John Collins: Ghana, Then and Now (Part 1)
John Collins has lived a life in African music that few of us can imagine. Born in the UK, he started playing with traveling bands in Ghana in 1969, at a time when few Westerners had even heard the word “highlife.” John went on to play with many bands in Ghana and Nigeria. He befriended and worked with Fela Kuti, become a bandleader himself, launched Bokoor Band and then Studio (later an archive) where he recorded important music of the late highlife era, wrote a number of books on West African music, and, ultimately, became a professor of popular music at the University of Ghana in Legon.
Afropop’s Banning Eyre first met and interviewed John at Bokoor in 1993. Twenty years later, he returned with Sean Barlow and Mark LeVine for a follow-up conversation. What follows is excerpts from both interviews, starting with John’s account of how he got his start in Ghanaian music.
John Collins (1993): My father came here in 1952 to set up the philosophy department when the university was first opened. So I came with my father and mother. My mother didn’t like Ghana. My father did. So they divorced and I went back to Europe with my mother. I did all my education there. I did a science degree, partly in Bristol, partly in Manchester, partly in London. And I was a musician before I came back to Ghana in 1969. Actually I started as a classical guitar player, and then I joined some rock bands and jazz bands. And I came back in Ghana in 1969 to finish a medical degree that I had discontinued, . because I had wanted to go to Cuba for my student elective , and I got in a lot of trouble with the authorities who were very conservative.
B.E.: Why did you want to go to Cuba?
J.C. (‘93): Because I was basically a communist. In the mid-60s the medical profession wasn’t very radical. But as the Medical School in Ghana had only just been established I realized I would have to go back to the beginning of the medical programi, so I switched to the social sciences and got a Sociology and Archaeology BA. degree at the University of Ghana at Legon instead..
And then, by coincidence, my father had married a Ghanaian woman, my Auntie Amma, and he built a house for her about twenty miles north of Accra. And in the house was a tenant called Mr. Bampoe who was the leader and main comedian “Opia” of the Jaguar Jokers Concert Party. So I told them I could play rock music, and it was kind of a quid pro quo situation. I taught them to play rock music, and they taught me to play highlife. And that’s how I fell into the music, and since then, I can’t even remember how many bands I’ve played with in Ghana. I wasn’t in any way thinking about writing about music or anything, just playing music. I didn’t really start writing until 1974, ‘75, which meant I’d been playing already for about five years. But I’ve always been inquisitive.
B.E.:What was it like then? What were people playing?
J.C. (‘93): Well, the main foreign star at that time was James Brown. I mean, everybody was crazy over him. And that song, “I’m Black and Proud” was everywhere.But for me, the first band that I played with was this concert party band. One thing is, in that for that sort of music, there wasn’t anybody that was the star of the music, I mean everybody played their part. They had about three guitarists, but there was no problem with me joining in as a guitarist. They didn’t have what we would call a lead guitarist. They had a guitarist that would play a tenor guitar, and they were playing the guitars rather like Africans would play drums, in interlocking parts. It was always dance music. It was never people watching you without doing anything, or just clapping. So I liked the whole feeling of the band. And also, these guys were really intelligent. They knew everything that was going on in Ghana. We went to villages, I met princesses, hunters, farmers, chiefs and all sorts of mind-blowing people and situations for an Englishman coming to Ghana for the first time, or rather returning to Ghana as an adult. The only way I can describe it—and this is thinking retrospectively—is, it would be like an Englishman joining a Comedia D’el Arte in the 17th century Europe, a roving band of troubadours moving from village to village, town to town . But this type of itinerant art form (that included local clowns and even female impersonators) was still going in Ghana and it still had a real meaning. It was an actual genuine folk form, which had incorporated a lot of black and American and European music as well.
Straight away, if I played rock music and jazz music and rhythm and blues and stuff like this, I had an instant rapport with them, because they were also very interested in anything from outside. A lot of their music consisted of western music but filtered through their own sensibilities. For instance, the first time I ever saw or heard ragtime played really live was with this group. And tap-dancing. Because this artform, the concert party, has been going since the 1920s, and they’ve absorbed all sorts of black American styles of music, and preserved them. They haven’t died out. They still use them now. There are some concert parties even now that do the fast stepping, tap dancing ragtime sketches and wear the minstrel makeup. But it wasn’t like walking around in a museum. It was a living thing. And it was all through my father, and the coincidence of Mr. Bampoe , happened to be living in my father’s house.
