IIn 1970s Ghana, nightlife was booming: live bands played James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones to packed dance halls, and pop music from Europe and the United States United dominated the radio. Traditional sounds were often pushed aside as DJs turned to funk, soul, disco and rock, but those heady days didn’t last.
Political turmoil resulting from a succession of coups and military dictatorships were soon to drive many of the country’s most talented musicians away. As the country headed for an economic crisis in the 1980s, the government of Jerry Rawlings imposed an embargo on live music and introduced a 160% import tax on musical instruments. “People who made a living playing live music couldn’t do it anymore,” recalls Herman Asafo-Agyei, later the bassist for bands Osibisa and Native Spirit. “So people fled.”
As early as 1979, the Ghana Musicians’ Union estimated that 25% of musicians had emigrated in search of better opportunities, with many going to Germany, the United Kingdom and other European destinations. Ghanaian highlife music – a local style fusing elements of traditional music with jazz, often incorporating brass, guitar, vocals and percussive rhythms – has taken on a new identity overseas. Dancing polyrhythms were layered over polyphonic synth sounds; the recordings sent back to Ghana endeared a whole new generation to this futuristic music. Some simply called it “fusion”, but others used the term “highlife burger”, in reference to the German word burger (meaning citizen) and cities like Hamburg where he is from. A new series of compilations under the name Borga Revolution! now shine a light on this vibrant and underrated subgenre.
It all started with George Darko, whose 1983 single Akoo Te Brofo – a dynamic funk-lite banger full of wild sax, synth bass and the kind of disco kick-and-snare you’d expect to hear at Paradise Garage in New York nightclub – is often considered the genesis of the highlife burger. Wilson Boateng, a former London minicab driver who came to the UK as an aspiring musician in the mid-80s, was there to see Darko and the band Bus Stop perform live at the Eredec Hotel in Koforidua when the phenomenon appeared for the first time.
“Oh, it was something special that day,” recalls Boateng. “They had all these new instruments, and a mix of white European stars among them – all playing highlife. The song was playing all over the airwaves and people were so excited. We were heading in a new direction and the music was fantastic.
Although inspired, Boateng was unhappy with life in Ghana after Rawling’s military coup (“there were no jobs, the economy was collapsing, soldiers were using force – people were scared”) so he lifted the sticks and moved to London, picking up work in a Methodist bookshop opposite Madame Tussauds. The city was “buzzing,” he told me, professing his joy at arriving in a place where “everything [felt] new”, and after leading songs of praise and worship in local choirs in nearby churches, Boateng began writing his own music and recording it at Barrington Studios in Brixton in 1988.
“Ghana didn’t have synthesizers,” he recalls. “[But] in London they were very popular. All the top stars and bands used them, and I wanted to too. It made my music completely different. Elements of jazz, rock and disco were incorporated into an album later titled Highlife Rock, with tracks like Mabre Agu and Asew Watchman marrying funky guitar licks and goofy Midi basslines with faux party horns. . Boateng pressed 1,000 copies on vinyl and cassette, selling them by hand to Ghanaian stores across the city.
“I was hoping it would do well in the market!” he says. “But the people I was counting on to sell the album let me down. They screwed it up – and as a result, it didn’t sell to the level I expected. It was tough on me.” The album may not have had a major impact initially, but Boateng is indeed the star of the new compilation: a file photo of the smartly dressed young artist performing in the vocal booth adorns the cover of the first volume. by Borga Revolution!Ghanaian Dance Music in the Digital Age, 1983-1992.
Joe Appiah of Uncle Joe’s Afri-Beat (whose tracks Eshe Wo Kon Ho and Mr DJ are compilation highlights) was equally determined. His career began when he was in high school in the 60s, as a singer in the government-funded Zone F Brigade Band. But when the Nkrumah government was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, the group was disbanded. “We had to find a new place as professional musicians,” Appiah recalls, and over the next decade he toured bands as a series of military uprisings rocked the nation.
“I was a soul singer…one of the best in Ghana!” Appiah exclaims. He had built up a following in his home country and had set his sights on stardom. At the request of his fans, he traveled to Amsterdam in the late 70s to raise funds: the plan was to form and finance his own band, with his own instruments, upon his return to Ghana. But things turned out to be less simple.
“When I came here, I had to do cleaning jobs, or work in factories because I needed the money,” says Appiah, who is still in Amsterdam today. “Any job that came my way, I had to deal with. But still I couldn’t get [enough to buy] a set of instruments.
Appiah managed to record his own works in Amsterdam – and he completed them in Ghana with the help of some local talent. Among them was legendary multi-instrumentalist Kiki Gyan – then a member of the prolific Ghanaian-British band Osibisa, who scored a big hit in the UK in 1975 with the Afro-rock classic Sunshine Day.
“I wanted to see if I could find someone to listen to my music and take me where I needed to go,” Appiah said of the resulting album, Owo Odo in 1988. But that didn’t happen. not produced and the record was not a financial success. “People were making copies of the songs and selling them themselves,” Appiah says of the piracy that has plagued his release plans. “So I quit. I haven’t done it again. Despite the disappointment, the music remains intriguing: Owo Odo sells for over £200 in second-hand markets, no doubt partly thanks to the presence of Gyan and to Appiah’s distinctive voice.
Where Boateng and Appiah struggled to set the world on fire, Herman Asafo-Agyei succeeded. Himself a member of Osibisa between 1985 and 2011, Asafo-Agyei was, in the mid-80s, the leader of his own highlife burger group which managed to secure an international career.
A law student in London in the 80s, Asafo-Agyei was also a session bassist who worked on recordings of reggae, afro-funk and even rock music. After performing to 50,000 people in Ghana with Osibisa at the request of the government, Asafo-Agyei formed Native Spirit, which was to be a backing band for Ghanaian highlife artists performing in the UK. They found more opportunities in the United States and Canada, including as a backing band for singer Pat Thomas, and were signed to the Afronova label. “Our debut album was very well received in local music magazines – it’s rave reviews,” says Asafo-Agyei. The dream of breaking into the international scene quickly seemed to materialize: “I thought I had a future with this group.”
Native Spirit has reached great heights: Asafo-Agyei remembers having supported Fela Kuti during his tour in Canada; playing in “a Minneapolis club that belonged to Prince”, the mythical First Avenue; and headlining a concert on Toronto Harbor commemorating Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (“a hugely important moment for me,” recalls Asafo-Agyei). They recorded two albums, but while Odo San Bra Fie, from the first self-titled, is one of Borga Revolution’s funkiest offerings!, the second was never released due to disagreements with the label and band. dissolved. Today, Asafo-Agyei is a minister at Northolt Grange Baptist Church in London.
“Highlife was my blood – it was our tune, our sound,” says Appiah. But while he, Boateng and Asafo-Agyei all continued to write new music, the genre’s popularity was already deteriorating by the late 80s, just as the sounds of disco and boogie were declining together. The Ghanaian economy was picking up, and by the end of the 90s – despite standout tracks such as Paa Jude’s brilliant and infectious Madonna-esque Odo Refre Wo being released on labels like Peckham’s Asona Records – the highlife burger was being replaced by new exciting hybrids in Ghana, like hip-hop and reggaeton-infused hiplife.
Burger highlife nonetheless remains a vital stepping stone in the evolution of Ghanaian music – and in 2022, music sounds as fresh and captivating as anything. The sense of optimism is contagious, and it’s something that musicians still exude. Appiah is exuberant as he ends our phone call. “If there is someone who wants to take me to the top, I am ready for that!”