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John Collins explains why Ghanaian musicians are ditching “highlife”

Professor John Collins, an ethnomusicologist, has provided an explanation for why many of the contemporary Ghanaian musicians are unwilling to be associated with the highlife genre.

On Wednesday, March 20, 2024, John Collins—who has played a significant role in chronicling Ghanaian music in works like Highlife Time—said to Winston Amoah on Joy FM’s Super Morning Show that it was acceptable for a newer generation of musicians to stray from more traditional forms of art.

John Collins explains why Ghanaian musicians are ditching “highlife.

John Collins claimed that highlife has gone through several phases and that although the highlife element is still present in most modern Ghanaian music, the younger generation prefers to refer to it by other names.

“The biggest part of social change in any society is the youth. They will recycle the culture, and often they will ensure that the culture they are recycling has been inherited from their ancestors, but they want to put it in a different bottle.

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And if we went back to the 1920s, I am sure there were people complaining bitterly about why they changed the name from osibisaba (which is the old Fante name for highlife) to highlife. I am sure there was controversy about this. But sometimes it doesn’t really matter about the name. Today we call it Highlife jama Jama Beat. The youth gave it that name. It wasn’t the old name for highlife. I think it’s a natural process.

The same thing happened in Nigeria with Afrobeats. You know when the came up with Afrobeats in 2012. And by the way it was a Ghanaian. I think it was DJ Abrantie that coined it,” he told Winston Amoah.

John Collins, a music Professor at the University of Ghana also noted that during a talk at Felabration in Nigeria, there was a confusion between the youth and the older musicians about the introduction of Afrobeats which they thought was an adulteration of Fela’s Afrobeat (without an ‘s’).

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John Collins said he had to mediate the disagreement at a meeting at Victoria Island.

“The youth has the right to rename anything because language itself changes, culture is always changing and the dynamo is change is always the youth. So sometimes they will reject the old names but they inherited the old tradition, so they re-bottle it in a new form. It’s a natural process that goes on. So sometimes maybe the word highlife may not be popular anymore, but highlife is still with Ghanaians,” he further noted.

Highlife, which was said to have earned its name in the 1920s, is attributed to early musicians like Jacob Sam and the Kumasi Trio, among others. The genre had foreign influences from Liberia’s Kru Sailors, regimental music, and, basically, the introduction of western musical instruments into Ghanaian traditional sounds.

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The variants of highlife have gone through various changes over time as different musicians have tried experimenting with other rhythms through fusions.

Some Ghanaians have bemoaned the seeming extinction of the genre, blaming it on its neglect by the younger generation of musicians.

In the meantime, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), is considering making highlife an intangible heritage at the behest of the Ghana Culture Forum.


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