Saxophone player Jimmy Beckley began his musical career in the 1970s as a clarinetist in bands with his guitarist brother, Robert Beckley. Between 1983-87 Jimmy ran his Jazz Club in Tesano and out of this came his Jazz and Highlife Combo. In 1989 the Combo released the ‘Twilight of the Volta’ album. Many top artists have played and jammed with Jimmy and his Combo including local jazz singers, Rama Brew and Avalon, traditional artists Captain Yaba and Atongo Simba, highlife musicians, Nat Buckle and Anthony Scorpion, and the famous Cameroonian sax player, Manu Dibango.
Takashi (Ga for hustler) is a highlife and Afro-fusion group, organized by guitarist
Cliff ‘Asante and vocalist/percussionist Kojo Essah who is, as he puts it, “a banker by day and a musician by night.” This 10-piece band combines western guitar and trumpet with the traditional atenteben bamboo flute and wooden gyil xylophone, and with African percussion from the Ga ‘kpanlogo’, Akan ‘fontomfrom’ and Malian ‘djembe’ traditions. The group’s bass line is provided by the giant gome frame drum popular among the Ga people of Accra. The aim of Takashi is to provide creative and progressive Africanbased
music to local and international fans. Takashi is also an NGO that doubles as an African research center and music consultancy.
The City Boys is a highlife guitar band formed in the 1970s that combines highlife music and concert party, or a local popular theatrical group that stages vernacular comic plays and highlife operas. Concert parties were initially imitations of American vaudeville and British music hall, complete with blackface minstrels, ragtime music and tap-dancing, all the rage with urban Ghanaian elites around 1900.
However, in the 1930s performers like Bob Johnson and theAxim Trio indigenized this art-form when they took it into the villages – with E.K Nyame’s Akan Trio, before making this comic theatre “fully Ghanaian” in the early 1950s. The concert parties and guitar bands of the late 1940s (Axim Trio and the groups of E.K. Nyame, Bob Ansah, Bob Cole, Kwaa Mensah, etc.) actively supported the nationalist struggle and after independence President Nkrumah supported creation of many new concert parties and highlife bands. By the mid-1970s there were more than 70 of these guitar bands cum concert parties operating in the country. Indeed, City Boys is one of the last active touring concert parties. City Boys was formed by J.A. Ampofo, popularly known as ‘Black Chinese’ in the early 1970s. The group is from Kumasi and has released many record albums. Over the years it has toured all over Ghana and has made several trips abroad. City Boys also experimented with highlife versions of reggae in the mid-1970s, long before other groups, such as Alpha Blondy
and Lucky Dube, emerged on the scene.
Singer/guitarist Ellis “Salaam” was born in Accra in 1955 and got his ftrst musical training in Ga cultural groups like Cultural Voodoo and Sammy Brown’s Agbafoi, which combined traditional Ga instruments with West African finger-picking guitar. Salaam then moved on to play withE.T. Mensah’s famous Tempos highlife dance band and other dance bands such as The Barristers and El Beats. In 1980 he formed the Cultural Imani acoustic group that consisted of guitar, gome bass drum and percussion. In August 1981 the band recorded at Bokoor Studio and some of the songs were released on the’ Guitar and Gun’ compilation highlife album by Cherry Red Records of the UK (re-released on CD in 2003 by Stems African Records of London). In the 1990s Salaam teamed up with his manager, Kobena Andah, and expanded the Cultural Imani band to include bass guitar and horns. In 1992 the group recorded the ‘Djenba’ (the Ga word for character) at the Accra studio of Nana Danso (Director of the Pan African Orchestra), which was fmanced by the German Development Agency. Salaam’s group is currently working on its second release entitled ‘Weku Shia’ (Family House).
Wulomei was founded in 1973 by Nii Ashitey with the encouragement of
the dramatist, Saka Acquaye. Ashitey, who had previously been a percussionist for The Tempos, Tubman Stars and Worker’s Brigade highlife bands, but decided to
create a more “rootsy” sound to, as he once put it, “bring something out for
the youth to progress and to forget foreign music and do their own thing”.
Except for an amplified guitar, played with the West African finger picking
style, Wulomei’s instruments are indigenous, with atenteben bamboo flutes
and a lot of traditional local percussion that includes the giantgome framedrums,
which provide a deep percussive “bass-line”.
Wulomei plays old Ga and Liberian sea shanties, gome songs, and the kolomashie and kpanlogo recreational songs of Accra and Akan highlifes. To portray the band’s indigenous orientation, Wulomei’s performers wear the white or yellow cloth and frilly hats of the Wulomei or traditional priests and priestesses of the Ga people of Accra.
In 1974 Wulomei released its debut record, ‘Walatu Walasa’ followed by, Wulomei in Drum Conference’ released on the Phonogram label. During the 1970s and 80s, Wulomei made a number of successful tours to Europe and the United States.
