Towards the end of the Kwame Nkrumah era in 1966, a number of highlife artists wrote songs critical of him as President of Ghana. But in the run-up to independence in 1957 and the first years of independence, most Ghanaian artists and folk artists wholeheartedly supported Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party.
It is on this support of local folk artists for the struggle for independence, as well as on the Pan-African and “African personality” ideals of Nkrumah that this article focuses.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, popular “concert” theater troupes performed pro-Nkrumah plays. Among them were the Axim Trio and Bob Ansah’s. Bob Vans actually changed the name of his Burma Trio concert night to Ghana Trio in 1948. It was nine years before “Ghana” became the country’s official name.
In 1952, guitarist EK Nyame formed his concert group Akan Trio, which for the first time fully integrated the highlife guitar group into concert dramas and performed exclusively in the vernacular. His motivations were partly political. As he once told me, he wanted to get away from “colonial ideology and the British spirit”.
EK Nyame’s guitar group also wrote and released 40 highlifes in support of Nkrumah.
Some of the other highlife guitar groups that supported Nkrumah were Kwaa Mensah, IE 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 region around 1950 became so closely associated with his political party that this neo-traditional recreational music became known as’ own borborbor. of Nkrumah ”.
The most urbanized and prestigious highlife dance groups have also supported Nkrumah: such as Broadway, the London Rhythm Band of Squire Addo, the Modernaires, the Red Spots, the group of Joe Kelly and the Tempos of ET Mensah, which have performed at Convention People’s Party gatherings and have released records like Kwame Nkrumah, General election and Ghana Liberty Highlife.
Not only have Tempos recorded pro-Convention People’s Party highlifes, but the band’s brilliant mix of highlife and jazz, along with their use of sophisticated and modern imported instruments to play African songs, have become the sonic symbol or l tune of the times (“spirit of the times”) for the start of the optimistic era of independence.
The counterpart of Nkrumah
Nkrumah recognized the vital role of local popular entertainment in the struggle for independence and the creation of an African identity. This has led him to support numerous state and parastatal highlife groups and concerts. These included the Cocoa Marketing Board, the Black Star Shipping Line, state hotels, the armed forces, the Workers’ Brigade and the Farmers Council.
The coup of 1966 created an interesting dynamic. One was that the National Liberation Military Council that overthrew Nkrumah has shown that it understands the power wielded by popular artists. This has been 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”. Due to his close association with Nkrumah, Bukana was briefly jailed by the police criminal investigation service immediately after the 1966 coup.
Indeed, the bond 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 banned the circulation of concerts for three weeks. on tour.
Other reasons for Nkrumah’s support
Besides the active role of highlife music groups and concerts in Ghana’s struggle for independence, there were a number of other reasons why Nkrumah supported popular entertainment as the third part of his national politics of Performing Arts.
First, given that Ghana’s independence movement was led by the Popular Party of the Mass Convention, it is not surprising that the popular music and theater of the masses were also drawn into the struggle. Indeed, the so-called “veranda boys” whom Nkrumah so benefited from his support belonged to the same “middle class” from which most of the Ghanaian (and other African) popular musicians and actors came. These “middlemen” were neither elites nor peasants, but cash farmers and newly urbanized Africans who performed semi-skilled labor. In short, the same rural and urban masses from which the Popular Party of the Convention drew its main support.
Another reason why Nkrumah supports folk arts is that, compared to traditional ethnic music, highlife music and concerts were popular “non-tribal” art forms throughout Ghana. For example, although the text of highlife songs and concert dramas was mainly in Akan and Ga languages, the English languages Ewe, Hausa and Pidgin were also sometimes used. Local folk dance music and theater therefore provided an artistic lingua franca suited to the policy of building a trans-ethnic nation from Nkrumah to polyglot Ghana.
Yet another was concert musician and pro-Convention People’s Party actor Bob Cole, who in 1961 wrote a song lamenting the assassination of Nkrumah’s Congolese colleague Patrice Lumumba. Other pan-African highlife themes can be found in some of the releases from EK Nyame, Otoo Larte, The Builder Brigade, SS Ahima, The Ramblers, Broadway – and the Uhuru dance group which takes its name from the Swahili word. East Africa for “freedom”.
Several highlife groups have accompanied Nkrumah and represented Ghana at pan-African and international events. A special case is that of the Tempos, who visited Guinea just after its independence in 1958 when, as ET Mensah told me, he received money from President Sékou 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 infrastructure of the new nation before resigning.
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 (notably Liberia, the Sierra Leone and Nigeria). Indeed, during the 1950s, highlife music spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
In short, highlife not only provided Nkrumah with a ready-made artistic vehicle that projected trans-ethnic national aspirations, but also became a Pan-African artistic idiom that symbolized the birth of the first modern independent nation in sub-Saharan Africa.
This material was taken from the work of Professor John Collins “Nkrumah and Highlife”. New Legon Observer, Ghana, vol. 2, no. 7, p. 5-7