Highlife Saturday Night captures the vibrancy of Saturday nights in Ghana—when musicians took to the stage and dancers took to the floor—in this penetrating look at musical leisure during a time of social, political, and cultural change. Framing dance band "highlife" music as a central medium through which Ghanaians negotiated gendered and generational social relations, Nate Plageman shows how popular music was central to the rhythm of daily life in a West African nation. He traces the history of highlife in urban Ghana during much of the 20th century and documents a range of figures that fueled the music's emergence, evolution, and explosive popularity. This book is generously enhanced by audiovisual material on the Ethnomusicology Multimedia website.
About the Author
Nate Plageman is Assistant Professor of History at Wake Forest University.
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Highlife Saturday Night
Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana
By Nate Plageman
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Nathan Plageman
All rights reserved.
Popular Music, Political Authority, and Social Possibilities in the Southern Gold Coast, 1890–1940
In January 1909, W. C. Robertson, the Gold Coast's secretary for native affairs, wrote a letter to Taki Obili, Accra's recently appointed Ga mantse, regarding two dances that had become popular among the city's young men and women. The letter insisted that the styles in question, osibisaaba and ashiko, were immoral and dangerous because they "produce[d] an excitement" that threatened the city's fragile semblance of civil and political order. Robertson urged Obili to ban these objectionable dances and to introduce severe punitive measures that would discourage their performance. Two years later, Obili rallied the city's mantsemei and drafted a series of bylaws that responded to the secretary's concerns. The laws, which constituted one of Obili's initial assertions of official authority, read:
1. The dances known as ASHIKO and SIBI SABA or any other dances of a similar nature are hereby suppressed, and whoever takes part or induces any other person to take part in any of the said dances shall be liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds and two sheep.
2. The ashiko and sibi saba songs or any other obscene songs are hereby suppressed, and whoever contravenes this bye-law shall be liable to a fine not exceeding five pounds and two sheep.
3. The foregoing bye-laws shall apply to the whole of the Accra Division, and all proceedings in respect of any breach of the same shall be taken in the Court of the Head Chief.
Trivial as these laws may seem, they provide great insight into the social and political fabric of many Gold Coast towns. A few decades prior, in 1877, the British had claimed Accra as the capital of their nascent Crown Colony, an act that prompted their fledgling government to transform the long autonomous Ga polity into the principal seat of their own administrative power. For the next many years, British officials worked to subsume city authorities', particularly chiefs' and elders', political, economic, and judicial clout. By the time of Robertson's letter, however, these traditional authorities retained influence alongside, not simply under, their colonial counterparts. In the decades that followed Obili's bylaws, Accra and many other towns in the southern parts of the colony did not simply become dominions of a dominant British state. On the contrary they remained, in the words of John Parker, "volatile arena[s] of cultural innovation and political competition."
Though excluded from the tug-of-war taking place among chiefs and their British counterparts, less prominent people also worked to increase their leverage within their rapidly changing confines. One measure that they used to participate in and shape urban areas' allocation of power was popular musical recreation. In fact, many of the musical styles that emerged in the years surrounding Robertson's and Obili's exchange were ones that young men and women used to express their frustration about their continued marginalization and lack of political voice. Such forms—broadly referred to here as "proto-highlifes" for their fusion of local and foreign musical elements, employment of a triple offbeat base rhythm, and importance as forerunners to the style that will be discussed in the next chapter—provided urban residents with a way to audibly and visibly express their concerns. As these proto-highlifes became increasingly prevalent, both local and British authorities came to view them as serious obstacles to their own efforts at effective governance. Their joint effort to criminalize and eliminate proto-highlife musical practice was neither a trivial act nor a symbolic flexing of colonial and chiefly muscle: it was a way to expand their authority into spaces and onto populations operating beyond their effective control.
Yet the tensions surrounding new popular musics were not simply administrative or political in nature. For most proto-highlife proponents, song and dance were ways to congregate with others of similar age, employment, and circumstance, blow off steam, and have some fun. In several towns, participants also approached these musical styles as mediums that could alter their gendered and generational standing. For many young men and women, the transformations of the early colonial period—including urbanization, the expansion of education, and the emergence of a cash economy—offered opportunities to escape their marginal position and established junior status. Aspirant and ambitious youth who moved to cities to find work and generate an income used popular music to give meaning to their relatively novel experiences, redefine their political rights, and claim social mobility. While chiefs, elders, and disapproving onlookers quickly decried young popular musical enthusiasts as "rebellious" and "dangerous," a closer look at their musical activities uncovers their true intentions as well as their self-perception as creative agents of social change.
