Before we gained independence, and down through the 60’s, Highlife has always been a mainstay of Nigerian music.
When we think about old Nigerian music, and try to delve into our history of the arts, we ultimately share the bias that Afrobeat has been the most dominant genre in Nigerian music. And that is fine. Fela Kuti’s work revolutionized the future of Nigerian music, and continues to represent the best parts of our sound culture.
But if you go further, before there was a Fela Kuti, before we gained independence, and down through the 60’s you would find that Highlife has always been a mainstay. It was West African pop music, seeping into the country from Ghana.
Following World War II, Nigerian music started to take on new instruments and techniques, including electric instruments imported from the United States and Europe. Rock N’ roll, soul, and later funk, became very popular in Nigeria, and elements of these genres were added to jùjú by artists such as IK Dairo. Meanwhile, highlife had been slowly gaining in popularity among the Igbo people, and their unique style soon found a national audience. At the same time, Apala’s Haruna Ishola was becoming one of the country’s biggest stars.
When the Union Jack was lowered for the last time by the British colonial masters in Lagos, and the Nigerian Green-White-Green flag was hoisted, Highlife was the ruler of the streets.
Ghana actually does have a lot of influence on our music. Right from the 50s and 60s Ghana has always been Nigeria’s big brother when it comes to music. Ghanaian Highlife stars dominated Nigerian social scene and nightclubs due to the authenticity of their sound and immersive melodies. Ghanaian stars were the toast of Lagos, and played Night clubs, raking exclusive money. For many Nigerian bands, they had to travel to Ghana to gain music knowledge before returning to Nigeria to replicate that new direction.
Even Fela, was influenced in Ghana. In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos, and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars. In 1967, he went to Ghana to soak up their sounds, and think up a new musical direction. That was when Fela Kuti first called his music Afrobeat. Fela was later banned from Ghana by the government in 1978 after riots broke out in Accra during his concert when he was performing the song ‘Zombie’.
Why was Ghanaian Highlife so powerful? While the music held more significance for Ghana in 1960, representing their daily social challenges, it Nigeria, it was feel-good music, carrying mundane themes, and made specifically for dance. The same way we currently have pop songs about nothing, Highlife filled that void in the 60s.
Music was recorded and played live. And the best spots to consume live music was at the Lagos clubs, which had a mixture of Ghanaian and Nigerian Highlife stars. That mean that the music was played by bands.
The Ghanaian E. T. Mensah, easily the most popular highlife performer of the 1950s, toured Nigeria frequently, drawing huge crowds of devoted fans. Bobby Benson & His Combo was the first Nigerian highlife band to find audiences across the country.
Benson was followed by Jim Lawson & the Mayor’s Dance Band, who achieved national fame in the mid-’70s, ending with Lawson’s death in 1971. During the same period, other highlife performers were reaching their peak. These included Prince Nico Mbarga and his band Rocafil Jazz, whose “Sweet Mother” was a pan-African hit that sold more than 13 million copies, more than any other African single of any kind. Mbarga used English lyrics in a style that he dubbed panko, which incorporated “sophisticated rumba guitar-phrasing into the highlife idiom”. Other notable musicians included Celestine Ukwu, and Mike Ejiagha.
After the civil war in the 1960s, Igbo musicians were forced out of Lagos and returned to their homeland. The result was that highlife ceased to be a major part of mainstream Nigerian music, and was thought of as being something purely associated with the Igbos of the east.
However, a few performers kept the style alive, such as Yoruba singer and trumpeter Victor Olaiya (the only Nigerian to ever earn a platinum record), Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oliver De Coque, Celestine Ukwu, Oriental Brothers, Sonny Okosun, Victor Uwaifo, and Orlando “Dr. Ganja” Owoh, whose distinctive toye style fused Jùjú and Highlife.
Today, highlife in Nigeria primarily enjoys the status of classical pop music, yet several prominent Highlife artists remain on the scene, such as Onyeka Onwenu, Sunny Neji, Umu Ogbiligbo, Adekunle Gold, Flavour, and a host of other artists.