Loving the Highlife – enjoying it 22 years later

 From left; Faisal Helwani, Ghanaba and Chris Lydon – Photo credit: Eric Osiakwan

Paschal Zachary (GPZ) was at the height of his writing career, an international correspondent for the Wall Street Journal at the dawn of the 21st century. The Dotcom crush had happened, and GPZ had turned his pen on Africa by way of Burundi where he covered his first African story.

Not too long after, Ghana was next. While he was researching a story on healthcare in Ghana, he chanced upon Highlife – the national music of Ghanaian heritage which gained prominence with the country’s independence in 1957. Ghana’s ethnic groups have their own indigenous music and dance, but highlife is the one that brings them all together in a high.  Highlife is festive genre and brings the high in you with its composition, lyrics and attendant dance moves.

In ‘Loving the Highlife’ (@ https://inthesetimes.com/article/loving-the-highlife) which GPZ wrote for ‘InTheseTime’, an emerging left-wing publication on April 16, 2001 in the culture section. He opens with a focus on Faisal Helwani of blessed memory, who had “recorded some of the legends of Ghanaian highlife music”. Faisal is Ghanaian of Lebanese heritage whose parents migrated to the then Gold Coat.

According to GPZ, Faisal was very hard to get hold of and when he finally had a chance with him, “he was very secretive”. I had to “tie him to a chair and get him to open up”, GPZ told me as we sat at the Hercules Bus Terminal in north Berkeley as I was waiting for my bus to head into San Francisco. GPZ and his wife, Connie, live in Hercules and I am their house guest.

In March 2002, a year after GPZ article, I was host to Chris Lydon who was part of the team the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School had sent to Accra, Ghana as part of their delegation to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) meeting. My office was at the famous BusyInternet – a leading technology innovation hub and cybercafé that I was part of starting.

We were playing host to the Berkman delegation. Chris wanted to get on the radio and host a nightly talk show about Ghanaian culture, music, life, etc. and since I had an Information Communication Technology (ICT) talk show on Choice FM, I was able to get him a night slot. I was Chris’ producer as Ben Walker his colleague had an unfortunate incident so had to head back to the US even before the show got underway.

One of the shows centred on Ghanaian music, and highlife took centre stage but in our research, Gregg article that was published the year before did not come up nor did I know GPZ though he had visited Ghana the same year we started BusyInternet. Faisal Helwani was on the show and talked about the many artists he had recorded and produced. Singling out Ghanaba – the divine drummer from Ghana, also of blessed memory.

After the show, he offered Chris and me the opportunity to go meet Ghanaba on his mountain top abode in Kuntunese, a suburb outside Accra. Ghanaba was welcoming and told us many stories about his musical exploits in America under his stage name Guy Warren of Ghana. He played with the Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davies, etc. and had the most successful album in ‘Africa Speaks, America Listen’.

Later in 2002, I became friends with GPZ who had walked into my office to do an interview on a technology piece he was writing. Guido Sohne, my business partner at the time was the main target but as destiny would have it, GPZ and I met because Guido was absent. We went down to Liquid (our local restaurant) in the BusyInternet building and had a long lunch and that was the beginning of our long friendship. Twenty-one years of our friendship never brought up ‘Loving the Highlife’ until I was recently GPZ’s house guest.

We sampled his impeccable collection of African arts and music – from Ghana to Nigeria, to South Africa, to Mozambique, etc. On my return to Ghana, I googled GPZ to see if his musical appetite found any expression in his essays and that is when “Enjoying the Highlife” popped up – probably the best written piece on contemporary Ghanaian music in the last twenty-two years. It then dawned on me that GPZ had interviewed Faisal a year before Faisal took Chris and me to see Ghanaba. And for twenty-one years, we never made the connection between the two sets of events that had Faisal as the common denominator of the highlife.

“In the seventies, Faisal recorded E.T. Mensah, recognised as Ghana’s most popular highlife bandleader but by then ignored and unrecorded”. He also owned the Napoleon night club in Osu that played hosts to some of the greats like Steve Wonder, Hugh Masekele and Fela Kuti – the Black President. The last two came to fame under the ‘producership’ of Faisal Helwani who died in 2008, a year after Ghanaba’s departure.

In the concluding paragraphs of his remarkable take on Highlife, GPZ makes an extremely important and yet uncharacteristic framing of a phenomenon of the succeeding generation of (highlife) musicians who defied the odds. He singled out Kojo Antwi of Ghana and Youssou Ndour of Senegal for their stubbornness in snubbing the big record labels at the time in favour of starting their own labels for their music enterprise.

An entrepreneurial spirit that was rare in those days and even now. Kojo and Youssou have gone ahead to become the most successful musicians of their class and I attribute that success to the risk they took then which has today resulted in them enjoying the highlife.

Leave a Reply