Highlife Music and Its Impacts on Other Music Genres

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Highlife Music and its Impact on other Music Genres


This paper explores the musical genre called Highlife. It is divided into three parts. The first part is about the formation of Highlife music. It is based on historical facts. The second part gives information about different types of Highlife. It has information about how much this music was important and influential for others. The last part mentions one of the most important key figures in the history of Highlife music. It contains brief information about the greatest artists of the genre, and why they were so successful.



Highlife Music and Its Impacts on Other Music Genres

How the Highlife music Was Formed in West Africa

Africa is well known for various types of music which it represents. But substantial contributions of Africans to the music were not made in one day. It took many years for representatives of this country to develop such great and inspiring music genre called Highlife. It gained popularity not only among the residents, but among people outside their country as well.

The history of Highlife music starts in West Africa, in the beginning of the 20th century. The music itself was formed before it was given the actual name. According to Graham and Collins (1999), “The term, coined in the 1920s, is a reference to the kind of European-derived evening of dressing-up and dancing (the high life)” (p. 488)

In 1920s, there were two groups of people. In the first group there were rich people who spent their leisure time in luxurious ballrooms of Africa. The majority of them were arrogant, immodest and untalented individuals. They were dancing to orchestral music that was played by professional musicians. Those vain people were glad with their state of affairs which was related to their good fortune. And this fortune was absence of financial problems. Most of them did not appreciate music and did not care much about it. The reason they were glad was that they could afford it, and it was the only thing that mattered.

The second group consisted of people who were not rich. They did not know much about expensive lifestyle either. But their creativity, their love and passion for music prompted them to make their own sound. They would organize street parties anytime, anywhere and for everyone. Passersby would join it, dance to it and tell their friends about what they listened to, and the friends would come there and do the same things.

To understand why this remarkable music genre became so successful it is necessary to explore this question.

Highlife was created as a mixture of other popular genres. In pre-Highlife Era, such musical genres as Gombey, Maringa and Ashiko were already liked and accepted by many people. Most of those people were representatives of middle and lower class. The Gombey music was played by drums. This instrument was brought by those Africans who were freed from slavery in Jamaica. The Freetown became the hometown for this style of music.

Afterwards, owing to the existence of this style, Maringa and Ashiko were created. Maringa as well as Gombey also had drums as its main instrument. Both of these styles were very similar. They slightly differed from each other only in playing techniques.

To this day the key instrument of the Ashiko music is the acoustic guitar. Africans from the western part of the country were able to establish this music with the unique sound and specific styles of finger playing.

Highlife emerged as the combination of everything aforesaid. John Collins (1989) states that “Both gombey and its two spin-offs, maringa and ashiko, were later partially absorbed into highlife music.” Integral parts of this music were not only drummers and guitar players, but also outstanding singers. Their voices were harmonized with no less important back-vocals.

After several decades, highlife became one of the most recognized and most influential types of music. In the 1950s its sound included such instruments as bass guitar, horns, saxophone, trumpet and even the piano (Coester, 2008).

The Impact of Highlife on Other Music Genres

Highlife has made an enormous impact on subsequent musical genres. It has led to the formation of Igbo Highlife, Hiplife, Raglife, Burger highlifeand Afro-beat in Africa.

Igbo Highlife was formed in 1950s. Igbo people made it as a combination of their traditional Nigerian melodies and (at that time) mainstream highlife. The basis of this music is acoustic guitars, drums (including slit and talking drum), gongs and probably the most important and most recognizable aspect of this style - lyrics written in Igbo language. This music represents the culture of Nigerians.

Hiplife is a Ghanaian genre of music that remains relatively popular today. It is the integration of highlife and hip hop music. Almost all songs are performed in Akan language. Since it appeared in the 1990s, which is not a long time ago, the main instruments of hiplife are computer soft and occasionally drum machines. Despite the fact that all this music is not played with acoustic instruments, it has pleasant and appropriate lyric sound . There are two reasons why representatives of this type became so successful and well known in their country and abroad. The first reason is highlife influence. Through its music, hiplife was always able to remain rhythmical and melodic at the same time. And the second reason is that it has a lot of lyrics in every song which has meaning as well.