Then I played with student bands (like the Deep Blues Feeling of Achimota School), more pop music. And I met and recorded with Koo Nimo [the great palm wine maestro of Kumasi]. And then I met E.T. Mensah, who was a dance-band musician, and I played with his second band, and he and I became very friendly and he took me around and introduced me to a lot of old-time musicians and I started interviewing people. This would be around about 1973. So around then, I began accumulating information about the background of highlife music. And I went to the university, and only one or two people at the university were interested in it. They were basically antagonistic to highlife. They said it was “a hybrid music,” and that the only genuine types of music were European classical music or African traditional music, and that nothing could exist in between. So I sort of fell out with these people for a while, although things are different now. The university actually teaches highlife. But that’s only since 5 or 6 years ago.
They had these groups in the ‘70s called cultural groups, which were basically highlife musicians going acoustic, going back to their roots. And a lot of Europeans actually, in recent years, when they see a cultural group, they think it is a forerunner to highlife, but it’s actually highlife gone back to its roots.For instance, there’s this borborbor music that we were recording today in the studio. If you see a borborbor group, like the one I was recording, it’s all drums, and all highlife rhythms. So you might think this is ancestral to highlife music, but it’s quite the reverse. It was a traditional Ewe music that was influenced by highlife, and incorporated highlife elements.
So these cultural groups were the Ga equivalent to borborbor groups, and they played music like kpanlogo, which, again, looks like traditional music, but it has been modernized with highlife elements, and even elements of rock and roll, there are elements of the twist in there that came in through Chubby Checker in the early ‘60s.
Now these bands were very popular in the early ‘70s, so when I founded my own band, which was called Bokoor, it was modeled on that, which is basically a lot of African percussion with one guitar. And I also played the harmonica.
[John was married to the the Ghanaian singer- dancer in this band, Gifty Naa Dodoo for a while. He later married his present wife Dovi Helen and had a son colled Thomas Kojo Collins ]
My first wife was a fire-eater and snake dancer. We even kept snakes under the bed.
I was the leader of the band, I was the financier, but I didn’t have to be the star. African bands, or Ghanaian bands, particularly the highlife guitar bands, they tend not to project one certain individual over other people, because they take certain elements from a traditional way of playing music. If you listen to a traditional African group, the guy who plays least is probably going to be the master drummer, and the guy who plays most is the apprentice. So it is in reverse order to a lot of European music, where the man who is the star plays all the time, and everything is focused on him or her.
B.E.: What does Bokoor mean?
J.C. (‘93): It means something like cool or collected or calm. At first I just liked the name. Also I was playing with the Bunzus band at the Napolean Club in Accra and Faisal Helwani (the properieter) had another band there called Bassa Bassa (hot hot or pandemonium ) . So I chose a name opposite to this.
[John went back to the UK for awhile, but returned to Accra in 1981.]
I’d brought recording equipment, because I had done a lot of recording in Ghana and Nigeria, and I wasn’t very happy with the quality, so wanted to do my own recordings. But in 1982, there was the revolution in the country, and there was curfew for two years, so it was impossible to run a band, especially traveling around, especially as a foreigner. So I decided to just switch to recording. So the Bokoor Band then became Bokoor Studio. So that’s what I’m still doing.
B.E.: So the basic rig you have there, the Tascam 4-track cassette unit is basically what you’ve been using for the whole time?
J.C. (‘93): Yeah. I’ve got a 10 channel mixer, but I basically use a 4-track recorder. And I’ve recorded in the region of about 300 bands.
B.E.: Most of these cassettes that go out into the cassette market ?
J.C. (‘93): Yeah, when I first started in the early 80s, it was records, so at first records came out of my studio. The early ones I marketed them in Britain. Like The Guitar and the Gun.
B.E.:That’s a great record. Was it a particularly successful one?
J.C. (’93): It wasn’t successful financially, but people did like it in Europe. I think they liked it because it was rather raw. They were looking for some raw sound.But in recent years, the record industry collapsed here, around about the early ‘80s, and it switched to cassettes, so everything now is done on cassettes. So what I do now is I do the recording and I make the cassette master, and that goes straight onto the market for duplication, but I don’t actually do productions any more. I just go as far as making master tapes. Basically I’m a recording engineer.
B.E.: And you’ve written books.
J.C. (‘93): In 1974, I wrote a book about E.T.Mensah, I gave it to State Publishing here, they sat on it, and finally when Retro-Afric released an album of E.T.Mensah some years ago, I think about ‘86, and they also produced this book or booklet. And then there was another book about the Jaguar Jokers, I also gave that to State Publishing, they’re still sitting on it, but I’m using it as the basis of my PhD now, in fact.
