Towards the end of the Kwame Nkrumah era in 1966, a number of highlife artists wrote songs critical of him as Ghana’s president. But during the period leading up to independence in 1957 and the early years of independence, most Ghanaian popular artists and entertainers wholeheartedly backed Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party.
It is on this support by local popular artists for the independence struggle, as well as Nkrumah’s Pan African and “African Personality” ideals, that this article focuses.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, “concert party” popular theatre groups staged pro-Nkrumah plays. Among them were the Axim Trio and Bob Ansah’s. Bob Vans actually changed the name of his Burma Trio concert party to the Ghana Trio in 1948. This was nine years before “Ghana” became the country’s official name.
In 1952 the guitarist E.K. Nyame formed his Akan Trio concert party, which for the first time fully integrated guitar band highlife into the concert dramas and performed exclusively in the vernacular. His motives were partly political. As he once told me, he wanted to get away from the “colonial ideology and British mind”.
E.K. Nyame’s guitar band also wrote and released on record 40 highlifes in support of Nkrumah.
Some of the other highlife guitar bands that supported Nkrumah were those of Kwaa Mensah, I.E. Mason, the Fanti Stars, Bob Cole, Yaw Adjei and Otoo Larte.
Moreover, the highlife influenced Ewe borborbor drum and dance music created in the Kpandu area around 1950 became so closely identified with his political party that this neo-traditional recreational music became known as “Nkrumah’s own borborbor”.
The more urbanised and prestigious highlife dance bands also supported Nkrumah: like Broadway, Squire Addo’s London Rhythm Band, the Modernaires, the Red Spots, Joe Kelly’s band and E.T. Mensah’s Tempos, which played at Convention People’s Party rallies and released records like Kwame Nkrumah, General Election and Ghana Freedom Highlife.
Not only did the Tempos record pro-Convention People’s Party highlifes, but the band’s brilliant blend of highlife and jazz, as well as its use of sophisticated up-to-date imported instruments to play African songs, became the sound-symbol or zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”) for the early optimistic independence era.
Nkrumah’s quid pro quo
Nkrumah recognised the vital role of local popular entertainment in the independence struggle and the creation of an African identity. This led him to endorse numerous state and parastatal highlife bands and concert parties. These included the Cocoa Marketing Board, Black Star Shipping Line, State Hotels, Armed Forces, the Workers Brigade and the Farmers Council.
The coup in 1966 led to some interesting dynamics. One was that the military National Liberation Council that overthrew Nkrumah showed it understood the power wielded by the popular artists. This was demonstrated by the case of Ajax Bukana. A Nigerian musician and comedian, he came to Ghana in 1952 and literally became Nkrumah’s personal “court jester”. As a result of his close association with Nkrumah, Bukana was briefly imprisoned by the police criminal investigation department immediately after the 1966 coup.
Indeed the link between popular artists and Nkrumah was so strong that after the anti-Nkrumah coup the new government not only dissolved the two entertainment unions but also put a three week ban on the movement of touring concert parties.
Other reasons for Nkrumah’s support
Besides the active role of highlife bands and concert parties in Ghana’s independence struggle there were a number of other reasons why Nkrumah supported the popular performance as a third prong of his national performing arts policy.
Firstly, as Ghana’s independence movement was spearheaded by the mass Convention People’s Party, it is not surprising that the popular music and drama of the masses was also drawn into the struggle. Indeed the so-called “veranda boys” from whom Nkrumah drew so much of his backing were of the same “intermediate” class from which most Ghanaian (and other African) popular musicians and actors were drawn. These “intermediates” were neither elite nor peasant, but cash-crop farmers and newly urbanised Africans who performed semi-skilled work. In short the same rural and urban masses that the Convention People’s Party drew its main support from.
Yet another reason for Nkrumah’s endorsement of the popular arts is that, compared to ethnic based traditional music, highlife music and the concert party were “non-tribal” art forms popular throughout Ghana. For instance, although the text of highlife songs and concert party dramas was mainly in the Akan and Ga languages, the Ewe, Hausa and Pidgin English languages were also sometimes used. Local popular dance music and drama therefore provided an artistic lingua franca suitable for Nkrumah’s trans-ethnic nation building policy for polyglot Ghana.
Yet another was the pro-Convention People’s Party concert musician and actor Bob Cole, who in 1961 wrote a song that lamented the assassination of Nkrumah’s Congolese colleague Patrice Lumumba. Other pan-African highlife themes are found in some of the releases of E.K. Nyame, Otoo Larte, the Builder Brigade band, S.S. Ahima, the Ramblers, Broadway – and the Uhuru dance band which derives its name from the East African Swahili word for “freedom”.
Several highlife bands accompanied Nkrumah and represented Ghana at Pan African and international events. One particular case was that of the Tempos, who visited Guinea just after its independence in 1958 when, as E.T. Mensah told me, he was gifted money by President Sekou Touré. At that time Ghanaians were particularly popular in Guinea, as the country had received a substantial loan from Nkrumah to overcome its initial problems at independence. The French colonial government had sabotaged the new nation’s infrastructure before quitting.
On this theme of pan-Africanism it should also be noted that Ghanaian highlife music is not only “non-tribal”, it has some roots and extensions in other West African countries (particularly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria). Indeed during the 1950s highlife music spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
In short, highlife not only provided Nkrumah with a readymade artistic vehicle that projected trans-ethnic national aspirations, but also became a Pan African artistic idiom that symbolised the birth of sub-Saharan Africa’s first modern independent nation.
This material was culled from Professor John Collins’ work ‘Nkrumah and Highlife’. New Legon Observer, Ghana, vol. 2, no. 7, pp. 5-7