Monday, September 25

‘Everything felt new’: the cross-cultural joy of Ghana’s ‘burger highlife’ music | Music

Yon 1970s Ghana, nightlife was booming: live bands played James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones in packed dancehalls, and pop music from Europe and the US was dominating the radio. Traditional sounds were often sidelined as DJs turned to funk, soul, disco and rock – but these heady days didn’t last.

Political turbulence stemming from a succession of coups and military dictatorships was soon to drive out many of the country’s most talented musicians. As the country headed towards an economic crisis in the 1980s, the government of Jerry Rawlings placed an embargo on live music and introduced a 160% import tax on musical instruments. “People who were making a living out of playing live music could no longer do it,” recalls Herman Asafo-Agyei, later the bassist of the bands Osibisa and Native Spirit. “So people fled.”

As early as 1979, the Musicians Union of Ghana had estimated that 25% of musicians had emigrated in search of better opportunities, with many going to Germany, the UK and other European destinations. Ghanaian highlife music – a local style fusing elements of traditional music with jazz, often incorporating brass, guitars, vocals and percussive rhythms – took on a new identity overseas. Danceable polyrhythms were layered with the sounds of polyphonic synths; recordings shipped back to Ghana endeared a whole new generation to this futuristic music. Some simply called it “fusion”, but others used the term “burger highlife”, referring to the German word burger (meaning citizen), and cities such as Hamburg from which it originated. A new series of compilations under the name Borga Revolution! now shine a light on this vibrant and overlooked sub-genre.

George Darko and the Bus Stop band

It all started with George Darko, whose 1983 single Akoo Te Brofo – a buoyant funk-lite banger full of wild sax, synth-bass, and the kind of disco kick-and-snare you’d expect to hear at New York’s Paradise Garage nightclub – is often considered the genesis of burger highlife. Wilson Boateng, a former London minicab driver who arrived in the UK as a budding musician in the mid-80s, was there to see Darko and the Bus Stop band perform live at Eredec Hotel in Koforidua back when the phenomenon first emerged.

“Oh, it was something special that day,” Boateng reminisces. “They had all these new instruments, and a mix of white European stars among them – all playing the highlife. The song was playing all over the airwaves, and the people were so keen. We were heading towards a new direction, and the music was fantastic.”

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Though inspired, Boateng was dissatisfied with life in Ghana after the Rawling military coup (“there were no jobs, the economy was going down, the soldiers were using force – people were scared”) so he upped sticks and moved to London, picking up work in a Methodist bookshop opposite Madame Tussauds. The city was “buzzing”, he tells me, professing his delight about him in arriving at a place where “everything [felt] new”, and after leading praise and worship songs at local choirs in the nearby churches, Boateng started writing his own music, and recording it at Brixton’s Barrington Studios in 1988.

“Ghana didn’t have any synthesisers,” he recalls. “[But] in London, they were very popular. All the top stars and bands were using them, and I was keen to as well. 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 wonky Midi bass lines with faux party horns. Boateng pressed 1,000 copies on vinyl and cassette, selling them by hand to Ghanaian shops across the city.

“I was hoping that it would be good in the market!” he says. “But the people I relied on to sell the album disappointed me. They messed up everything – and as a result, it didn’t sell to the standard I was expecting. It was hard for me.” The album may not have had a major impact initially, but Boateng is effectively the star of the new compilation: an archive photo of the young, stylishly dressed artist performing in the vocal booth adorns the cover of the first volume of Borga Revolution! Ghanaian Dance Music in the Digital Age, 1983-1992.

Similarly determined was Joe Appiah of Uncle Joe’s Afri-Beat (whose tracks Eshe Wo Kon Ho and Mr DJ are highlights on the compilation). His career began while he was at secondary school in the 60s, as a singer in the government-funded Zone F Brigade Band. But when the Nkrumah government was toppled in a military coup in 1966 the group was dissolved. “We had to find a new place as professional musicians,” Appiah recalls, and over the next decade he cycled through bands as a series of military uprisings shook the nation.

