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
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
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
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: 233-21-225871; phone:
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 (www.sternsmusic.com).