We know that apart from Ghanaian folk songs, highlife music has been popular with Ghanaians since the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, it is still popular throughout the West Coast of Africa.
Early musicians like E.T. Mensah composed a series of highlife tunes. From the kinds of rhythms and chords in our highlife, other musicians began to compose vocal or choral music for various church organizations. Today, some villages have brass bands which play some highlife and folk songs mostly in the evenings to entertain the public.
In this chapter, we are going to read about the life story and compositions of some Ghanaian musicians. They will include musicians who composed choral music for churches and other Christian organizations and those who composed indigenous highlife music for the public. Choral music is an important as highlife music.
i. Dr. Ephraim Amu
Dr. Ephraim Amu was born at Avetile-Peki on 13th September 1899. He showed unusual talent for music in his boyhood and started composing hymn tunes when he was thirteen. He completed his Middle School education in 1915 at Blengo-Peki and trained as a teacher-catechist at Abetifi-Kwahu from 1916 to 1919.
After his training, Amu started teaching at Blengo-Peki Middle School in 1920. His first meeting with Reverend J.E. Allotey Pappoe led him to study music seriously.
In 1926 he was posted to be Presbyterian Training College, Akropong-Akuapem as a tutor in music, religion, and agriculture. It was during this period that Amu made it his aim to compose choral music from Ghanaian folk songs.
The Presbyterian Church authorities were not happy with his use of such instruments as drums in his music. In 1933, therefore, his appointment as a tutor of the Training College was terminated.
Before he left the college, a farewell concert was organized in his honor at which his farewell song “Nkradi Dwom” was sung by the students.
In 1934 Reverend A.G. Frazer, Principal of Achimota College, on hearing of Amu’s talents, offered him a post as a music master at Achimota College. In 1937 he was awarded a scholarship to study music at the Royal College of Music, London. Having obtained the Associate Diploma in Theory of Music, he returned to Achimota in 1940.
The Specialist Music Department of Achimota Training College was established in 1949 with Amu as the head. The Training College was moved from Achimota to the College of Science and Technology, Kumasi with Amu still as head of the Music Department.
As a result of Amu’s letter to the Government, the School of Music was established and attached to the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon. Amu was appointed a Senior Research Fellow of the Institute. He retired from the University in 1971.
Dr. Ephraim Amu is the founder of the first nationalist school of Ghanaian music established at Achimota. This is his greatest contribution in the field of Ghanaian music. He is a great choral music composer and a pioneer of African music. His style of composition has influenced other great musicians like J.H. Nketia, N.Z. Nayo and R.K. Ndo. His works include ‘Yen Ara Asase ni’, ‘Adikanfo Mo’, ‘Esrom miele’, ‘Asem Yi Di Ka’, ‘Alegbegbe Mawu lon Xexeame’. He, in 1933, published articles explaining his ideas about African Music. Dr. Amu has been honored by the government of Ghana by instituting a yearly choral festival known as the Amu Choral Festival.
ii. Rev. Dr. Otto Ampofo Boateng (1909-1970)
Rev. Dr. Otto Ampofo Boateng was born on 11th January, 1909 at Obomeng-Kwahu where his father Joseph Robert Boateng of Asiakwa was a catechist of the Basel Mission. His father taught him the rudiments of western music and his mother taught him indigenous songs. He attended the Begoro Middle Boarding School from 1921-1924. He became the Singing Master and Assistant Music Master when he was in his final year.
Later he entered the Presbyterian Training College, Akropong-Akuapem where he studied under Dr. Ephiraim Amu. On the completion of his course, he was posted as a teacher to Larteh Primary School. He became active in the Akwapim Singing Band Movement, a movement which has influenced church music in Ghana.
In 1930 Otto Ampofo Boateng composed many of his songs that made him famous in the field of music in Ghana. The best known of his songs are ‘Pepepepe’, ‘Onantefo’ and ‘Den Nti Na Wote Ho’.
He taught for a couple of years at the Akropong Presbyterian Training College. During this period, his interest in children’s church service led him to publish a Children’s Hymn Book.
He studied at the Music School at the College of Science and Technology, Kumasi from 1951 to 1953 under Dr. Ephraim Amu. He returned to his former post at the Presbyterian Training College, as Music Master. He was invited by the Basel Mission to study music at Hamburg University. On his return home in 1964, he was ordained a priest of the Presbyterian Church.
One of his contributions in the field of music is the presentation of a thesis, “An Insight into the Musical Culture of Africa Through Ghana Gates”, to the Martin Luther University in Hallo. He was also commissioned by the Presbyterian Church to revise the tunes and texts of the church hymns. He died on 23rd February, 1970.
iii. Mr. Phillip Gbeho (1903-1976)
Mr. Phillip Gbeho was born at Vodza near Keta in 1903 into a family of fishermen. During his childhood, Gbeho spent most of his time fishing both in the sea and in the Keta Lagoon. At the same time he learnt drumming and dancing. He was encouraged to learn drumming and dancing by his mother, Ametowofa Gadzekpo, a gifted drummer and a performer of various dances.
Gbeho received his elementary education at the Keta Roman Catholic Mission School where he as greatly influenced by Western music.
He became a member of the school band in which he played the fife. He learnt to play the organ under the great organist, Gordon of Lome, Togo.
In 1925 he gained admission to the Achimota Teacher Training College, Accra. His association with Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey gave him more inspiration in the filed of music. It also made him love his country more and appreciate the Ghanaian culture better. He studied music under Mr. W.E.P. Ward and Mr. C.P. Woodhouse, two Europeans who were members of staff of Achimota College. After leaving the college, Gbeho returned to teach in his former school in Keta. He became the singing master of the school.