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“I was a soul singer… one of the best in Ghana!” Appiah exclaims. He’d built a following in his home country and had set his sights on stardom. At the behest of his fans, he traveled to Amsterdam in the late 70s to raise money: the plan was to form and fund his own band, with his own instruments, upon his return to Ghana. But things proved less straightforward.

“When I arrived here, I had to do cleaning jobs, or work in factories because I needed money,” says Appiah, who is still in Amsterdam today. “Any jobs that came in front of me, I had to go with it. But still, I couldn’t get [enough to buy] a set of instruments.”

Appiah did manage to record his own works in Amsterdam – and he completed them in Ghana with the help of some local talents. Among them were legendary multi-instrumentalist Kiki Gyan – then a member of the prolific Ghanaian-British band Osibisa, who had landed a major hit in the UK in 1975 with Afro-rock classic Sunshine Day.

Herman Asafo-Agyei performing with Native Spirit In Vancouver, circa 1989.
Herman Asafo-Agyei performing with Native Spirit in Vancouver, circa 1989

“I wanted to see if I could get somebody to listen to my music and to lead me to where I have to go,” Appiah says of the resulting album, 1988’s Owo Odo. But it didn’t happen, and the record wasn’t a financial success. “People were making copies of the songs and selling it on their own,” Appiah says of the piracy that afflicted his release plans. “So I stopped. I didn’t do it again.” Despite the disappointment, the music retains intrigue: Owo Odo sells for over £200 on secondhand marketplaces, no doubt in part thanks to Gyan’s presence and Appiah’s distinctive vocals.

Where Boateng and Appiah struggled to set the world alight, Herman Asafo-Agyei succeeded. Himself a member of Osibisa between 1985 and 2011, Asafo-Agyei was, during the mid-80s, the leader of his own burger highlife band who managed to secure an international career.

A law student in London in the 80s, Asafo-Agyei was also a session bassist who worked on reggae, Afro-funk and even rock music recordings. After performing to 50,000 people in Ghana with Osibisa at the behest of the government, Asafo-Agyei formed Native Spirit, who were intended to be a backing band for Ghanaian highlife artists performing in the UK. They found more opportunities in the US and Canada, including as a backing band for singer Pat Thomas, and were signed by the label Afronova. “Our first album was very well received in the local music magazines – these were raving reviews,” Asafo-Agyei says. The dream to break through internationally soon felt like it could materialize: “I thought I had a future with this band.”

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Native Spirit hit some highs: Asafo-Agyei recalls supporting Fela Kuti when he toured in Canada; playing at “a club in Minneapolis that belonged to Prince”, the legendary First Avenue; and performing as the headline band at a concert on Toronto’s harbor front commemorating Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (“a hugely important moment for me,” Asafo-Agyei recalls). They recorded two albums, but while Odo San Bra Fie, from the self-titled first of them, is one of the funkiest offerings on Borga Revolution!, the second never got released due to label disagreements, and the group disbanded. Today, Asafo-Agyei is a minister at Northolt Grange Baptist church in London.

“Highlife was my blood – it was our tune, our sound,” Appiah says. But while he, Boateng and Asafo-Agyei all continue to write new music, the genre’s popularity was already deteriorating by the late 80s, just as the sounds of disco and boogie declined in conjunction. The Ghanaian economy was recovering, and by the end of the 90s – despite outstanding tracks such as Paa Jude’s bright and infectious, Madonna-esque Odo Refre Wo being released on labels like Peckham’s Asona Records – burger highlife was being replaced by exciting new hybrids in Ghana, such as the hip-hop and reggaeton-infused hiplife.

Burger highlife remains an essential stepping stone in the evolution of Ghanaian music nonetheless – and in 2022, the music sounds as fresh and riveting as anything. The sense of optimism is infectious, and that’s something that the musicians still radiate. Appiah is ebullient as he signs off from our phone call. “If there’s anyone who wants to take me to the top, I’m ready for it!”

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