Sharing a common culture under British colonial rule, Nigerian and Ghanaian highlife as played in the 1950s by Victor Olaiya and Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah, competed favourably with the Congolese music of Franco Laumbo Makiadi and Joseph Kabasele. In the 1960s, Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata and Click Song stood on the same musical rating with Rex Lawson’s Love Adure, Ibinabo and Roy Chicago’s Yoyo gbe and Maria.
But innovators like Zaiko Langa and Papa Wemba have introduced new elements into Congo Zairean music with a bolder fusion of rhymba and folklore that have attracted western pop attitudes to indigenous music. The South African Xhosa musical tradition of Makeba and Hugh Masekela has been extended by the likes of Dudu Pukwanda, a most expressive voice who maintained the kwela groove with gusto until 1990. And like a dynamite, Yvonne Chaka and Brenda Fassie have taken on Africa and the West on a music trip that is still moving on wagon wheels.
And of course, of all the artistes bringing the manding sound out of the Sahel region, the first international success came to Salif Keita, the albino singer from Mali whose success story has set the pace for the musical culture of Mali. His image and that of his country was boosted by a 1991 collaboration with United States of America artistes. And needless to say that the world is now a stage for Senegal’s Yousou Ndour, a grammy award winner.
Steeped in traditional culture and given Western appeal, Youssou’s music is very popular in Europe and America; and has set the pace for the music of the entire Sahel Region.
On the other hand, since the Uhuru Professional Dance Band and the Ramblers in the late 1960s, Ghanaian highlife has been in limbo. Attempts at extending its evolution to the future were made by George Dako, an alto saxophonists based in Germany in the 1970s. His approach was rock-oriented, but it lacked depth in terms of arrangement and melodic structuring. The Benglos Dance Band made a bold effort to revolutionise highlife in Ghana, but the group disbanded after the release of its first album in 1983 due to lack of support and encouragement.
Also, in Nigeria, not much has happened in the evolution of highlife since Rex Lawson! Except that Fela Anikulapo-Kuti revolutionised it in 1965 and later transformed it to Afrobeat where only Femi and Seun Kuti are the only performers.
If there is any evidence of performance of highlife in Ghana today, it is not because the exponents are professionally committed to it. It is because of the monolithic musical culture of the country, which has highlife as the only idiom, unlike Nigeria where there are various other forms.
In Ghana, highlife is crying for professional treatment without which it cannot receive international acceptance. The situation is not different in Nigeria where there is now a tendency towards Afrobeat music. And yet in all of Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana, indigenous musical culture is profound enough to inspire musicians. There is no excuse.
To say that music is a part of life in Africa is an understatement. In many African cultures, music seems to have a greater significance than human life. It is often believed to have predated the existence of man and remains the main conduit for communication with the gods.
In its traditional forms, music accompanies almost every activity. While in contemporary popular guise, it has proved to be a lively form of cultural expression. No African popular music exists in a vacuum; it is always related in one way or another to the cultural background of the performers. For the African, music truly is the expression of culture. The African expresses it through dance, body movement, clapping the instruments identified with his cultural environment and vocal expression. And an important vocal construction is call-and-response singing, a pattern common to many types of African music.
The difference between contemporary popular music and traditional idioms is often vast, but there must be a continuity of purpose. Traditional musicians are human like every other person. They live in the modern world where culture has become dynamic.
Traditional music is bound to be affected by modern influences because the same people who play modern and traditional listen to both. The traditional will always be there, and the ability to fuse it with modern elements, such as jazz or rock without losing its African value is the hallmark of the contemporary African music, which can break through the international scene. And the artiste must be musically educated to be able to develop an individual style, something that manages to remain constant despite changing contexts.
Almost all the incursions into Afrobeat, highlife, and other forms of music today are lacking in basic professional requirements like composition, arrangements and song writing. These roles need to be performed by trained people to be able to fully complement the efforts of performers. Other wise, the cacophony of sounds would continue to prevail.
A great number of musical videos are now telecast everyday, an indication that efforts are, more than ever before, being made by our young musicians to identify with Afrocentric music. But what does it benefit an artiste in concrete terms if all he gets from a whole recording effort is desirable in that it could stimulate people’s interest, but it is like a double-edged sword. It could also be disastrous.
As the frequency of an airplay daily registers an impression on the subconscious, the inadequacies of the video become emphasised. Mediocrity is promoted; and this can eventually destroy the artiste, preventing the discerning public from giving his next recording effort a chance.
However, what can be done to improve the quality of music and its general standard among our youths is for the education ministry to make music compulsory in secondary schools. The implication of this move is that by the time a young chap leaves secondary school, he would be well grounded in the rudiments of music. If he is so inclined, he could pursue music at the polytechnic or university. But even if he terminates his study at the secondary school level and wants to take up music, he already has an idea about melody, harmony, arrangement and form. He has already acquired a foundation on which he would continue to build.