Hiplife and Raglife music can sound very similar. The main differences are that Raglife has more reggae elements and elements of “autotune” singing.

Though many people consider Burger highlife to be German music, it is fair to say that it is more African than German. Germans were very dedicated to highlife music. They liked it a lot, but they could not create something similar and original at the same time. Germans decided to cooperate with Africans. So it was created outside of Africa, but it was created with the help of African immigrants. Later, when Burger highlife was formed and presented to European audience, it became accepted and popular even outside of Germany.

Afro-beat is the most interesting sub-genre among all aforesaid. It was created only by one man. His name was Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He started as a guitarist who played highlife music. Though later, when he reached high level of playing and developed as a musician, he decided to create something new.

“He reached the conclusion that it should not have been necessary to play jazz in order to play African music. Hence, he developed his Afro-beat. Fela recorded numerous records in this style, which was picked up in one or another form by quite diverse African groups.” (West African Highlife)

Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs quickly got attention of the local audience. Through his deep lyrics he was sending strong political message to people of Africa. He always had things to say and he was not afraid of it. But except his admirers he also had the opposing side. They were not glad to hear bad and at the same time true things about themselves. They were taking measures to let their anger and aggression out on Fela and his supporters. Fela was attacked by subordinates of corrupted people many times. But nevertheless, it never stopped him from creating his own original, powerful and most important, meaningful music.

Fela also let people know his views on politics of the government. And unfortunately, his strong, brave and independent position cost him a lot.

“His record Zombie became most popular hit (“zombie” here refers to soldiers). Though even officers of the Nigerian army danced to the record in their clubs, the soldiery took revenge with a bloody assault on Fela’s house.” (West African Highlife)

He was hated by corrupted authority so much that it led him to prison where he received a five-year sentence.Fortunately, he was released in a couple of years. And when he was no longer an inmate, he dedicated his lifetime to performing unforgettable live shows. His personality and his Afro-beat became even more popular.

Important Figures in Highlife

When it comes to mentioning important figures in Highlife, the list of those people should start with Kwaa Mensah. This multi-instrumentalist deserves to be mentioned first owing to his great contribution to Palm-Wine music, which is integral part of highlife. Apart from his musical talents, he was an amazing performer. “He also combined music performance with comic theatre and toured with a concert party almost up to his death in February, 1991” (Ewens, 1992).

Not less important figure in the history of highlife music is Victor Olaiya. He could play a number of instruments. The experience that he gained collaborating with many famous highlife musicians allowed him to succeed with his own band and became one of the main icons of this music genre. Some people call him “the Nucleus of Nigerian highlife music” (Omojola, 2009).

Among most essential Highlife representatives it is necessary to mention Guy Warren, also known as Kofi Ghanaba. He could not play many instruments, but he was an extremely talented drummer. “Along the way, he pioneered cu-bop and released half a dozen classic albums”. (Ghana)

Another famous Highlife musician is undoubtedly Koo Nimo. This is what people thought about him “One of the few remaining masters of the ‘palm-wine’ style of rural highlife, Koo Nimo is a remarkable all-around guitarist, bringing a wide range of styles, including jazz and classical to his astonishing technique” (Graham & Collins, 1989, p. 497).

There were many great figures in Highlife music. But to this day the most important key figures remain legendary multi-instrumentalists Kwaa Mensah and Victor Olaiya, a notable drummer Guy Warren and an exceptional guitarist Koo Nimo.


It was needful to research the history of unique and fabled genre called Highlife music. Despite many difficulties which were faced by African people, they still had strength, desire, originality, and talent to create highlife, Highlife music that was main inspiration for creating many other sub-genres. The list includes such styles as Hiplife, Raglife, Burger highlife and famous Afro-beat. Highlife brought people together not only because of its great melodies, but also because of its lyrics. People like Fela Anikulapo-Kuti taught the audience not only to have fun while listening to music, but to think about what is happening around them as well. Still, the main reason why Highlife became so popular is its sound. The artists like Kwaa Mensah, Victor Olaiya, Guy Warren, Koo Nimo and many others did their best to make it as good as possible. That is why people should appreciate it and know more about this marvelous Highlife music.