A brief history of Highlife Music in Nigeria (Part 1 of 4)

After the Seminar that Music Africa Awake held with the Highlife Musicians in Lagos Nigeria the founder of Music Africa Awake ( Prince Emeka Ojukwu ) he further said in the seminar that this is the time to bring back the dignity and values of African Music and Music Africa Awake will revive the Highlife Music by bringing it to the World stage and he let the people know that highlife music is music that we Nigerians and other African countries use in most of our occasions e.g Traditional wedding, child dedication Traditional Partys and etc… And he urged Nigerians and we Africans to support our Culture. Through this Music Africa Awake will document the history of Highlife from Part 1 to 4  follow us on this journey of Highlife Music.

I have been accused of being an old man by even my own parents for my fondness for Highlife music. While we may consider Highlife old school now, there was a time the genre was the most popular brand of music around. In the 50s and 60s, Highlife’s reach swept from the smallest coastal towns to the biggest cities. A perfect way to envision this is to imagine the popularity of contemporary Nigerian music today as dance music in clubs worldwide.

If colonialism had any blessings, Highlife music is one of them.

The invention (or is it a discovery?) of this genre is compelling. It began as an amalgam of western musical instruments and African expressions. Musical instruments of the West were utilised to midwife African sounds and it began in Sierra Leone and Ghana. Undoubtedly, this kind of music evolved from the interactions of our ancestors with western ways.

Ramblers Dance Band. Image: http://doublej.net.au/
Ramblers Dance Band. Image: 

In Ghana, this music was played by the Ramblers Band as well as the Uhuru Dance Band amongst other notable bands. In fact, it was in Ghana that the name Highlife was coined. This name prescribed a social class for the music –upper class—and understandably so. Highlife music was a deliberate deviation from the ballroom waltz, foxtrot and chacha.

In the late 40s, there was a Ghanaian pharmacist who set up a band called Tempos. His name was Emmanuel Teytey Mensah and he is widely regarded as the father of Highlife music. He popularised his brand of Big Band Orchestra and toured in Nigeria in 1950.

E.T. Mensah. Image: globalgroovers.com
E.T. Mensah

That tour changed our musicscape for good. Interestingly, it was the journey of Highlife music into Nigeria that brought about its vertical mobility within social classes. The name Highlife became a misnomer in the sense of social standing and a new meaning began to lend itself to this music, it became the music of good times as well as the music of the people.

A bevvy of hitherto ballroom musicians dumped the western sounds they were playing and began to mine traditional tunes. A widespread subculture evolved and every ethnic conglomerate contributed the richness of their experiences to the body of Highlife music by bringing something about them into the music. In this way, Highlife music became international as well as regional; in every culture and pole of Nigeria, people were doing Highlife music and they could rightfully own the sound they made.

Of course, Lagos and Ibadan were at the centre of this renaissance. Hotels had dance rooms as well as resident bands that played Highlife on special days. A good number of these hotels, like many practitioners of Highlife music itself, are now extinct but Gondola bar in Yaba still exists albeit in its own ruins.

Rex Lawson. Image: thandie.net
Rex Lawson. Image: thandie.net

Popular Nigerian Highlife musicians of this era were Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Eddie Okonta, Victor Uwaifo and Roy Chicago. Many of these musicians began as band members under the big jazz orchestra owned by Bobby Benson, a musician as well as a businessman who owned the Caban Bamboo which was later renamed, Hotel Bobby. This edifice today also lies in its ruins and is cordoned off by family litigations.

Highlife music was one of the casualties of the Nigerian civil war. A decent majority of the Highlife musicians were of eastern origin and were behind Biafran lines during the war. Needless to say, they were not exempted from the economic hardship of the newly seceded state. Rex Lawson became a fisherman and bar owner in this time and had not quite risen to his former glory when he was cruelly snatched by death in an automobile mishap en route a concert. His death at a young age was another puzzling trend in Highlife music with the other unnatural deaths of Israel Nwobia, Ayinde Bakare, Celestine Ukwu and Crosdale Juba. Time and season were, however, kind to a select few and one of them being Dr.Victor Olaiya an octogenarian who lived to tell his own tale.

Victor Olaiya. Image: fujiipop.files.wordpress.com
Victor Olaiya.

Highlife music is occasionally fused into contemporary Nigerian music nowadays, Flavour and Omawumi being the popular practitioners. Of course, the continued reign of Highlife music in the eastern region might be responsible for this kind of syncretism. In the west, two genres have usurped Highlife music in less than two generations: Juju and Fuji music


Vestiges of Highlife music hangs around in a few numbers at the occasional Lagos Owambes or rehashed songs that sometimes get popular as to be played on music video channels on cable television. However, our contemporary musicians are not doing enough of listening to the old greats of Highlife whose music is strewn all over the internet on Youtube as well as on blogs of Caucasian ethnomusicologists.

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