[John had already written seven books when we met in 1993, and he made a point about how they were mostly focused on the stories of specific musicians.]
I mean, basically, history is made by individuals. It’s not an abstract processes. Rather historical, cultural and musical process can often be pinpointed down to certain particular biographies.
[At the start of 1993, John was in shock at the changes he was seeing in Ghanaian popular music. The CD had just arrived, and was not yet recordable, and so appeared as a power grab by record companies determined to crack down on the easy possibilities of the cassette format. More troubling still, the very concept of the band, deeply tied to notions of family, village, and community in Africa, was vanishing before his eyes. John’s reflections are interesting to consider with 20 years hindsight. He was witnessing the dawn of the digital age, and was not impressed.]
J.C. (’93): Well, it’s a worldwide phenomenon: it’s the disappearance of live music. What’s happening in Ghana, and it’s basically happened within the last 7 or 8 years, is that all the studios now, except mine, and Ghana Films, no longer do live recordings. It’s all a series of overdubs, sequencers, drum machines, synthesizers—this type of thing. Even in the studio situation, they don’t have living groups of human beings playing music with each other any more. It’s all spaced out in time. The bass player comes in on Saturday afternoon and somebody else comes on Tuesday…
On top of that, the television is also doing the lip-synch thing. I mean, one of the reasons they are doing this, I think, is that if you create a totally artificial music, you can’t reproduce it live, because maybe you’re doing all sorts of harmonizing and this type of thing. So you have to lip-synch it, because you’ve got no alternative.
In Ghana, specifically the pop music here, live bands have basically disappeared. It’s very difficult to find a live band in Accra. If you want to find live music in Ghana now, there’s three main areas where you can get it. There’s the traditional music, which is still in existence, and this is very lucky for Ghana that the traditional music hasn’t been wiped out, because it means that there can be a re-birth at any time of live music through the interaction with modern technology and so on producing new styles of popular music. That’s very, very important.
Second, there’s the concert parties, which still exist, but because of this lip-synching, and the spinners—that’s the mobile discos that have taken over the all the city nightclubs—the concert parties are only found in the rural areas now.
And thirdly, there’s the church. The African separatist churches broke away from the orthodox Christians, because, you know, the whites didn’t allow dancing in the church. It’s forbidden, or so the whites say. That’s the European version of Christianity. Of course, if you read the new testament and the stories of the last supper, you will find that they did dance. Even Jesus danced. But it was forbidden by the European Christian idea that the body and flesh are evil and so you shouldn’t move your body when worshipping God. So a lot of Africans started to break away from the Christian church because of this.
Traditionally in Ghana, they worship God or their gods on their feet. It’s unknown to actually kneel to worship God. In fact, when you are amongst the Akan, you point upwards, you don’t get on your knees. I mean, if you’re getting on your knees, it means maybe there’s a god under the ground, but it’s not the Supreme God. So they broke away from the Christian churches, these separatist churches, and started using percussion and dancing; actually very much like the Black American churches. Then very recently, about ten years ago, the local churhces started to bring in the guitar bands. So then you have this evolution of gospel music, which is basically a synthesis of gospel, or singing about God, Jesus, and playing highlife and dancing to it. And this came at exactly the same time when the music industry in Ghana was falling to pieces: a military induced economic slump. So the church was becoming a patron for a lot of popular dance-music musicians. So if you want to see a lot of very spiritual live music, go to the churches.
So there are these three areas: the traditional music, the concert parties, and the churches. But the popular music as such has become totally artificial.
And one of the problems right now is that, in all the studios, live drummers hardly ever appear anymore. It’s all done with drum-machines. I myself have got a drum machine. I didn’t want to get it. I got it about three years ago, because I was told by the musicians that they would boycott my studio if I didn’t . Then, synthesizers replace horns, so what you’re getting actually is the demise of live drummers and live horn players, which Ghana is actually famous for. And, although you can still find them in some places, like the church…I mean, if not for the church, I don’t know what would have happened to a lot of musicians.
What I’m worried about it, is you only need another five or ten years of this, and you’re going to get a whole generation that doesn’t know about live drummers in studios, a whole generation of engineers who don’t know how to mic up drums, who don’t even conceive of doing live recordings.
