Story by Musa Jibril
From Sierra Leone to Sekondi to Surulere, highlife once ruled the music of the West Coast of Africa. Its glory of yore still reverberates: from Osita Osadebey’s “Osondi Owendi,” to Prince Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother” and Victor Uwaifo’s “Joromi” to the classics of Oliver De Coque and Victor Olaiya––those melodious tunes which came with éclat, remained evergreen, and still plague fans with pangs of nostalgia.
The hip-hop hegemony and the blitzkrieg of Afro Pop could hardly obliterate highlife. Rather than fade, it filtered into contemporary music, surfacing frequently as a trump card played up by artistes to break boring performance or jazz up jaded careers. Time and again, the magic worked. The few musicians whose forte is highlife––Flavour N’abania, for instance––continue to enjoy non-flagging careers year after year.
Nonetheless, the question never did go away: Can highlife regain its lost glory? Last week the answer, popped up: Positive.
Those with long musical memory, who can still recall how highlife came into the country, will remember the 1953 E.T. Mensah’s tour of Nigeria that created a sensational appetite for the new “Ghanaian sound.” Coming at a time the independence hurricane was sweeping across Africa, highlife was the de facto African sound––pioneered by Ghanaians and legitimised by Kwame Nkrumah, who declared it the official music of the new nation after Ghana’s independence in 1957.
Once Nigerians caught the fever, highlife assumed a life, and Nigerian musicians swotted to own the genre. While early pioneers, Bobby Benson and Victor Olaiya, copied and domesticated the ‘ET Mensah phenomenon,’ other groups, like Rex Jim Lawson, invested the Nigerian character in the genre with rhythms from indigenous folk music. Others, especially Roy Chicago, infused local musical instruments (like the Yoruba talking drum) to detach the Ghanaian connection. By independence in 1960, Lagos was a bubbling cauldron of highlife creativity, and Nigeria’s claim on the music was legit.
The civil war bursted the highlife boom as most of its exponents, who were from eastern Nigeria, were forced to depart Lagos at the outbreak of the war. Their exodus created a vacuum that was filled by other music types, notably Juju. By the end of the war, highlife’s machismo was gone. Gone too, was its universal appeal. What flourished thereafter in eastern and mid-western Nigeria were variants of the genre, à la Stephen Osita Osadebe and Celestine Ukwu, which was infused with Igbo folklore and suffused with Afro-Cuban rhythms or the eclectic synthesis of Cuban music, rock ‘n’ roll and native folklore that was patently Victor Uwaifo’s. Though still a favourite, highlife’s downward spiral continued.
At last, there is good news. The recently concluded Hi-Life Fest by Life beer ( a Nigerian Breweries brand) gave the music some verve and sinew, starting from the campaign’s flag-off at the Cubana Lounge, Owerri, on April 14, 2017 where Flavour delivered a scintillating performance. The subsequent 10-week spirited search for an outstanding singer to be crowned the Next King of Highlife across five zones of the south-east region––Onitsha––was revolutionary.
The hidden potential of highlife was starkly pronounced in the demography of four of the regional winners: Umunakwe Nwayiaku (Owerri), graduate of Instrumental and Control Option, Federal Polytechnic Nekede; Roseline Akpan, 24, (Port Harcourt) proprietress of a baking business, with a diploma in journalism and a stint as kid chorister; Chibest David, 29, (Enugu) final year student of political science, a sound engineer, and full-time musician, and Onuoha Kingsley, 33, (Aba), a highlife artist. While Chibest David claimed the coveted title of the Hi-Life Fest, together with the star prize of one million naira and a one-year recording deal, the other finalists also proved their mettle. Their combined performance impressed strongly on judges and audience about the country’s highlife’s untapped potential. A closing act by Flavour was another bravura performance that reinforced the fact that highlife is still the real McCoy.
While reaffirming the brand’s commitment to the progress and culture of the people of the south-east, Emmanuel Agu, Portfolio Manager at NB Plc., spelt out the significance of the festival. “Highlife music remains an essential part of the Igbo culture, and we believe it is important to constantly remind ourselves and the younger generation of this,” he said.
The campaign to promote highlife music in the south-east, its original home in Nigeria, is the biggest, smartest boost given to the genre in 40 years. A sustained revival could bring back the nostalgic 1960s when music lovers frequented clubs to hear melodious tunes from highlife bands. Agu’s assertion that “Hi-Life Fest is our way of bringing this rich genre of music back to the mainstream,” is a good tiding. Were the momentum to be sustained, highlife, once touted as the African music of the future, is definitely on the way to reclaim ing its lost glory.