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Loving the Highlife

G. Pascal Zachary

Sitting in an air-conditioned music studio, the afternoon heat of this African capital seems a universe away. From his very seat, next to a soundboard, Faisal Helwani has recorded some of the legends of Ghanaian music: highlife” bands and traditional singers who helped the country gain a reputation, by the mid-’60s, as the center of African music. 

The highlife sound originated in Ghana earlier in the 20th century. Hundreds of highlife singles were cut in the 30s and 40s, spreading the music – rolling and thunderous, with hints of Cuban jazz and village rhythms – throughout West Africa. With Ghana’s independence in 1957, indigenous music was encouraged and Accra once supported more than 50 highlife bands. But now only two clubs regularly book live music and just a handful of bands exist. 

To Helwani’s distress, Ghana is awash in Western pop and the music scene is a faint echo of its heyday, a consequence of the country’s long years of economic decline, military coups and the pervasive influence of the multinational corporations who dominate the world’s recorded music. Having once run the hottest nightclub in the city – and for 10 years never going to bed before dawn – Helwani now turns in early every night. 

To be hip in Ghana,” sneers Helwani, who is 54 years old, you have to listen to imported music – and while listening you have to have a hamburger in your right hand and a can of Coke in your left.” He is a purist, and his goal is simple: I’m trying to repackage, reproduce, rearrange and re-present the highlife and traditional music of this country.”

Ghana’s most original music impresario, Helwani is virtually unknown in the United States or Europe. He produced some astonishing music in the 70s and 80s, when the country’s cultural life suffered under a military dictatorship. He also helped form Ghana’s musicians union, and he campaigns actively on behalf of African artists. 

Helwani is an unlikely crusader for music from sub-Saharan Africa. He is a short, burly man who peppers his conversation with invective and can get so angry discussing his pet peeve – corruption and copying in the African music business – that sometimes he seems ready to burst a vein. He is rakishly casual, wearing tongs, a yellow shirt open to the chest and thin, blue pants. He has a twisted hawk nose, an impish smile, graying hair, thick fingers and alert eyes. 

In short, Helwani looks like a Lebanese Popeye; yes, he is white. His grandparents came to Ghana when it was a British colony and, except for the six years when he attended school in Lebanon, he has lived his entire life in Ghana. He is one of about 2,000 people of Lebanese descent in Ghana, which once was home to 10 times as many. While proud of his Lebanese heritage, he is married to a black Ghanaian and his children are biracial. He terms himself an Arab-African” and apologizes for what he calls mistakes” made by leaders of the Lebanese community in West Africa. (Many defended colonial interests in the region and, he says, foolishly” failed to welcome independence.) To this day, however, Lebanese communities have remained in the region, despite the collapse of order in places such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, where – like Ghana – Lebanese traders play an important role in commerce. 

Helwani, who subsidizes his musical interests from his property holdings and trading business, is obsessed with local sounds. In the 70s, he recorded E.T. Mensah, recognized as Ghana’s most popular highlife bandleader but by then ignored and unrecorded. (His upbeat, Latin-tinged All for You” is a highlife classic.) He also discovered a blind folk singer, the late Onipa Nua, playing for pennies in the streets of Accra. Nua, who sang in his native Hausa language, sometimes accompanied himself on a sardine can built to imitate a guitar. Before his death in 1990, he played for Ghana’s leading politicians, and the two albums he released for Helwani are classics. 

Helwani is also remembered for the Napoleon Club in the Osu neighborhood of Accra. During the 70s, he staged as many as three bands every night and hosted such legends as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti. But he closed the club after a military curfew was imposed in 1981, and it never reopened. The curfew lasted for five years, and by then the streets of Accra were empty. 

After withdrawing from music for most of the 90s, Helwani mounted a comeback a couple of years ago, partly in response to improved conditions in Ghana, but also to fight back against the multinational entertainment giants, who have been flooding sub-Saharan Africa with flimsy pop. He recently re-released about a dozen of his finest recordings from the 70s and 80s, including Nua’s two albums, and Rekpete, a gem of an instrumental album featuring South African trumpeter Hugh Masakela and the shortlived Ghanaian band Hedzoleh. 

But perhaps more significant is Helwani’s support for a revival of the country’s classic highlife sounds from the 50s and 60s. This exuberant music has been swept aside by rap, hip-hop and reggae but remains the pinnacle of Ghanaian musicality. Through the use of old musical scores and aging musicians (of the sort Ry Cooder assembled in Havana for his 1997 mega-hit Buena Vista Social Club), Helwani has created a living record of the old Ghana sound, which critics consider to be the first great period of modern African music. His finest album in this vein is Uhuru, released last year to great acclaim from DJs and a hit in clubs. A second volume of songs from the Uhuru sessions is due later this year. 

Helwani also sponsors a weekly show on the big state-owned radio station, during which he showcases traditional musicians. Such music is now recognized as important by the government, which sponsors an accomplished highlife band through its national theater. He couldn’t always count on such support, however. He recalls how, 20 years ago, people said I was polluting the airwaves, polluting our culture.” 

In Helwani’s eyes, the progess since then has been welcome but modest. While a fighter, he is no optimist. Ghanaians won’t easily come to see their own musical heritage as valuable, because the brainwashing has been done over 30 years,” he says. To undo this will take a hell of a long time.” 

Yet new Ghanaian music is on an upswing, largely on the strength of a series of remarkable albums by singer-songwriter Kojo Antwi, whose self-produced and self-released Akuaba album from last year is a high point. Antwi blends traditional highlife sounds with American pop, reggae and influences from elsewhere in Africa. Though unknown in the United States, Antwi rivals Senegalese mega-star Youssou N’Dour, who is the biggest name in African music (so big he actually got an invite to the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, courtesy of pop impresario Quincy Jones, a longtime Davos participant). 

While Helwani objects to Antwi’s use of electronics (on some of his cuts he plays all of the instruments), his songs rank with the best ever produced from West Africa. Helwani may fail to credit the revived fortunes of Ghanaian music, but he gets the politics right. African musicians continue to struggle to find an audience, and European and U.S. record companies continue to ignore the sounds that come out of African clubs and studios – or insist on softening them for Western ears. N’Dour and lesser stars such as Antwi are increasingly unwilling to go along with that, no matter the cost in lost paydays. N’Dour, for instance, plans to expand his Dakar-based Joko label, used mainly to release his own music, sung in his native Woloff language. And Antwi shows that by producing and releasing his own records, he too can gain a growing audience – and with few compromises. This bodes well for the health of the region’s indigenous music. 

SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY The best of the recent reissues from Helwani’s Bibini label are E.T. Mensah’s All For You, Onipa Nua’s I Feel Alright, Hugh Masekela’s Rekpete and the recent highlife-revival compilation Uhuru. These can be difficult to find outside of Ghana, as Helwani has no U.S. distributor. He does accept international mail orders at Bibini Music, PO Box 01225, Osu, Accra, Ghana (fax: 23321225871; phone: 23321225871).

For Ghana’s newer sound, try Kojo Antwi, whose best albums are Akuaba, Groovy and the double CD Afrafra. Daddy Lumba, who vies with Antwi as king of Ghana’s new wave, is well represented on his self-released Aben Wo Aha. These (and some of the Bibini titles above) are available through the London-based specialists Stern’s

G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
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