Although the innovative proposals presented within proto-highlife recreation were eventually subsumed by established authorities such as Robertson and Obili, the confines of music and dance were important realms in which various urban residents negotiated the possibilities and limitations that marked the period of colonial rule. This chapter first reconstructs the hierarchal structures that organized Gold Coast communities in the period leading up to the establishment of British colonial rule, summarizes the importance that communities accorded to the axes of age, gender, and lineage, and charts how musical activities overwhelmingly reinforced existing lines of rank. It then outlines the aims and intentions of the early colonial state, examining how it used music to legitimize and extend its own claims to political power. From there, the chapter considers the popular musical styles that emerged in many southern towns, with particular attention to the ways in which young men and women used musical recreation to inculcate wider patterns of gendered and generational change. Finally, the chapter examines how established authorities moved to criminalize these new domains of song and dance and explains why young people remained unable to usurp their relatively marginal positions in urban contexts.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL HIERARCHIES IN THE SOUTHERN GOLD COAST
When the British created the Gold Coast Colony in 1874, they claimed prominence over a number of political entities and social conglomerations. Though relatively small in size, the Gold Coast encompassed numerous ethnic groups, including the Fante, Ga, Krobo, Akyem, and Akuapem, who had distinct languages, cultures, and histories. To the north lay Asante, a formidable and highly centralized kingdom that, following its origins in the mid-seventeenth century, became the region's most dominant political and economic force. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Asante expanded into a sizable empire that exerted influence over other hinterland societies as well as those to its south. Asante's power also enabled it to successfully repel the growing British presence emerging along the coast, but its autonomy came to an end in 1896, when British forces entered the capital of Kumasi, arrested the asantehene (king) Agyeman Prempeh I, and declared Asante a Crown protectorate. Five years later, the British annexed the Ashanti territory, a move that brought it, like the areas to its south, into a period of significant social and political change.
Though distinct, the societies located under the expanding arm of the Crown had a long history of economic and cultural exchange. An ongoing tide of trading partnerships, political alliances, war, and geographical proximity endowed regional communities with a basic set of shared characteristics. Most, for example, were highly stratified and allocated individuals status according to a range of factors including age, family and lineage, work or profession, wealth, spiritual power, and social clout. These arrangements were especially apparent among the Asante, where the position of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (chief), a community's pinnacle political position, was open only to a few distinct lineages that fiercely guarded their privileged status. Below the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and his royal court stood commoners, slaves, and a small but influential group of bureaucrats and wealthy traders who preserved their status through heredity and intermarriage. Among the Ewe, Fante, and Ga, each of whom lived along the southern coast, similar hierarchies governed day-to-day affairs. Each had recognized chiefs who worked alongside lineage elders to supervise local affairs and administer political, judicial, and economic policies.
Lineages—extended family groups that were comprised of several households and spanned generations—often worked to uphold a community's political and social structure. While they sought to ensure the well-being of their individual members, lineages also situated them into a gerontocratic order that honored descent, age, and life experience. As a result, families had considerable control over young men (mmerante]??]) and women (mmabawa), whom they expected to abide by elders' directives and work on behalf of their households and relatives. Over time, young people became full-fledged adults, but they did so according to their family's circumstances, elders' wishes, and individual achievements instead of a collective initiation or age-set promotion. In fact, young men and women could not complete the necessary requirements for adulthood, including marriage, employment, and accumulation of property, without the consent and cooperation of their lineage. Most Gold Coast communities considered marriage to be a family, rather than individual, affair and went to great lengths to ensure that their young men and women had fully matured prior to their courtship and union. While the length of a person's maturation varied, the general correspondence between age and status ensured that most individuals married, became adults, and achieved some mobility throughout the course of their lifetime. Outside of the lineage, however, only the most successful men and women came to hold positions of status. In Asante, these individuals (known as the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and mmerewa) were renowned as persons of respect and authority who had earned their distinction through a proven track record of wisdom, reputation, conflict mediation, and mastery of proverbial speech.
By the time of Robertson and Obili's exchange, individuals in various towns had begun to pursue social and political mobility through additional means. A few people gained sociopolitical status through entrepreneurial risk and the successful accumulation of wealth. During the nineteenth century, an era in which Europeans looked to replace the slave trade with a more "legitimate" pattern of commerce based on the exportation of raw materials in exchange for imported manufactured goods, economic accumulation became a viable means of garnering a favorable position vis-à-vis other community members. This was especially true along the southern coast, where an emergent mercantile class employed their trade-based wealth to purchase property, acquire dependents, and garner prestige. By the late nineteenth century, a small number of individuals had begun to flaunt personal riches as a means of securing enduring positions of social status and political rank. A few male traders used their financial and material resources to take up positions as chiefs: acts that directly challenged established systems based on heredity and lineage. Others used their wealth to forge an "alternative status index" based around private accumulation, Western education, and a disdain for manual labor. These individuals—to whom we will return in much greater detail in the next chapter—claimed positions of prominence by actively embracing imported goods, developing their own strata of membership, and taking up positions as intermediaries who could bridge local and colonial structures.