In the studio now, I’ve always got to use the “ tweeters,” as they call them, it’s basically the hi-hat on the drum-machine, and many of the musicians always want me to make it loud using equalizers, ridiculously loud. And it spoils the music; it’s cutting the music unnecessarily. And because of things like the tweeters and this heavy, emphatic downbeat and the upbeat, which is all totally mechanical because it’s played on a drum machine, the voices are therefore being cut by instruments. And in fact, because of that, in a lot of Ghanaian music now, the voice is very low in the mix. And it’s not even a natural voice any more. It’s a harmonized voice, or a double-tracked or triple-tracked voice. It’s almost like people are losing the confidence in the human voice.
So the drummers are out, the horn players are out, keyboards are in, computers are in, and the human voice is kind of slowly sinking down into the mix. And I think it’s exactly like the expression the: ”Ghost the Machine” about western individuals getting lost over the centuries in their mechanistic vision. But it’s happened so quickly here, that’s what’s shocking to me.
It’s happening in Europe too, but because it’s happening more slowly, there’s sort of an organized resistance or response to it. I mean in a recording session of an orchestra you can’t take the first violinist on Saturday, the second violinist on Sunday and so on. Or if you went to a good jazz group and asked them to do everything via overdubs, they would just laugh in your face. They would say, “No, it will remove the spirit of the music, the dialogue between the musicians.” So despite all their technology westerners s keep their most important music as live music.
The one thing that gives me hope in Ghana is the fact that the traditional music isn’t dead. So there’s always this possibility, that from the traditional musicians, a new type of music can evolve. But even that, it’s not going to be there forever.
[Fast forward twenty years. John’s Bokoor archive has withstood a devastating flood in 2012, caused in large part through bad land management by a neighboring saw mill. John is a senior professor at University of Ghana now, no longer involved in music production, he co-runs the Local Dimension highlife band (with Aaron Bebe Sukura) but is still a savvy observer of a scene that has completely transformed itself since our first meeting. Meanwhile, Ghana’s popular music has been reinvented in the era of “hiplife” (a blend of highlife and hip hop that has now diversified into several subgenres) and the Azonoto dance craze. We start by listening back to John’s 1993 comments about the voice “sinking into the mix.”]
J.C. (2013): Yeah, sinking into the mix. The ghost in the machine. This did go on for about 5 or 10 years, actually. You know, that process of synthesizers and drum machines started with Burger highlife, the disco style created by Ghanaians living in Germany. And it continued even more in the hiplife generation, because you didn’t have bands at all. You just had either one singer or two singers. That problem about the voice—I mean, one of the interesting things about rapping or hiplife is at least the voice had to be louder again. It came back. It was predominantly of poetic mode.
And of course, lots of bands these days are using Autotune and so on. Ghanaians tend to use it at 101%. It’s not used subtley because it’s a gadget, and its new, so some Ghanaian musicians want to overdo it. But that problem is still with us. There weren’t that many studios. And even now, there are very few studios that can do a live recording. It is all overdubs.. And the hiplifers, they don’t really have bands. They have studio bands. So that problem is still with us.
B.E.: But has there been a learning curve with the development of hiplife?
J.C. (2013): Yes. One of the things is they have started to introduce live percussion with hiplife groups. With traditional rhythms, they will bring in the odonno or kpanlogo drums. For instance, Okyeame Kwame will use fontomfroms or something like this, sort of humanizing the beat boxes with human drum beats.
You know, there’s nothing wrong with using a metronomic beat if you then weave around it a live drum beats. It’s quite a good way of recording. I personally prefer an acoustic drum. But I think even in the West, when they started with drum machines, they started adding live percussion to humanize it, and then adding other things like traditional instruments, and so on. I mean, when I spoke to you back then, I was extrapolating a situation at that time that was very negative, but it’s sort of picked up.
B.E.:Back in 1993, you did also talk about the fact that traditional music was alive and well, and that always leaves open the possibility of a Renaissance.
J.C. (2013): Yeah. A re-linking. And now, that is happening. That’s why the northern factor is so important these days. Because in areas like the north, there is still a strong tradition of music.
Mark LeVine: Speaking of the north, Ebo Taylor told us that Islam in Ghana was just another aspect of life, not a determinative identity. How do you view the role of Islam in the development of Ghanaian culture in music?
