Traditional music in Ghana incorporates many styles and different types of instruments; it all depends on which region it comes from. Music from the northern regions tends to be linked musically to other music traditions from the Sahel. Generally, they tend to use a combination of stringed instruments (like a type of lute called the kologo and a type of fiddle called a gonjay) and wind instruments including different kinds of flutes, horns, and of course voice. Polyrhythmic percussion lines are either clapped or played on a variety of drums which accompany the instrumental and vocal lines. Griot, or praise-singing, traditions are also strong in the northern regions of Ghana.
The southern regions often use music in social or ceremonial capacities. Percussion is essentially the heart of African music, and the traditions of the costal regions of Ghana are right in line with this custom. Drum and bell ensembles are one of the key styles that have developed here.
During the early- to mid-20th century, music started to change. Guitar bands and dance highlife bands. These styles were mainly influenced from Latin American and Caribbean music (such as reggae) as well as jazz, blues, and soul coming from the United States and United Kingdom.
Highlife is a style that originated in Ghana and is still pretty popular, even regionally. It got its start among Ghanaian aristocrats during the colonial period and is based on a lot of traditional Akan rhythms. Highlife is characterized by its use of multiple guitars, jazzy horns, and synthsizers with an upbeat tempo. A type of highlife called Burger-Highlife became popular with Ghanaians who has emigrated to Germany. George Darko was probably the most well-known musician in the Burger-Highlife scene. Other Ghanaian highlife musicians have entered the music scene in countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and the United States.
Hiplife started to become popular in Ghana in the latter part of the 1990s. Inspired by the hip-hop music scene of the United States and United Kingdom, Reggie Rockstone is often credited as being instrumental with spreading and promoting this genre. Producers started to record new artists and the genre became quite the rage throughout Ghana.
Ghanaian music is closely tied with dance traditions. Most dances fall into four categories: social dances, religious-based dances, dances that re-enact stories and folklore, and ceremonial dances (which include weddings, funerals, births, etc.). A few of the main dances include Adzogbo (originally a war dance, now a social dance; women dance with flowing arm movements, but men have show of agility and strength), Kple (performed by priestesses at shrines as a way to communicate with the gods), Bamaya (men dance dressed as women; stemmed from a dance during a 19th century drought where men thought women got quicker responses from the gods), Adowa (sometimes called the “antelope dance” because of the wild jumps like an antelope), and the Agbadza (alternating slow steps and fast steps, it’s also accompanied with rattles, drums, and the gong-gong).
One of the stalwarts of Ghanaian music is the music of E.T. Mensah. He and his band, The Tempos, were often considered the “King of Highlife.” To me, I can definitely hear the reggae influence on the music, with a little jazz mixed in there. The saxophones and brass instruments accompany the guitars, and sometimes it was the other way around. There are times when it seems that he’s singing in a call-and-response style, with the horns and saxes responding. Normally it seems guitars take the lead; however, in this music the guitars provide more of a rhythmic function to the songs. The percussion seems to use many Latin techniques and instruments, such as maracas and claves. So in essence, what we have is a kind of multi-ethnic-sounding music that is very easy to listen to and even dance to. I love it!
Wulomei and Osibisa are a couple of other highlife bands, except they have more modernized instrumentation to their music. It also seems they both have incorporated funk and soul into their music. George Darko is another that deserves a listen. I listened to the album Highlife in the Air. It reminded me a little of E.T. Mensah at times, but I think the rhythms steer away from Caribbean and Latin rhythms and utilizes more of a driving beat. Or perhaps its instrumentation is written differently; perhaps the rhythms just switched parts. Sometimes it’s hard to tell without a score to look at.
Obo Addy is an interesting listen. Heavily focused on percussion, harmonic singing and flutes accompany the percussion ensemble, which seems to include several different types of drums of many different pitches and timbres and a balafon or marimba of some sorts. If you’re a percussionist, you should really take a serious listen to this.
And of course, this brings me to Reggie Rockstone, Ghana’s most famous Hiplife star. It seems influenced in styles of Wyclef Jean (who is featured on a song, maybe two). I’m a fan of Wyclef, so I like his style. I listened to the album ReggieStration, and although every song is listed as “explicit,” I really liked it; however, it was $19.99 on iTunes and $13.98 on Amazon, so I might have to wait until after Christmas to see about getting this. Other Hiplife artists I listened to are Samini, who leans a little more to the R&B side of hip-hop. I actually kind of like his music; it’s kind of a mix of pop-dance-reggae. I listened to the album Next Page, and all I kept thinking was that I really wanted to take a road trip and put this on (this particular album was $9.99 on iTunes). Sarkodie’s music is a little harder, more on Reggie’s level. It’s still pretty catchy. I like how he tries to vary his song styles, no fear of trying new percussion riffs or adding in horns in a song or a Gothic strings motif. It keeps the listener interested.
Up next: the food