In the hinterland areas of Asante, structures of age and lineage proved rather durable well into the mid-nineteenth century. There, restrictions on trade left the ability to garner individual wealth as the exclusive license of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] ("big man"; pl. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), a position of distinction and appeal bestowed by the state. Becoming an [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] was a lengthy process reserved only for those who had accumulated considerable economic capital and proved consistently loyal to chiefs and political figures. Aspirant big men claimed the title over a series of years, culminating in public ceremonies marked by tremendous pageantry and elaborate displays of generosity. After their ascension, most [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] lived a "lifestyle that meshed well with the male ideology which underpinned gerontocracy, patriarchy, and the state," meaning that they did little to threaten the established social and political order that the asantehene and other chiefs endeavored to maintain.
The hierarchical structure of Gold Coast communities found further resonance in the expectations that governed understandings of gender. Throughout the colony, communities upheld a complex web of gender identities that did not simply distinguish men from women, but governed relationships between them. In the nineteenth century, Akan societies recognized multiple notions of masculinity and femininity that worked, alongside lineage, profession, and age, to provide individuals with a sense of rank. Since one's gender was fluid, individual men and women usually achieved some gendered mobility throughout the course of their lives. One accessible symbol of male status in the nineteenth century was gun ownership. Because most Gold Coast societies emphasized war as a male domain, the men who came to possess a gun and used it to demonstrate bravery and achieve military success earned status and praise from lineage and community members. A more fundamental component of becoming an adult man, as well as an adult woman, was marriage. For young men, marriage was an essential step in usurping their junior status within their lineage; for women it was a means to bear children, acquire long-term security, and enhance their spiritual and economic standing. Once married, men and women obtained a defined set of rights and expectations that regulated their relationships with their spouse, children, and extended family. Though married persons claimed enhanced status as adults, they remained under the control of patriarchal elders whose positions as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] endowed them with a senior masculinity highly regarded in local affairs.
The above distinctions between social groups, relationships between rank and privilege, and allure of positions of distinction (particularly those of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] were maintained through a closely guarded allotment of behaviors, symbols, and material items. Most Gold Coast communities mandated that particular commodities and forms of dress were the exclusive property of select persons of status and importance. As Emmanuel Akyeampong has shown, alcohol was a fluid reserved for individuals of power and wealth; so too were cash, imported manufactures, and many luxury items. The correspondence between a community's established sociopolitical hierarchy and public modes of presentation and display found further resonance in the domain of musical performance. Instead of providing individuals with a means of upsetting the status quo, many forms of song, dance, and music-making were mediums in which "community values [were] displayed, remembered, and reinforced." Occasional forms of music—those linked to community rites and ceremonies—were especially rigid domains that paid public recognition to chiefs, elders, and local authorities. Many of these styles, such as the Akan kete, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], and apirede, the Ga atumpan and obonu, and Ewe tumpane and bomba, were the preserve of high-ranking officials, who had exclusive claim to the possession of drums, trumpets, and other instruments integral to their performance. Such styles also obligated participants to adhere to a standardized repertoire of movement, song, and observation, according them little opportunity for individual self-expression or creative output.
While incidental music (informal styles affiliated with occupational tasks) and recreational music (forms of entertainment not bound to the conventions of ritual or ceremony) offered fewer restrictions, they usually catered to specific professional, gendered, or generational subsets instead of the community at large. The Asante [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and Gaadaawe, for example, were musical forms that predominately catered to women, while other styles such as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and asafo remained the domain of male hunters and soldiers. These musical forms linked participants together by emphasizing shared experiences and collective conditions, but did little to accommodate or incorporate members of the wider community. One exception to this pattern was what J. H. Kwabena Nketia has called "popular bands": informal ensembles open to individuals of different resources, professions, and talents. Most popular bands were organized and operated by youth who used local instruments and a regional pool of rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements to create new musical styles, garner public attention, and voice their sentiments. These popular bands offered participants a realm of creativity, but they were not immune from local supervision or authorities' directives. Most communities allowed these bands to rehearse and perform only once they had obtained the consent of chiefs and elders; a requirement that usually ensured that they maintained, rather than challenged, established conventions.
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Table of Contents
Ethnomusicology Multimedia Series Preface
Introduction: The Historical Importance of Urban Ghana’s Saturday Nights
1. Popular Music, Political Authority, and Social Possibilities in the Southern Gold Coast, 1890-1940
2. The Making of a Middle Class: Urban Social Clubs and the Evolution of Highlife Music, 1915-1940
3. The Friction on the Floor: Negotiating Nightlife in Accra, 1940-1960
4. "The Highlife was Born in Ghana": Politics, Culture, and the Making of a National Music, 1950-1965
5. "We Were the Ones Who Composed the Songs": The Promises and Pitfalls of Being a Bandsman, 1945-1970
What People are Saying About This
Going beyond a mere account of highlife's origins and development, it offers a history of popular music and its relationship to the cultural, gendered, political, and social fabric of urban Ghana.
Explores a relatively unknown period of an important social and cultural institutionhighlife musicand brings new insights and signficance to popular expressive forms.