J.C. (2013): Until recently, I would’ve said was a disconnect between southern Ghana and northern Ghana that is heavily Islamic , both traditionally and in the modern era. The northern Ghanaian Sahelean traditional culture is quite distinct from the southern forest culture in its singing, its instruments—everything. Even after independence, you don’t get any significant northern Ghanaian popular music until about 10 to, 15 years ago. There were just a few exceptions. But now, the big reconnect is happening. And it’s because Jerry Rawlings put electricity into the north 15 or 20 years ago, and you’ve now got the beginning of a northern Ghanaian popular music, industry, recording wise. You’re getting a massive flood of music from the north, artists like Atongo Zimba and King Ayisoba and, Sheriff Ghale. And this includes hip life, reggae, local music. Samini, the hiplife artist, for instance, is a northerner, as is the reggae star Rocky Dawuni.
Sean Barlow: At this point, we’ve had over 15 years of hiplife music. What has been your experience of that development?
J.C. (2013): There were three things going on at the same time really: generation change, technology, and identity. The early hiplifers had to stick their nose up at their parents, like every young generation has to. Second, there were the changes in technology resulting in techno-pop styles like burger highlife and hiplife. And third there was a change in musical identity that was a byproduct of the military era, which not only destroyed most of the live bands and role models for the youth, but they also took music out of the education system. So basically, by the early ‘90s, we have had a generation going through school, , who are not familiar with Western band instruments as the bands that used them had died off. Then the technology came in to save them, because the youth can use a ghetto blaster or beat box and do some rap over them . In some ways, it was like what happened in the states with Reagan when he demoted music and a lot of the black youth couldn’t get access to musical instruments. One of the triggers for rap and hip-hop in America was a byproduct of the demotion of music in the school system. Something very similar happened in Ghana when the Rawlings government decided in the late 1980s to make the education system more technical and therefore marginalised music.
So live musicians had gone to the churches. But in the early days, I really think hiplife was a statement of by the youth against their parents. So it was decontextualized. It wasn’t American, ghetto, black oppression music. It was simply music to get up the nose of their parents. They would sing very fast, double-fast singing. Nobody could understand it, not even their own parents.
And because their parents were dancing to live bands, the youth decided to not dance. There was a time when hiplifers didn’t dance at shows. This has changed now, of course, because of Azonto. Finally! But it took it 15 years to get a specific dance attached to hiplife . You know, in Ghana, highlife, Afrobeat, everything comes with its accompanying dance. So there was this disconnection between hiplife and a recognized form of dance that went with it. You could freestyle of course. In fact, the style in early hiplife was to jump up and down in front of a rap hero who himself was lip-synching.
So these were all experiments in alienation—but not like western punk music where experiments with alienation (like noisy music, black clothes, cadaverous make-up) were meant to prove society had become decadent or decayed, like what Margaret Thatcher had done to Britain. For Ghanaian youth the use of alientating techniques such as miming etc was more a statement against the older generation.
Reggie Rockstone created the term “hiplife” in about 1994 or , 95. I guess the style had been around for about five years. But it was sung in American English. Then he made that first transformation by rapping in the local language. But the music itself lagged behind. And also the format of performance was usually mimed.
You know, in about 2000, I played at a Reggie Rockstone show with Aaron Sukura. This was a terrible experience we had playing for 5000 hiplife youth. It was us (the Local Dimension highlife band) and the Pan African Orchestra, led by Nana Danso Abiam. We had known Reggie Rockstone’s father, Osei. So when he died, as a courtesy, we older generation opened up this hiplife show in honour of Rockstone’s dad. We played along with about 10 hiplifeacts, and in front of 5000 youth. And when we started playing, there was almost a riot. But because of our lyrics–we were singing a song in Twi about corruption–half the crowd sang with us, and were able to stop the other half booing us, simply because of the lyrics. Basically the last thing the youth wanted to see was a live band. They are the young generation, and live bands are dead. That’s for the older generation.
I think we managed to play one song. Fine. And then Nana Danso came on stage, but he was playing instrumental. He was booed and couldn’t even finish one song. Reggie had to stop the show and politely get them off the stage. To make way for the hiplife groups
Sean Barlow: Looking at the hiplife scene now, do you find any of these artists reaching into the traditions of the past in Ghana?
J.C. (2013): Oh yes, a whole bunch of them. Take Obour, the head of the musicians union. He did an album with AB Crentsil some years ago. You see, what happened was, in the beginning, hiplife was very derivative of American music, except for the words. Not much African music material. Reggie Rockstone, I think he used some of Fela’s rhythms. But basically, it was more American funk music, with African lyrics, or Twi lyrics. So about 2002, about 10 or 11 years ago, there was the beginning of a shift towards performing live and integrating African rhythms, and collaborations with highlife stars, for instance Pat Thomas. I can’t remember which hip lifer made a song with him. But Pat Thomas actually took him to court for copyright infringements as he never aksed Pat Thomas for permission .
