Journalism in the service of society

Nigeria’s dominance of African music… A case of history repeating itself?

The world has become one global space where you cannot live in isolation. It is impossible for one group of people to deliberately close their ears to the music of other groups of people. Instead, today’s musicians must continue to be receptive to new ideas from other cultures without undermining their own.

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Photo montage: Courtesy BBC

MUSICIANS from many countries in Africa, including Cameroon, Uganda, Kenya and Ghana are not happy about Nigeria’s dominance of the contemporary Afrobeat musical culture which has assumed a global dimension. They are not comfortable with the fact that they have been relegated to the position of near-insignificance.

Some of them, like Cameroon, have advocated the banning of Nigerian music and musicians in their countries — to allow their own musicians enjoy full attention. Although not openly demonstrated, opposition appears to be mounting in neighbouring Ghana where workshops and interviews are being intentionally conducted to find out why Ghana, which used to dominate in those days with highlife music, is now lagging behind.

They cannot understand why Ghanaians seem to have an unwavering preference for Nigeria’s WizKid, Burna Boy and Davido when Sakodie, Shatta Wale and Stonebuoy are actively and visibly on ground. They find it difficult to explain why Nigerian stars on the same bill with their Ghanaian counterparts even on their own soil, should receive considerably loud and deafening applause in reaction to their live performances while their own artistes attract little or no acclaim. The Nigerian artistes also smile away with bigger remuneration. Their interrogations and findings have erroneously put their predicament down to lack of proper promotion and sufficient investment in production. The truth of the matter is that history is repeating itself – this time – in reverse!

WHAT is playing out with this new development is a reversal of situations where Ghana became the home of highlife in those days, many thanks to Emmanuel Tetteh Mensah (whose music became the prototype for big band highlife in West Africa) and now, Nigeria is reigning supreme with Afrobeat with Fela Anikulapo-Kuti as major influence and inspirer. Highlife is a Ghanaian musi-cultural phenomenon while Afrobeat is a Nigerian thing. And the fact that Afrobeat has become world beat is an added advantage to the situation that they now find themselves.

 Nigeria suffered the same fate in the 50s and 60s when the supremacy of highlife was felt all over West Africa: E.T. Mensah’s Tempos Band, Gerry Hansen’s Ramblers, The Black Beats, The Star Gazers, The Comets and more from Ghana, all made frequent trips to Nigeria where they were more appreciated and sought-after than their own country. For many years, the University of Ibadan annual Havana Dance, reputed for patronising the top bands in West Africa, often settled for Ghanaian groups in preference to Nigerian outfits; and were also heavily remunerated. At some point, around 1956, The Nigerian Union of Musicians objected to the domination of the Nigerian music scene by their Ghanaian counterparts and banned Mensah in particular from playing in any hotel in Nigeria. This crisis led to a serious dispute between the Union (which was demanding for reciprocal exchange), and Mensah on the one hand, and Bobby Benson on the other: Benson, who was both musician and club owner at the time, saw no reason why he would not make his venue available to Mensah and any Ghanaian band for that matter. It was an opportunity for him to make plenty of money. He was taking care of business.  

 In 1962, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation which was the biggest promotional medium at the time, was instructed by government to patronise Nigerian highlife as Ghanaian highlife had dominated the airwaves to the point of complete exclusion. As a matter of fact, it was thought at the time that the only way to succeed as a highlife musician was to pattern your style along the Ghanaian approach – until Bobby Benson intervened with Taxi Driver — to set the tone and style for a more Africanised highlife type to thrive in Nigeria.

MUSIC as an expression of culture is moving. But it would seem as though it is moving faster in Nigeria than Ghana where highlife is so firmly rooted as a mono-cultural idiom that its influence is difficult to shed. Perhaps because of Nigeria’s vast population and cultural diversity, her musicians have become more adventurous, amenable, conscious and enterprising. When Fela was changing the face of West African music with  jazz-influenced highlife in 1965, leading Ghanaian outfits  such as  Uhuru Dance Band and The Ramblers were  reveling in big band instrumentation where personnel was increased to 20 and 21 players respectively. Upholding the purity of highlife, they also mixed performance with dance music pieces, sometimes sounding like the orchestras led by Britain’s Victor Sylvester and Joe Loss. This effort did not add value to the development of African music.

When, in 1971, Nigeria was celebrating the breakthrough of Afro beat by Fela with Jeun Koku, Ghana failed to look in Nigeria’s direction for acknowledgement and inspiration. Instead of embracing this unprecedented resurgence of African music, she was mounting the memorable “Soul- to- Soul” festival in Accra, featuring Wilson Pickett, Ike and Tina Turner, The Staples Singers, Roberta Flack, Carlos Santana and others from America – for one of the country’s biggest parties. The eventual effect of this massive cultural put-on was that imported records played in discos became more popular than live bands, many of which broke up.      

When, in the 1990s, The Remedies, Plantashun Boys, TuFace Idibia and later PSquare, 9ce and others were preparing the ground for the ongoing Afrobeat revolution in Nigeria, their Ghanaian counterparts were still holding on tenaciously to the purity of highlife. As a matter of fact, the closest that the country’s exploration and search for new music went was a hybrid they described as burger and hip-life — so labeled because of the preponderance of highlife elements that characterised the fusion. And the only prominent exponent of this seemingly new form was George Darko who was initially based in Germany.  

The likes of  ex-Broadway Dance Band and guitarist Ebo Taylor who seemed to have the capacity for playing the role that Fela played  in Nigeria in terms of setting a new agenda for the music, did not lead the way.  Instead, he favoured a more professionally musical approach, using advanced chords of the modern jazz type as vehicle for driving harmonic progressions — without any significant departure from the Ghanaian highlife tradition. In fairness to Taylor, who is a great musician, he has taken highlife to inspired musical heights but has not added value to the advancement of modern African music.

CALLED ‘Afrobeats,’ this derivative coinage gives today’s thriving music industry a cutting edge. And of course, the new generation of Nigerian musicians are taking full advantage of this new cultural evolution, drawing inspiration from Fela’s Afro beat (without the ideology) and using technology to create harmonies and rhythms of the typical call–and-response pattern of African music. With Fela as major influence and inspirer all the way from 1965, new generations of musicians have, over time, imbibed and cultivated a culture of Afrobeat – whose articulation is alien to Ghana and other African countries.

The world has become one global space where you cannot live in isolation. It is impossible for one group of people to deliberately close their ears to the music of other groups of people. Instead, today’s musicians must continue to be receptive to new ideas from other cultures without undermining their own. This is because music as an expression of culture is dynamic. It is moving and travelling endlessly. In the process, it is developing, evolving, fusing, sometimes reverting and even borrowing from itself.

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