Highlife originated in Ghana and Sierra Leone in the early twentieth century and was born out of a fusion of American jazz rhythms and myriad African roots musics. Originally dance orchestras played the music to entertain the colonial elite in high-class clubs along the coast, thus garnering the nickname ‘highlife’. As the twentieth century ploughed on, social and cultural changes across West Africa were reflected in, and disseminated via, highlife and its derivatives; guitar-band highlife, gospel-highlife and disco-highlife are just a few of the styles that emerged. This compilation focuses on hand-picked gems from the highlife archive. The roll call includes some of the biggest highlife hits from stellar names, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Celestine Ukwu, Dr Victor Olaiya. Nestling alongside those golden sounds, other quirky tracks are gems are to be uncovered.
Most strikingly the punchy party number that opens this Rough Guide features none other than the Nigerian legend, Fela Kuti singing out, ‘Its highlife time’. These days everyone knows Fela as the Afrobeat superstar supreme. But, in fact, during his early career Fela played with the band Koola Lobitos, peddling a different sound: the highlife vibe heard here. ‘Tsutsu Tsesemo (Old Time Training)’ by Desmonda Ababio, Lewis Wadawa & Black Beats Highlife Dance Band is a march-like tune with wonderfully drunken-sounding horns, retro keyboard figures and a catchy chorus line. Whilst the glorious gospel-highlife ensemble, Genesis Gospel Singers close the album with a sweetly sung number performed by a full and gutsy chorus line.
The bonus album is a re-issue of a classic Riverboat Records release, the inimitable Seprewa Kasa explore the origins of the genre via their use of the seprewa, a rare stringed instrument nicknamed the ‘soul of highlife’.