Banning Eyre: Did he win his case?
J.C. (2013): I think he did.
B.E.: But this sounds like an improvement overall, right?
J.C. (2013): Well, as you know, I got very depressed because the musicians were moving towards robotic music, or alienated forms of music. I thought, then what is the future of Ghana? But they’ve come completely out of that now. Well maybe not completely, but I’m trying to be optimistic. There are signs that they’re coming out of it. And don’t forget. I went through the punk thing in Britain. But there were reasons for that. Those experiments in alienation, sticking pins in the face. cadaverous looks, anti-establishment lyrics and all these types of things was a reflection on the state of UK decay. You’ve (i.e. the ruling class) created hell on earth for us, so we’ve come to create the background music of hell. That’s what it was about, always wearing black and looking very somber and so on.
But in Ghana the alienation of lip-synched shows, super fast (kasa harri) lyrics baggy trousers etc was simply a generational thing. Sydney was the first hiplifer to attempt to play live. I’d love to find out what was the trigger. I personally believe that he went to Britain or America and tried to mime in front of an international audience, and realized you can’t. Anyway, there started to be this experimentation with highlife crossovers and taking highlife loops. And it led to a breakaway.
B.E.: In 1993, you tied the breakdown of live bands as popular entertainment to the breakdown of the family unit, and the village unit, communalism generally.
J.C. (2013): Yes, that is the great disaster, actually,one of the biggest disasters that has befallen Ghana in the last 50 years. And luckily enough, we have a running commentary on this because of highlife songs and concert party plays from the 1950s through ‘80s. One of the big themes in these linked performing arts was the breakup of the family–broken homes. There were no such things as broken homes traditionally. If you were orphaned, you were dead. You couldn’t be a rugged individualist – if you were, you were a witch. So everyone belonged to a social network. And what Europeans brought in through education, modern economic stratification, urban migration, the cash nexus and Christian norms about a nuclear family, was the destruction of the extended family. And as you know, when anyone gets a divorce, love turns into hatred. And when whole extended families break up it’s the same thing and its very bitter. So actually, a ‘civil war’ broke out among Ghanaian families, particularly in the Southern cocoa cash-crop areas.
There were inheritance disputes, witchcraft accusations, orphaned children. And this became a dominant theme in highlife and popular theatre from the 1950s on as Ghana moved towards the small nuclear family. So in popular text there were themes like ‘agyanka” (orphan) and “abusua bone ,” bad family and witchcraft within the family.
Witchcraft in Ghana was traditionally connected with unusual wealth and power of an individual, in a relatively egalitarian society. When Western ‘civilization’ capitalist competition and modern social classes came to Africa there was a massive increase in the growth of witchcraft accusations, because witchcraft was the African metaphor for evil stemming from excessive egoistic power and wealth. During colonial times there were even uprising agains witches, , who were the ‘warrent chiefs’ imposed on Africans by the British. In fact, Christianity and colonialism, far from reducing witchcraft, rather encouraged witchcraft accusations and anti-witchcraft movements in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.
I’m not saying there weren’t demonic or evil forces in traditional Africa, but they had ways of controlling it. However, the anti-witchcraft shrines were banned by the colonialists who at the same time introduced capitalist inequalities and ultra individualism which were seen in traditional African eyes, as a case of massive witchcraft. With social stratification some people within the modern economy became very rich and powerful whilst others become very poor. And this all impacted the families. Families broke up. . Sociologists and developmental people might call the breakdown of the traditional extended family system as ‘ progress’, but in fact it led to a loss of security and growing anxiety. So we’re lucky we have a running commentary on this disaster through the highlife songs and concert party plays of the very people undergoing this trauma.
B.E.:Is this running commentary continuing in today’s music?
J.C. (2013): Not in hiplife,as these are the product of the nuclear families. Infact hiplife started in the 1990s with middle-class urban youth. The hiplifers are the new people of the Ghanaian individualized and consumer society. Broken homes and witchcraft were the themes of an earlier epoch when the extended families were still breaking up, and they hadn’t reached the modern nuclear family state.
One of the problems with hiplife in connection with individualism is that it’s from an urban generation who want to become famous fast. So they’re very prone to go onto radio and television and make themselves famous artificially. The DJs are their own peer group and so there’s a lot of exposure on the radio to hiplife. But this is not so for the church. The church is operating in a more organic way. But that’s where, the future of Ghanaian popular dance music is really being determined. Infact some estimates put the gospel music of the Ghanaian churches as 60 or even 70 percent of the total output of the countries popular music.
