A little over eleven years ago, I was at the vast market in Kumasi, standing in front of a display of cassette tapes. My two months of study in Ghana were almost up, and I was frantically trying to gather together souvenirs to go along with the memories. One thing I knew I had to bring back was some small representative of the music constantly blaring out of stereos in the cities. In Accra, where I spent most of my time, it was almost impossible to get completely away from the music, which ranged from American and European imports to the local pop music — highlife.
Eventually I decided on a cassette, made my purchase, and was on my way. Unfortunately, the music I purchased did not live up to my expectations. However, I now have a suitable replacement, and in digital format, no less. Amsterdam-based Otrabanda Records & Music is publishing a compilation of some of the best vintage afro-beat and electric highlife songs recorded by John Collins in his Bokoor Studios. The album Bokoor Beats will be hitting record shelves on June 26th, but I'm lucky enough to have a preview copy already, and it has been a lot of fun to listen to these past few days.
Sitting in a chair in front of a computer, the average person will burn about 1.6 calories per hour. However, if highlife music is playing in the background, I expect that number would be much higher. It is impossible to sit still when listening to this music. I find myself constantly tapping a foot, bopping my head, or swaying my torso along with the steady dance beats. In fact, the power of the music is so strong that I need to have a break to rest up before hitting the play button for another spin through the tracks. I'm glad it's only 54 minutes at a time!
Collins and Ghanaian guitarist Robert Beckley joined forces in 1971 to create the highlife group Bokoor (Coolness). When Ghana's economy tanked in the late 70s, the band broke up, but Collins continued to be involved with the Ghanaian music scene. Due to a night curfew imposed by the military government after the 1982 coup, his plans for resurrecting the Bokoor band were trashed and instead he opened up a recording studio. For the next two decades, the studio recorded about 200 bands, and four of them are included on Bokoor Beats.
Along with unique rhythms, highlife music is distinctive in its politically or socially motivated lyrics. Almost all of the songs in the collection are sung in Ga, the language spoken by Ghanaians from the area around Accra, the capitol. A few songs have English words, or words in other African languages like Housa. The liner notes do not include lyrics or translations, but there are notes about the intent or background of the songs. This is important to keep in mind because while we are bopping along with the very danceable "Yeah Yeah Ku Yeah," we're not also thinking about the complexities of removing cultural restraints while maintaining traditions, as someone who understands Ga might be doing.
It is hard to pick out favorites among the songs, since all have great music arrangements. However, a few stand taller than others, such as the aforementioned "Yeah Yeah Ku Yeah." Another is "Trouble Man," mainly because it has a Caribbean feel to it along with the Afrobeat. "Been To" also stands out as one of the English tunes with an addictive hook.
If you're looking for something unique to spice up your summer parties, or just want a better representation of highlife in your music collection, as I did, it'll be worth your while to pick up a copy of Bokoor Beats when it's released on Tuesday. Warning: Make sure you are prepared to shake your stuff when you pop it into your CD player.