and sea shanties and Christian music, were all combined into the melting pot that became highlife.

Early split: guitar-bands and dance highlife

The word highlife comes from the 1920s, when it was used to describe parties held by the European upper-class to which the locals aspired. There were two types of highlife at the time. Dance orchestras played at the parties of the elite, while poor, rural guitarists played a kind of often-scorned music that was also called palm wine music (the term palm wine has referred to multiple styles from West Africa, but is now more commonly associated with the popular music of Sierra Leone). Originally associated with the Fante people, the guitar-based highlife spread across the country (and, to a lesser degree, abroad).

Mid-20th century and the invention of Ghanaian pop

While pan-Ghanaian music had been developed for some time, the middle of the 20th century saw the development of distinctly Ghanaian pop music. Highlife incorporated elements of swing, jazz, rock, ska and soukous, and saw its first inroads into the culture of its neighbors in West Africa and across the rest of the continent. To a much lesser extent, Ghanaian musicians found success in the United States and, briefly, the United Kingdom with the surprise success of Osibisa's Afro-rock in the 1970s.

Guitar-bands in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s

In the 1930s, Sam's Trio, led by Jacob Sam, was the most influential of the highlife guitar-bands. Their "Yaa Amponsah", three versions of which were recorded in 1928 for Zonophone, was a major hit that remains a popular staple of numerous highlife bands. The next major guitar-band leader was EK Nyame, who led the Akan Trio and sang in Twi. Nyame also added the double bass and more elements of the Western hemisphere, including jazz and Cuban music. In the 1960s, dance highlife was more popular than guitar-band highlife; most of the guitar bands began using the electric guitar until a roots revival in the mid-1970s.

Dance highlife in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s

Dance highlife evolved during World War 2, when American jazz and swing became popular with the arrival of servicemen from the United States and United Kingdom. After independence in 1957, the socialist government began encouraging folk music, but highlife remained popular and influences from Trinidadian and Congolese music. ET Mensah was the most influential musician of this period, and his band The Tempos frequently accompanied the president. The original bandleader of The Tempos was Guy Warren, who was responsible for introducing Caribbean music to Ghana and, later, was known for a series of innovative fusions of African rhythms and American jazz. King Bruce, Jerry Hansen and Stan Plange also led influential dance bands during the 1950s and 60s. By the 1970s, however, pop music from Europe and the US dominated the Ghanaian scene until a mid-1970s roots revival.

1970s: Roots revival

By the beginning of the 1970s, traditionally styled highlife had been overtaken by electric guitar bands and pop-dance music. Since 1966 and the fall of President Nkrumah, many Ghanaian musicians moved abroad, settling in the US, UK and Nigeria. Highlife bands like Okukuseku recorded in Lagos or Nigeria's eastern Igbo region. In 1971, the Soul to Soul music festival was held in Accra. Several legendary American musicians played, including Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner and Carlos Santana. With the exception of Mexican-American Santana, these American superstars were all black, and their presence in Accra was seen as legitimizing Ghanaian music. Though the concert is now mostly remembered for its role as a catalyst in the subsequent Ghanaian roots revival, it also led to increased popularity for American rock and soul. Inspired by the American musicians, new guitar bands arose in Ghana, including the Ashanti Brothers, Nana Ampadu & the African Brothers, The City Boys and more. Musicians like CK Mann, Daniel Amponsah and Eddie Donkor incorporated new elements, especially from Jamaican reggae. A group called Wulomei also arose in the 1970s, leading a Ga cultural revival to encourage Ghanaian youths to support their own countrymen's music. By the 1980s, the UK was experiencing a boom in African music as Ghanaians and others moved there in large numbers. The group Hi-Life International was probably the most influential band of the period, and others included Jon K, Dade Krama, Orchestra Jazira and Ben Brako. In the middle of the decade, however, British immigration laws changed, and the focus of Ghanaian emigration moved to Germany.

The Ghanaian-German community created a form of highlife called burgher highlife. The most influential early burgher highlife musician was George Darko, whose "Akoo Te Brafo" coined the term and is considered the beginning of the genre. Burgher highlife was extremely popular in Ghana, especially after computer-generated dance beats were added to the mix. The same period saw a Ghanaian community appear in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada. Pat Thomas is probably the most famous Ghanaian-Canadian musician. Other emigres include Ghanaian-American Obo Addy, the Ghanaian-Swiss Andy Vans and the Ghanaian-Dutch Kumbi Salleh. In Ghana itself during the 1980s, gospel and reggae became extremely popular. The Genesis Gospel Singers were the most widely-known gospel band. Late 1990s a new generation of artists discovered the so called hip life. Frontrunners of this style are Daddy Lumba and Kojo Antwi.

See also: Ghanaian hip hop

Further reading

  • Graham, Ronnie and John Collins. "Gold Coast: Highlife and Roots". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 488-498. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0

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