Only 15% of the Ghanaian population is Muslim (quite different from Nigeria) whilst 65% is now Christian. Black forms of Christianity have very beneficial effects. Look at America and the black churches with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. And don’t forget what Karl Marx said.about religion being the ‘opiate of the people’. Sensible enough and we all know that. In the same phrase from his Communist Manifesto of the 1840s he continues that religion is the ‘sigh of the oppressed’.. He’s getting a little bit deeper there. Then he goes really deep when he ends by saying that . religion is the ‘heart of a heartless world’ . It is the last part of that statement, that’s always truncated. And his observation applies right now to Ghana. The ‘heart’ of Ghana, was embedded in its live performance, traditional music and highlife. But Ghana has moved towards a ‘heartless world’ , of military governments, hi-technology and neo-liberalism. So, one aspect of the heart of a Ghanaian, in terms of music performance, has gone into the African churches with their dancing to live gospel music. But not so much into the commercial popular music sector because there is little live performance and only few clubs that cater for this form of music ,.. But there are thousands of churches.If you really want to get a sense of how lively and spirited the popular music was in Ghana, say 30 years ago when the center of everything were live shows, then go to a Ghanaian church.
B.E.:You seem to have mixed feelings about the effects of these Protestant churches.
J.C. (2013): Because in Ghana, it was back to front. Europeans introduced Western capitalism to a country that still believed in family connections, ,and communal taboos and so on. Collective punishment,collective responsibilities and not individual rights. In traditional Africa, it wasn’t the individual that was the unit of society,it was the family. But these ideas were depicted negatively by Europeans – as nepotism, superstition and against personal liberty and individual rights,
What we’ve seen in the last 30 years is the failure of the African alternative to modern technological development. It’s different from what we’ve seen happen in China, or Japan, or India that survived colonial balkanization . With the or destabilization or even overthrow of the early Pan African socialist leaders (like Nkrumah and Lumumba), this wasn’t allowed to happen in Africa. So they’ve gone to the Western model. But to do this, African have to go now through a Protestant Awakening, just as Europe did in the 18th and 19th centuries with it resulting ‘work ethic and heightened sennse of individualism. But Ghanaian are going into an individualistic mode years after the creation of a capitalist society set up by the colonialists , So it’s back to front as compared to the West where a Protestant Reformation and Awakening had to occur before the forces of capitalism and private property could be unleashed . So these days many African want to become like the West, not just in the system of rule, but in the way they think and play music, individual rights, egoism and the solo super-star. So, obviously, the Protestant religion is very favorable, because it boosts individual rights and responsibilities, instead of the collective responsibilities and punishments of the traditional gods and so on. Nevertheless, the African churches do retain some of the old African principles such as spiritual healing, posession (by the Holy Ghost) exorcism (of witchcraft) and dancing as a form of prayer
B.E.: So even though so many of these churches have become “Africanized” in various ways, you see an underlying problem with the whole ideology of individualism?
J.C. (2013): It’s worse for the Africans. Because when they develop their systems, they have to compete with advanced capitalist systems, and when they create geniuses, they flow out of the countries in a ‘brain drain’. Like all the doctors who are in striking in Ghana now. Out of let’s say 2000 doctors who have been trained at Ghanaian universities over the last 30 years, there’s only about 600 and Ghana. My figures maybe a little out of date, but it’s something like that. How could Isaac Newton and James Watson and all the mentors of the Industrial Revolution have created their inventions if they were being sucked out of their countries by a superpower?
So in fact, it’s impossible for Africa to develop independently, unless they come together like China or India. I mean the great miracle of the modern world is China and India in that they have survived colonialism without becoming balkanized. They weren’t divided up into little estates like as has happened Africa or Latin America. And it’s because of that there there’s the world’s center of gravity is shifting in the world to these powers. Whether they make a better job of that than the West, I don’t know. But if you look at China or India, they have both put two things together which the West was prepared to destroy the planet over. That was capitalism and communism which westerners considered diametrically opposed and so were ever ready to destroy the world in a Cold War. But with India and China you have communist areas and capitalist areas operating side-by side in the same country They’ve done what was impossible for the Western powers.
This is why there’s still some hope for us. And I would advise any African country to tie their laces to the Chinese and Indians, not to the West. Because the West is actually counter-developing Africa, not just because they are extracting raw materials but because they’re sucking up many of Africa’s intelligent and successful; people, Also the West has divided Africa into fifty small countries. None of them, except maybe Nigeria and South Africa are big enough to sustain an independent economy. So I think the problem is trying to create a modern technological society when you’ve got advanced technologies that want to keep you at the level of producing raw materials, stealing your brains and interfering in your political systems . That’s really the problem.
