A longer life for high life music in West Africa 


Highlife genre of music, native to West Africa is the progenitor of the fusions being played today. How can it be elevated to the mainstream?

TOSIN ADAMS                      

Tuning to the radio or visiting the clubs in major cities in Nigeria will reveal the place of highlife among music lovers. Afropop (or its variants) is king. Only a few reckon that these flavours are descendants of highlife, which once ruled the airwaves in West Africa. While highlife may not be everyone’s choice of music, it is clear that only a few people ‘actually hate’ it. Indeed what has become of this genre of music, which West Africans should hold dear, is an aftermath of Western influences.

Larry Kolsweat, an actor and musician says highlife is still the popular choice for people who know what good music entails. For him, highlife is unique and requires more hard work. “Highlife music is one genre of music that comes from the soul. It is a brand of music that comes with lots of messages, as can be testified from the masters of the music in West Africa. It is a brand of music where your skills as a musician will come to test, because you must know how to play the necessary instruments. I believe that the dilution that has trailed highlife over the years is as a result of the fact that a lot of musicians do not know how to play instruments. They depend on synthesizers, which carry a lot of foreign beats. It is difficult for anyone who cannot play an instrument to rely on that and do highlife.”

For veteran highlife musician, Victor Olaiya, highlife is unique in the sense that the instruments are peculiar to the final output: “I think the uniqueness of highlife music lies so much in the musical instruments that we employ in producing highlife. Predominant in Nigerian highlife music are the guitar, talking drum and the bass. The uniqueness is also in the musical arrangement. My arrangement is different and distinct from the late King E.T Mensah’s arrangement. In the first place, the Nigerian highlife has five beats while the Ghanaian highlife has three beats in a bar. Just like you are playing the chords, the arrangement by the artiste concerned is another major factor that makes the highlife different from any other type of music”.

Why has highlife lost grounds to the contemporary imports in spite of these peculiarities which do not come cheap? Chizzy Ani, proprietor of Kpakpando TV, a 24 hour Igbo language channel, blames it on the lack of promotion amongst musicians. He said that highlife is very much loved by people but that the weak promotional efforts towards that genre of music make it a second choice for people. “Highlife is just having a bad time, but may not be about to die. If you listen to some of the beats making waves on air, they are all dilutions of highlife. Their messages are however different from those of the tradition highlife we know which teaches morals, proverbs, folktales and certain aspects of our culture; but these dilutions have found better ways of promotion in the contemporary hip-hop culture. Only a few highlife musicians bother to promote their songs. In this age, a good video is important for any music to make the desired impact, but highlife hardly has that. On TV, we would like to play highlife tunes, but there’re hardly enough content to back that up. If you watch carefully, the young man who bought the rights of Oriental’s songs launched a promotion by doing a video”.

It seems TV is not only the broadcast medium that has relegated highlife to the background. In Nigeria today, radio stations have only devoted a negligible portion of their time belt to highlife. Where it exists especially on the conventional FM stations, they come as thirty minute shows as exemplified on Metro FM and Classic FM in Lagos. But this is not as bad as the conspiratorial neglect by Nigeria’s corporate world. For instance, many musical talent hunt shows like MTN Project Fame, Nigerian Idol and the Maltina Dance All have all mentioned highlife as a passing segment on their shows. Aside this, some of the stars being made in those shows have never considered a career in highlife.

But the interesting thing is that some people are working hard to retain this genre of music which is peculiar to the West African coast. One of these is Femi Esho of Ever Green Music Company, whose efforts have helped in storing songs made by veteran highlife musicians of the past. He spoke about his efforts thus: “I am not rich. But I feel extremely fulfilled, given what we have been able to achieve. If not for our effort, this genre of music, highlife, would have become extinct because there’s no way the younger people would have had access to the works of Eddy Okonta which was done in the 50s, Adeolu Akinsanya, Roy Chicago, Ambrose Campbell and several others. There’s no way they would have heard those songs because the musicians themselves don’t have them. It’s a way of immortalising the artistes, so that the music will not go into total extinction. I want our children yet unborn to know that there was a particular type of music called highlife music. But for our effort, many won’t have the music to enjoy. Right now, I’m doing some forty something tracks for Victor Olaiya which he doesn’t have. From our archives, we got their various songs which they don’t have, approach them and say, look, we want to reproduce your works. And they’ve been very, very happy because the songs would have died with them. So, we sit down at a roundtable, get the legal people and write the normal agreement and get the works reproduced.”

Another commendable effort in this direction is the creatively tagged: Hi-Life All Stars Club, initiated by some highlife veterans and stakeholders. They include:  Victor Abimbola Olaiya, Victor Uwaifo, Donald Duke, Fatai Rolling Dollar, Benson Idonijie and Orlando Julius amongst others.  Commendation in this direction should also go to O Jez, Iwaya, Lagos owned by Chief Joseph Odebeatu has also done quite a lot in bringing back the glory of highlife with his Elders’ Forum, which over the years has showcased highlife veterans.

Some artistes like Obiligbo, Flvour are working hard to restore this too.

Perhaps, bulk of the job about giving a boost to highlife rests with the media, as rightly observed by Victor Olaiya. “I think much depends on the media; the media seems to be tilting and paying more attention to hip-hop, reggae and other foreign music. The media should lift the tempo and project Nigerian highlife very well and all will be well by the grace of God”.