I was recently introduced to a genre of music called “Highlife:” popular dance music from Ghana, resulting from a fusion of cultures in West Africa. This music is the perfect background music for your kids, and they’ll start swaying and bopping in their seat as they work.
Sharing world cultures with our children can be as easy as subtly playing world music in the background during snacktime, or as they work on a craft. I have noticed that soft music actually helps kids who are normally easily distracted, by muffling all of the other noises (the pencil sharpener, the garbage truck, whispers, etc) and focusing them on their work. Listening to a wide variety of global music introduces your kids to new rhythms and instruments while they hear new languages. Here is a little of the history of Highlife, along with some excellent selections for your kids.
The West African coast, like most coasts in the world, is a melting pot of people brought together by trade and commerce. The small African nation of Ghana is bordered by Cote d’Ivoire to the east, Burkina Faso to the north, and Togo to the west, has a coastline on the Atlantic Ocean, where its capital Accra is a great port city. Because of migrating labor forces and sailors traveling in their own boats or as workers on European and American vessels, music traditions, styles, instruments (such as the guitar and concertina), and dances of different origin were transported and shared along the west coast. When dance orchestras began to play for an upper class audience in the ballrooms of the Gold Coast, they fused western styles like cha cha chá, foxtrot, waltz, calypso and rumba with the local rhythmic patterns. The name “Highlife” thus comes because the music style was first for the elites only.
E.T. Mensah (May 31, 1919 – July 19, 1996) is considered to be the “King of Highlife,” and “one of the founding fathers of African popular music” (retroafric.com). E.T. Mensah began to play the flute in the Accra Orchestra for children as a young boy in 1930. He soon formed the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra with his brother Yebuah. During World War II an influx of Europeans, African-Americans, and West Indians to Accra- including musicians with jazz training- had an impact on the local scene. In 1948, Mensah formed the Tempos and began playing a new style of dance music: Highlife. He combined jazz and older local guitar styles with the more formal dance band music of the pre-war era. His band soon began touring in Nigeria, and sang in English, Twi, Ga, Fante, Ewe, Efik and Hausa. In 1956, Mensah performed with Louis Armstrong and the All Stars on their African tour, at Mensah’s nightclub in Accra.
You can listen to Highlife from the British Library‘s World and Traditional Music Archival Sound Recordings page here.
At this African music site, you can read more about the history of Highlife, and see CD recommendations.
Here is a recording of E.T. Mensah’s Yabomisa, a classic example of Highlife music.
Here is a 10 minute selection of classical highlife songs from Ghana that you can have on in the background while your kids are working or eating:
Finally, I wanted to showcase some music that is being produced today, with undertones of Highlife. Ghana-born Derrick N. Ashong is a modern musician (Harvard and Cambridge-educated) who has been influenced by Ghanian Highlife. From his web site derrickashong.com:
DNA’s band Soulfège is a critically-acclaimed, refreshingly original and exciting group of musicians who produce an eclectic blend of Hip-Hop, Reggae, Funk, World Beat and West African Highlife music that has been featured in such major media as MTV Africa, NPR, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, MNet Africa, ABC Chronicle and BBC Worldservice, reaching 146 million listeners worldwide.
If you like his music, you can download it for free on his web site. Here is a music video with beautiful Ghanian scenes, of Soulfege’s dancehall remake of a West African classic Anthem, Sweet Mother.