Luckily, there is China and India — I mean, what a miracle. And we owe this to two of the greatest men in the world Ghandi and Mao Tse Tung– they both made sure their countries survived colonialism intact – and have gone on to become continental powers. This is why the Chinese colonialism is different from the American British or French one. The Chinese don’t interfere with the politics of the country that they are investing in, whether it’s a dictatorship or democracy. That’s not their business. But America and Europe want to invade countries and overthrow governments, like Ghana and the Congo in the sixties, or Somalia, northern Mali and Libya today. All this does is unleash a destabilization process in Africa.
B.E.: Coming back to music in Ghana, I get the feeling that, overall, you are feeling more positive about what is going on than you were twenty years ago.
J.C. (2013): Yes then people like me Koo Nimo, E.T.Mensah, King Bruce and Kwaa Mensah were so worried that that youth were not interested in highlife that we set up the BAPMAF archives to preserve this music. But things are now changing and many young musicians and media people are becoming interested in both highlife and folkoric music. If you want to know, there were two people—and you can tell them this if you see them—of the modern generation who made me realize I was not on my own. I won’t say that I saw them as sons exactly, but I knew that something good was going to come in Ghana. The two people were Paa K.. Holbrook-Smith and Panji Anoff. In the early 1990’s. I saw nothing on the horizon except more miming and machine music. And then, Paa K put the first specialist highlife program on Groove FM, and later he collaborated with BAPMAF in various highlife festivals . He really knows his onions about the history of highlife and in the early 1990s it was just a joy to be able to sit down and listen to a Ghanaian DJ talking in depth about highlife. I thought, “What a relief!”
And then there is Panji Anoff, the same sort of thing, He did an in-depth study of why live music is more important than machine music. He did quite serious research on this using oscilloscopes and visiting analogue recording studios in Jamaica. He proved that you cannot actually do away with live music and he also helped the hiplife generation re-connect with highlife and folkloric music. I also did highlife projects with Panji
And then there were other positive developments like the interest of the French and German Embassy cultural organisations in highlife and live music and the upsurge of Ghanaian festivals that project highlife, such as Music of African Origin. Here’s another extraordinary story, in connection with radio stations. When you came to the country in 1993 , we thought that the GBC—the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation—had no record collection. Because at that time even a German researcher called Dr. Wolfgang Bender had brought some German government music preservation money and discovered that there was none to be preserved. Working with this German and using this same money, we digitizeds six-hundred hours of field recordings made by Professor Nketia and others of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana ‘. That’s why we did it, because there was no GBC archives. We have now discovered that, in fact, they had a secret stash of 20,000 records in a room that had been locked and sealed. Nobody had been able to get to it until a German called Marcus Coester , about two years ago, managed to get into the place. He brought more German money (via Dr. Bender) , and set up a place where they can digitize the radio records and tapes, catalogue them , and air some of the music on programs,every Saturday. So this is a huge resource, which we didn’t even know about. They were sitting on it, and we thought it had disappeared into smoke. So this is another very positive thing..
And also, we should never forget Charles Wereko-Brobbey who set up the very first private radio station in Ghana. This was just like Radio Caroline. You know the story about Radio Caroline in Britain? It was illegal in the sixties to have a private radio station, so the station was put on a boat near the British coast . And of course, the British government stormed this pirate radio boat and. But in the end, the government had to change the law and allow private radio stations . Well, we have a Ghanaian who did the same thing. Wereko-Brobbey. He set up a Radio Eye , an illegal private radio station. And of course, he was arrested, and it was closed down. But after that, the Ghanaian government was forced to open up the airwaves. Now we have around 240 radio and TV stations in Ghana. He’s a very contentious character, but he really did something wonderful for Ghana.
B.E.:Amazing. What year was that?
J.C. (2013): That would have been about 1993 or ‘94?. And then the government had to de-regulate the airwaves. In short, Borbbey was willing to take on the government an as a result opened up the airwaves . He’s an interesting man, because he’s also the only person here who has ever published books on highlife. My two books on highlife published in Ghana were published by him and his Anansesem Press in 1996. These were “Highlife Time” and “E.T. Mensah the King of Highlife.”
[We will have more from our conversations with John Collins in conjunction with our second Hip Deep in Ghana program.]