Later, he was appointed Assistant Music Master at Achimota College. Here, he taught vocal music, instrumental music and drumming and dancing. He had a British Council award to study music at the Trinity College of Music, London. He returned to Achimota after completing his course to become the Senior Music Master.
Some of his contributions in the filed of music in Ghana include the establishment of a National Orchestra. He also trained many Ghanaians in European and African music. Gbeho composed the Ghana National Anthem. He died in 1976.
iv. Daniel Amponsah (alias Koo Nimo)
Daniel Amponsah was born on 3rd October 1934 at Foase in the Atwima District of Ashanti. His father, Opanyin Kwame Amponsah, was a trumpeter and a guitarist. His mother, Akua Forkuo, was a singer in the Methodist Church in the village.
When he was young, he learnt many original folk dances and folk songs at Foase. As a boy of ten, he began to sing in the Methodist church choir. After his elementary education, he attended Adisadel College, Cape Coast where he obtained the Cambridge School Certificate in 1952.
He took a technician’s course at the Medical Research Institute, Korle Bu, Accra in 1954 after which he worked at the Okomfo Anokye Hospital, Kumasi, for five years. He left the Ministry of Health and joined the Chemistry Department of the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi in 1960.
He left for the United Kingdom on study leave from 1962 to 1965 to do a Technician’s Course in Biochemistry. He returned to Ghana in 1968 and was appointed Senior Technician in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi.
In 1969 he left again on study leave for Salford University, Manchester, on a further course in Laboratory Management. He returned to his former place of work at the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, in 1970 and was promoted to the post of a Chief Technician in 1975.
In all these years in Ghana, Daniel Amponsah played and taught brass band music. For example, from 1953 to 1954, immediately after leaving secondary school, he taught brass band music to the personnel of the Social Welfare Department (Mass Education).
In 1957, he formed the ‘Koo Nimo’ Entertainment Group. This group gave several performances on the radio. In 1960, he formed the ‘Adadam Agofomma’ group with seven artists. Later, he published a booklet, “Ashanti Ballads” with Dr. J.L. Latham of the University of Science and Technology, Kumasi.
During his course in the United Kingdom, he studied guitar playing at the Len Williams Spanish Guitar Centre for three years. He then studied harmony and classical guitar playing for another year.
Daniel Amponsah performed with the Adadam group at many places in Ghana including the National Cultural Centre in Kumasi. This group was selected to represent Ghana at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.
Despite the fact that Daniel Amponsah is the active chief technician at the Biochemistry Department, University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, he has been able to compose and record over fifty songs. Among his compositions are, “Aburokyire Abrabo”, “Obi Awaresem” (with K. Gyasi), “Krotwiamansa”, “Ohia Ye Ya” and “Akoko Bon, Breku Bon”.
v. E.T. Mensah
E.T. Mensah was born in Accra on 31st May 1919. He attended Accra High School after his elementary education. After leaving Accra High School, he studied pharmacy at the Korle Bu Hospital, Accra.
At the age of 13 E.T. Mensah learnt to play the fife. Later on, with the help of a beginner’s tuition book, he learnt on his own to play the clarinet. He also learnt to play the alto saxophone, the tenor trombone, and the trumpet. As a master of all the instruments of a jazz band, E.T. Mensah became very popular.
He first played with an Accra orchestra led by Agra Lamptey. A few years later, he broke away to join the Rhythmic Orchestra. In 1950, E.T. Mensah formed the Tempos Band and became the leader. His first records ‘Odofo Nuapa’ and ‘Nkebo Baaya’ were released in 1952.
In 1953, he toured West Africa with his Tempos Band. One of the places he visited was Nigeria where he was hailed as the King of Highlife. Later similar bands were formed in Nigeria to play in the style of E.T. Mensah. He also made other successful tours with his band to Guinea and Sierra Leone. The band also toured the United Kingdom where the group had the opportunity to play alongside the Cris Bar’s Band at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
In his second tour of the United Kingdom in 1969, the “E.T. Mensah’s African Rhythms” were recorded. In 1975, at the National Arts Festival, the Arts Council of Ghana honored E.T. Mensah with a stool in recognition of his place as the King of Highlife.
vi. Kwame Gyasi
Kwame Gyasi was born on 23rd November, 1947 at Ankase, a small village near Kumasi in Ashanti. Ankase is a village where one hears a lot of folk songs and sees a variety of folk dances.
Kwame Gyasi loved music when he was a young boy. His father who was a farmer discouraged him because he wanted him to be a tailor. His mother, however, loved and sang Asante folk songs and she passed this art on to her son.
As his father wished, Kwame Gyasi began life first as a tailor, then as a cobbler, and finally as a taxi driver.
He started his music career in Accra while learning tailoring. He learnt to play the guitar from the famous guitarist Appiah Agyekum. In 1957, Kwame Gyasi met other musicians like E.K. Nyame and Kwabena Onyina who were also pupils of Appiah Agyekum. They then became the best of friends in the same field of music.
Kwame Gyasi’s first recordings were greatly enjoyed by listeners and so he became popular. His first recording was entitled “Odo Bra”. His band, “The Noble Kings,” soon became one of the top bands in the country.
Kwame Gyasi has brought certain innovations into guitar music which other bands have adopted. For example, it is said that Kwame Gyasi was also the first to play the traditional style of guitar music side by side with modern “soul” music.
Kwame Gyasi and his Noble Kings band have toured Europe and America. He has developed his own style and touch as a guitarist. Among his many recordings are, “Agyanka Ye Mmobo”, “Afe ato Yen”, “To wo bo ase”, “Aboa Sika Nti” and “Wiase Yi Mu”.