Following Wulomei’s initial success, there was a proliferation of so-called “Ga cultural groups” such as Blemabii, Dzadzeloi, Abladei, Agbafoi, and Ashiedu Keteke. Two members of Wulomei also created their own groups.
Wulomei’s gome drum player, ‘Big Boy’ Nii Adu, formed theBukom Ensemble and Wulomei’s lead female singer,NaaAmanua, formed the SukuTroupe. Nii Ashitey has retired and the second generation Wulomei is run by his son, Nii Tei Ashitey, and daughter, Naa Asheley.
Mac Tontoh, together with his saxophonist brother, Teddy Osei, and drummer Sol Amarfio, were founding members of the London-based Isibis3 band, which pioneered
rock in the early 1970s. The band has had a large number of hits in Europe
and the USA, and has toured all over the world.
Mac Tontoh began his career in th 1950s with the Broadway Dance Band and Teddy Osei ‘s highlife band, The Comets. After Teddy decided to go to London in 1962, Mac joined the Uhuru (Swahili for Freedom) highlife big band. In 1969 Mac joined Teddy’s London-based group, Cat’s Paw. Itwas out of this group that Osibisa was created in 1969. The name is derived from the old Fanti name for highlife – osibisaaba. Osibisa released its first single record in 1970 – ‘Music for Gong-Gong’, followed by a string of hit singles and albums like’ Osibisa’, ‘Heads’, ‘Happy Children’, ‘Welcome’, and ‘Black Magic Night’. Many of Osibisa’s singles such as ‘Sunshine Day’, ‘Dance the Body Music’ and ‘The Coffee Song’ made it into the British Top Ten. The band included West Indian, Nigerian and Ghanaian musicians such as Kiki Gyan, Koji Ayivor, Emmanuel Rentzos and Potato.
Besides trumpet for Osibisa, Mac Tontoh also played flugelhorn, traditional percussion and the Lobi xylophone that he learned from musicians who had settled in his village in Ashanti.
In the 1990s Mac Tontoh returned to Ghana, where he became an executive member ofMUSIGA, and in 2001, a Commissioner with the National Commission on Culture. He currently manages and plays trumpetlflugelhorn in a band called Osibisa Kete, which includes a huge battery of local percussion.
They have performed internationally and were featured at a recent Edinburgh Festival. Mac is also carrying out the ‘Mac and His Kids Project’ to teach African music in schools.
The seprewa or sankwa harp-lute is an instrument that was widely used in the Ashanti
and Brong Regions. It was first introduced into Ghana in 1740 when the Ashantis defeated
the Gyaman State in what is now Cote d’Ivoire. This Gyaman court instrument and its one-legged player were taken as war booty to Kumasi, where it became a favourite instrument (sika sankwa) of the Asantehene. Use of the instrument later spread throughout even the smallest villages, where it became associated
with funeral appellations, pa1rnwine drinking, and philosophical/moral commentary.
However, from the 1930s popularity ofthe instrument began to die out so Professor Nketia and Koo Nimo arranged for it to be taught by Osei Koranyke at the University of Ghana, beginning in 1990. Osei is from the western part of Ashanti and was taught the six-stringed seprewa harp-lute by his grandfather when he was eight years old. He is now reviving interest in the instrument.
Koo Nimo (Daniel Amponsah) is a folk guitarist who plays the traditional finger-picking Akan ‘palmwine’ guitar music of the 1920s combined with classical Spanish guitar, a
touch of jazz and Brazilian bossanova. He and his Adadam Agoranuna group have made many recordings and international tours.
Koo Nimo was born in 1934 in Fuase near Kumasi, and his musical career began with a highlife band at his Cape Coast school of Adisadel College.
He then left for the Medical Research Institute in Accra to study laboratory work. When he graduated in 1955, he returned to Kumasi and teamed up with guitarist Fred Akuffo to form the Antobre group and did his first recordings with the concert band of I. E. Mason.
In 1960 Koo Nimo began working as a biochemist at the chemistry department ofK wame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi (KNUST) and in 1966 he recorded with Dr. Gyasi’s guitar band. In 1968 he translated his own compositions into English, which were subsequently published in 1976 as ‘Ashanti Ballads ‘. That year he also won a scholarship to Salford University in Britain where he made friends with Kurt Anderson (Duke Ellington’s trumpeter), Freddie Green, (Count Basie’s guitarist),
Charlie Christian and Jack Duarte. He was also influenced by the jazz music of Django Reinhardt; Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis.
Koo Nimo has been on the Executive Committee ofMUSIGA, an advisor to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation and a member of the Ghana National Folklore Board of Trustees. He taught in the United States for several years at the Universities ofSeattle and Michigan. In the mid 1990s he was awarded an honorary doctorate by KNUST, where he is now teaching at its new Cultural Studies Unit.