Book review: Highlife Time 3 by Professor John Collins

Book review: Highlife Time 3 by Professor John Collins
Source: Ghana| Henry Paa Kwesi Holdbrook-Smith
Date: 06-11-2018 Time: 01:11:51:pm

Highlife Time 3, as the title implies, is the third edition of the definitive work on the story of Highlife written by Prof. John Collins. It is not only a definitive history of our music and culture but also a record of testimonies from some of the originators of the music genre of Highlife and its variants.

John Collins is, first of all, a musician and an academic second. This becomes very obvious from the passion with which he writes. In Highlife Time 3, John Collins has expanded and updated his work, tracing the early beginnings of the music right from the drum and Fife Bands of the British Military influence of the West Indian Regiments based in Cape Coast and Elmina, through Adaha Brass Band Music to the Osibisaaba of the Coastal Fante, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies (which my great-grandfather was a patron of), the Excelsior Orchestra and Teacher Lamptey’s Accra Orchestra that spawned the likes of the father of modern Highlife E.T Mensah and the Big Bands.

Professor Collins takes us through the backstreets of history with personal insights and painstaking interviews conducted in the field. Highlife Time 3, in a departure from the earlier editions, features interviews with Kwaa Mensah, E.K Nyame, E.T Mensah, Saka Acquaye, Ignace De Souza of Benin, Fela Kuti, Stan Plange, Koo Nimo and King Bruce, to name a few. It affords us a great opportunity to look into the minds of some of these personalities. John Collins in a few brief interviews gives us glimpses of the times, struggles and inspiration of this great music.

Written in an easy-to-read narrative style, Professor Collins avoids being technical and makes the book accessible to both academic scholars and the general interest reader.

The book lists, amongst many other things, the Rhythms and Dance of the regions and ethnic groups in Ghana with over 100 music styles and distinct forms of ethnic music from over 75 ethnic and linguistic groups.

Professor Collins, a man of many parts and, in particular, an archivist of Highlife history and memorabilia is able to furnish us with rare photographs of people and places in Highlife Time 3. There are rare photos of Ishmael ‘Bob’ Johnson, the man who indigenized vaudeville to the local concert party. The Accra Rhythmic Orchestra, Excelsior Orchestra, Kwaa Mensah, programs for ball dances and many more both historical and contemporary images are some of the pictures you might see only in this book!

Furthermore, there are number of short biographies of some important personalities like Kwabena Nyama, Art Bennin, Dan Tackie, Kofi Sammy, Nat Buckle, Orlando Julius and fortuitously on Jewel Ackah, CK Mann and Papa Yankson who, in this year, have all gone to glory. I wish this section of biographies could have been a bit more expansive but, nevertheless, we are grateful.

Professor Collins makes a foray into the Traditional and Neo-traditional forms of Highlife and looks at the works of Nii Ashitey and Wulomei, Blemabii, Dzadzeloi and groups such as Mustapha Tetteh Addy’s Obonu Drummers, Nii Tettey Tetteh’s Kusun Ensemble and the late Nana Danso Abiam’s Pan African Orchestra whose album Opus One released in England topped the world music charts for six weeks in 1998.

Section Five of the book examines the outside or foreign influences and gives a good account of the famous trip by Louis Armstrong (Satchmo as he was popularly known), the impact of Pop Music, the Soul to Soul concert and another Jamaican influence – Reggae. The love affair between Jamaican music and Ghana, beginning with Highlife, continues with Ghana Reggae through to present-day Dancehall.

A revelation of sorts is the story of the emergence of women in highlife and the pioneers Julie Okine, Charlotte Dada to the Bibie Brews and Beccas of today.

A very important chapter of the book deals with the collapse of the Ghana Music industry in the late 70s and its final comatose stages during the ‘Revolution’. Here I wish the author had dealt more with the disengagement of the State as a patron of the industry which started post-1966.

John Collins delves very insightfully into the problems of the music industry when he talks about Music Piracy and the struggle for the enactment of a substantive Copyright Law and the struggles of producers like the late Faisal Helwani as well as the demise of the great local Labels and manufacturers such as Essiebons and Ambassador records.

Our much often forgotten composers are highlighted and Oscarmore Ofori comes to life with compositions like Sanbra, Agoogyi and Si Abotar, the timeless Ebo Taylor’s Nsamanfo, Wofa Nunu and many more.

The contemporary times deal with the advent of Hiplife which is generally credited to Reggie Rockstone who continues to reinvent himself as the Grandpapa of that music genre with his presence in the group VVIP. Here, I can give Professor a personal insight into the origins of coining the name Hiplife. I can reveal that it was the late father of Reggie Rockstone, Ricci Osei the Fashion Designer, who coined the name.

Professor moves us through the various contemporary developments of the music and touches on GH Rap, Ragga and Dancehall that has produced the Shatta Wales and Stonebwoys, Azonto music and the dance that has had the best opportunity of becoming a worldwide dance craze. It is also interesting to learn that Azonto means to touch erotically and I wonder where the good Professor learnt that.

Afro-Pop which has produced a spate of especially female artistes like Efya, Becca and an androgynous favourite of the international festival circuit Noella Wiyaala is also covered in detail.

Gospel Music is given the prominence it deserves as the most dominant music of the industry today and John Collins traces the origins and rise very meticulously, tracing its origins from the vernacular hymns of the early nineteenth century to the domination of today’s divas.

Highlife Time 3 moves through the region of West Africa to Nigeria and here there is a comprehensive cataloguing of the development of music from the early Art music, the Orchestras to the latter influence of Ghanaian Highlife musician, ET Mensah and much to learn about Bobby Benson, Victor Owaifo, Zeal Onyia, Rex Lawson, I.K. Dairo, Sunny Ade and the pantheon of Nigerian Highlife greats.

There is an interesting profile of the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti with whom the author had a personal relationship. Again, this section looks at the foreign influences of Pop and Rock music on the music of Afro-Pop/Afro-Rock bands like Ofege and Berkley Jones’ BLO, Segun Bucknor and Orlando Julius to the present-day stars of the Nigerian music industry.

The journey continues through the Makossa music, popularized by Manu Dibango, Bikutsi music of Cameroon, the music personalities and music of Liberia, Togo, Benin and Cote d’Ivoire, Mali and Guinea.

In 629 pages and 64 chapters, Professor Collins takes us on a remarkable journey of the beautiful Music of Highlife, its origins, personalities, challenges and, most important of all, its lasting influence.

Thank you, Professor John Collins, for this exhaustive work. Thank you for your dedication and resilience. In Ghanaian parlance, “you do it all!”

Available at Wild Gecko, near Gulf House; Nubuke at East Legon; GAW Office at PAWA House, Roman Ridge; and Ehanom Books (Facebook).

Year of Publication: 2018

Number of pages: 632

Publisher: DAkpabli & Associates

Reviewer: Henry Paa Kwesi Holdbrook-Smith