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Nigeria Vs Ghana Highlife Music in the 60's

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

Nigeria and Ghana have a lot in common, both are in West Africa and both are Power Houses on the West Coast, Both Speak English and both were colonized by the British.

Both seem to have a kind of unwritten Rivalry in Sports, Music and Entertainment.

We have Nollywood and they have Gollywood. We have Wiz Kid, Davido and Burna Boy, They have Sakodi, Shatawale and Castro. We have Jay Jay Okocha and they have Abedi Pele.

In football they used to thrash Nigeria in the 60's and 70's and we replied in kind in the 80's 90's and in the Millenium. Ghana got her independence in 1957 with Osagefo Kwame Nnkruma spearheading the movement while Nigeria had her's in 1960 Spearheaded by the Likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and the late Sadauna, Ahmadu Bello and many others.

One area that really produced positive rivalry was in the Highlife music genre. This genre of music was very popular in the 50's , 60's and 70's. A few of the Highlife giants of this era were ET Mensah, The Ramblers band, and Uhuru. While Nigeria could boast of the Bobby Bensons, Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Celestine Okwu, just to mention a few.



King of Highlife ET Mensah album sleeve


There is no disputing the fact that the Ghanaians were the originators of Highlife and they were the masters . In fact saying the Ghanaians taught the the Nigerians this genre of music would not be out of place. I am going to quote Nigeria Monthly Magazine to buttress this point. " Ghana has always been Nigeria's big brother when it comes to Highlife . Ghanaian Highlife stars dominated the Nigerian social club scene and nightclubs due to the authenticity of their sound and immense melodies. Ghanaian stars were the toast of of Lagos and played and played Nightclubs raking exclusive money."

Not done yet, I am going to yet quote Wikipedia again, to press home the point of Ghanaian mastership. " In the 20's Ghanaian musicians incorporated foreign influences like Foxrot and Calypso with Ghanaian rhythms like osibisaba . Highlife was associated with local African aristocracy during the colonial period and was played by numerous bands including the Jazz Kings, Cape Coast Sugar Babes, and Accra Orchestra along the country's coast". The high class members who enjoyed the music in select clubs gave the genre its name, by enjoying Highlife to the exclusion of the poor, it was actually the poor local people who could not enter these exclusive clubs of the elite that gave the genre its name, Highlife.



Ghana Highlife Band


The Highlife music was done in Ghanaian languages like, Twi, Fante, Ewe, to mention a few of course as well as English, while the Nigerian Highlife musicians did theirs in Ibo, Yoruba, Vernacular, Efik, Ibibio, Kalabari, Hausa just to mention a few. They were so many Ghanaian Highlife superstars like Ben Brako, Nana Achampong, Ofori Apomsah, Joe Mensah, The list could go on and on.


ET Mensah

He is called the King of Highlife. He led the band called the Tempos and he found fame all over Africa. He was born in 1919 in Accra, Gold Coast Ghana and had his primary and secondary education in Accra. He had by age 12 learned how to play the Piccolo and flute from the Accra Orchestra, a school children Band. He also later learned to play the alto saxophone. As mentioned earlier he was the leader of the band called the Tempos and had his 15 minutes of fame when he and his band were billed to perform in a concert with Louis Amstrong.

European soldiers stationed in Accra who used to have jam sessions started inducting African musicians to jam along with them and with time the whole group was dominated by Africans, with ET Mensah as head, that's how the Tempos came about.

It is said that the Highlife music started to decline in the 60's but ET Mensah still got shows and tours while his other Ghanaian groups were not doing so well. He did a collaboration with Nigeria's legendary Victor Olaiya.



ET Mensah & Victor Olaiya


Nigerian Highlife Scene

The strength of Nigeria lies in its diversity, and pre independence Nigeria and post Independence Nigeria before the unfortunate events of 1966 and the subsequent war of 1967-70, was a very glorious time for Highlife music. Top civil servants ( The New Whiteman) and their British masters socialized and danced at exclusive clubs situated in the GRA's i.e government reservation areas, of course no need to tell that they were dancing and enjoying Highlife. Those who have been opportune to read Chinua Achebe's

"No Longer at Ease" would be able to capture in their minds eyes what I am trying to describe here.

We had giants like Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Eddie Okonta, Bobby Benson, who incidentally was a mentor to a lot of the budding Highlife musicians of that era and of course a Grammarian and a proper Lagos Boy. You also had the likes of Adeolu Akinsanya, Roy Chicago, Fatai Rolling Dollars, Mike Ejiaga, Celestine Okwu, Sir Victor Uwaifo, The Peacocks band, Osadebey and of course our own Fela Anikulapo Kuti, not forgetting Tunde Nightingale.

In fact the list could go on and on. If you took a critical look at the list, you would see it consisted mostly of musicians from the Eastern, Western and the Mid Western region as Nigeria was structured then. The unfortunate civil war brought a hiatus to the Eastern region musicians who had to relocate to Biafra and the others were on the Federal side.



Eddie Okonta



Roy Chicago album sleeve



Victor Olaiya



Just like I featured ET Mensah as an embodiment of Ghanaian Highlife, no disrespect to other Ghanaian Highlife Artists. I am caught between featuring either Victor Olaiya or Rex Lawson as Nigeria's equivalent. I have opted to feature Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, maybe I am biased because he comes from my side of Nigeria. Having said that I think I would not be out of place to say Lawson is one of the greatest Highlife exponents ever!


Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson

Rex lawson was so good at his craft and so involved was he that he used to sometimes cry during the rendition of some of his songs. There is no Highlife musician in Nigeria Living or dead whose music moves audiences and evokes so much emotion like Rex lawson. He was born in 1935 and belonged to the Kalabari tribe of Buguma in Rivers state Nigeria. Rex Unfortunately died in 1971 on his way to a concert in Warri, Delta state Nigeria.

I am sure a lot of you would have heard of the super talented and sexy musician from Nigeria called Flavor. Well Flavor got his break when he remixed one of Rex's song called "Sawale" From this song he got his 15 minutes of fame and the rest as they say is History. Such was the power of Lawson's music. He had such great hits like," Love me Adure", "Sawale", " Beri Bote", "So ala teme", "Ibinabo" " Susanah Pangolo" "Yellow sisi" " Jolly papa"

And so many others. Rex lawson could sing very well in Igbo language as his mum was from there.



Rex Lawson album sleeve


Rex lawson began his career in Port Harcourt as a band boy for Lord Eddysons star light melody orchestra. He served apprenticeships under giants like Bobby Benson, Sammy Obot, Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo and other Nigerian and Ghanaian masters. Lawson later formed his own band named Sir Rex Jim Lawson and his Mayors band of Nigeria, it was also known as the "Rivers Men". Rex lawson's music was so good, he and his band went on a tour of London in 1970, that was akin to going to Paradise back then. Rex had over 100 songs in his archives and it was said of lawson that money was not his primary aim of playing music but the passion. In those days most Highlife bands used the trumpet to dictate the direction of the music, but Lawson introduced the saxophone to his own music breaking away with tradition. We could go on and on forever, but have to stop here. The real trouble starts when I have to select the few Highlife songs that would grace the Home page bearing in mind the 30 minutes music space I got against the retinue of all these Highlife giants songs.

Many thanks to the following, Wikipedia, Nigeria Monthly magazine, ISRA music box, Pulse Nigeria and of course the generous media whose images we have used.


Click the link below to listen to the music of the Artists featured on the Blog


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