When we think about afrobeats, we hear the afrobeat melodies of Fela, the inventor of afrobeat. We think about Wizkid, Burna boy, and other Nigerian musicians. We do not hear the highlife tunes mixed into Fela’s music. When we do, these sounds are not immediately tied to Ghana.
High life was invented in Ghana in the nineteenth century. It borrows the melodic and rhythmic structures of traditional Akan music, Kpanlogo Music of the Ga people, but is usually performed on Western instruments. Highlife is distinguished by jazzy horns and multiple guitars that lead the band and its use of the traditional African two-finger-picking guitar style. It has recently acquired an uptempo, synth-driven sound.
Prior to World War II, highlife was popular in the “Native Blues” genre before production was halted. Its popularity returned after the war. Taking their own traditional guitar riffs and the influence of Ghanaian highlife performing ideas, the Igbo people of Nigeria mixed and perfected it to form Igbo highlife, which became the country’s most popular music genre in the 1960s.
Many Nigerians today associate Highlife with the Igbo variation, which focuses on guitar riffs and combines the sounds of traditional Igbo instruments and jazz and trumpet. Afrobeat was influenced by numerous genres, including highlife, fuji, and jùju,as well as Yoruba vocal traditions, rhythm, and instruments. Kuti left Lagos in the late 1950s to study at the London School of Music, where he was exposed to jazz. He returned to Lagos and performed a highlife-jazz hybrid, though he had little commercial success.
Kuti’s music, the origins of afrobeat and the significant influence of afrobeats today, bears a similar style to Ghanian and Igbo Highlife pieces. Listening to instrumentals of Fela’s song “Dog eat Dog ” and instrumentals of Ghanaian highlife songs by Kwamena Ray Elis, there are similar patterns of pairing piano notes with traditional instruments. Kwamena’s instrumentals start out with the gentle notes of the piano and are followed by the music of traditional instruments. The piano dominates the melodies from traditional instruments.
Fela’s ” Dog eat Dog” Has sharper piano notes punctuated by Jazz tunes and traditional instruments like the shekere. I wondered if there were any Ghanian Musicians who played Afrobeat at the time the genre was popular. I searched and found guitar band highlife music by Anadwo Bea titled Oppong. The songs sounded very similar to Esan Highlife music I would hear in my grandfather’s house in Benin. The style is very similar to songs by artists like Edo Music and Alaska Agho.
Ghanaian highlife is still relevant today, with contemporary Ghanaian afrobeats musicians such as Dennis Nana Dwamena, better known as KiDi incorporating the sounds into modern afrobeats music. Kidi, best known for his hit single Odo, is signed to Lynx Entertainment. The remix, which features Nigerian superstars Mayorkun and Davido, has received widespread airplay throughout Africa. The success of Odo proves that, in the right hands, Afrobeats and highlife can merge into a widely acceptable fusion.