HistoryOCT 19 EDITIONTrending


By: Stanley Nwachukwu & Victor Olupese

Before Nigeria gained Independence, and down through the 60’s, Highlife has always been a mainstay of Nigerian music. When we think about old Nigerian music, and try to delve into our history of the arts, we ultimately share the bias that Afrobeat has been the most dominant genre in Nigerian music. And that is fine.

Fela Kuti’s work revolutionized the future of Nigerian music, and continues to represent the best parts of our sound culture. But if you go further, down through the 60’s you would find that Highlife music originated from Ghana in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and later spread to most English speaking countries in the region like Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gambia via Ghanaian workers who migrated to these countries in the 1930s.

The actual origin of Highlife music is not known to me, but it seems to have a blend of the traditional “Akan” (a nation and indigenous ethic group residing on the Gulf of Guinea in the southern regions of the Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa) music using western instrument and a lot of Afro-Cuban “guajeo” influence. In the 60s and 70s, Highlife music was the most popular genre in these countries, associated with all parties and events, be it high or low profiled.

The lyrics of Highlife music usually tell the story of everyday life’s struggle of the people in these countries, be it Political, Economic, Romance or to Eulogize popular personalities in the communities or just to tell folklores. With the influx of western musical genre like Disco, Funk, R&B, Hip-hop etc, in the 80s,


Highlife lost its popularity with the younger generation, though night clubs which were highly westernized in these countries would not play Highlife music because it was seen as “local” and “uncivilized”, Highlife still remained the main genre of music in traditional events like Marriage ceremonies, Burials and High profile Birthday Parties. Following World War II, Nigerian music started to take on new instruments and techniques, including electric instruments imported from the United States and Europe. Rock N’ roll, soul, and later funk, became very popular in Nigeria, and elements of these genres were added to juju by artists such as IK Dairo.

Meanwhile, highlife had been slowly gaining in popularity among the Igbo people, and their unique style soon found a national audience. At the same time, Apala’s Haruna Ishola was becoming one of the country’s biggest stars. When the Union Jack was lowered for the last time by the British colonial masters in Lagos, and the Nigerian Green-White- Green flag was hoisted, Highlife was the ruler of the streets. Ghana actually does have a lot of influence on our music. Right from the 50s and 60s Ghana has always been Nigeria’s big brother when it comes to music.

Ghanaian Highlife stars dominated Nigerian social scene and nightclubs due to the authenticity of their sound and immersive melodies. Ghanaian stars were the toast of Lagos, and played Night clubs, raking exclusive money. For many Nigerian bands, they had to travel to Ghana to gain music knowledge before returning to Nigeria to replicate that new direction. Even Fela, was influenced in Ghana. In 1963, Fela moved back to Nigeria, re-formed Koola Lobitos and trained as a radio producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All Stars. In 1967, he went to Ghana to soak up their sounds, and think up a new musical direction. That was when Kuti first called his music Afrobeat. Fela was later banned from Ghana by the government in 1978, after riots broke out in Accra during his concert, when he was performing the song ‘Zombie’.

IK Dairo performing in the 60’s

Music was recorded and played live. And the best spots to consume live music was at the Lagos clubs, which had a mixture of Ghanaian and Nigerian Highlife stars. That mean that the music was played by bands. The Ghanaian E. T. Mensah, easily the most popular highlife performer of the 1950s, toured Nigeria frequently, drawing huge crowds of devoted fans. Bobby Benson & His Combo was the first Nigerian highlife band to find audiences across the country.

After the civil war in the 1960s, Igbo musicians were forced out of Lagos and returned to their homeland. The result was that highlife ceased to be a major part of mainstream Nigerian music, and was thought of as being something purely associated with the Igbos of the east.

Saturday nights are usually the big party night back then, the big party and dance night. However, a few performers kept the style alive, such as the great Ramblers Dance Band. Formed in 1962 as a result of the big band highlife boom instigated by E.T. Mensah, the Ramblers were one of Ghana’s most popular touring and recording groups throughout the 60s and 70s. Under the leadership of tenor saxophonist/arranger Jerry Hansen they developed a highly individual style, featuring two lead vocalists singing in close harmony over a lush 15-piece orchestral backing, mixing highlife with soul and Latin material. By the end of the 60s they had won large followings in neighbouring Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Jim Reeves was popular for his soulful Country-Music lyrics

Some of Nigeria big time then were Yoruba singer and trumpeter Victor Olaiya (the only Nigerian to ever earn a platinum record), Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oliver De Coque, Celesti’ne Ukwu, Oriental Brothers, Sonny Okosun, Victor Uwaifo, and Orlando “Dr. Ganja” Owoh, whose distinctive toye style fused Juju and Highlife.

Today, highlife in Nigeria primarily enjoys the status of classical pop music, yet several prominent Highlife artists remain on the scene, such as Onyeka Onwenu and Sunny Neji. In Nigeria, Highlife Music has influenced every genre being performed today by indigenous artists, be it Reggae, Rock, Hip-hop, you can find its influence in the sound. To me, what most artists from these countries call “Afro-pop” today is actually a fusion of Highlife music with any other genre of western music.

Musical Instrument

You might not know this, but Nigeria has many fascinating local musical instruments. Each of them played important roles in the history of Nigerian music, and we want to tell you more about them. Find out about 6 unique musical instruments and their names, so that you can feel closer to the heritage Nigeria.


A fascinating musical instrument from Nigeria is the ogene. It is a traditional Igbo instrument, and it usually consists of two conical iron bells connected to one another at the top like cherries (big long metal cherries). You need to use a wooden stick to play it. The sound of the ogene comes from vibration of the hollow bells when they are struck with the stick.


This peculiar percussion instrument is of Yoruba origin. It is made out of dried out vine gourds, which is why each instrument looks different. The gourd has to dry for a few months, and then the pulp and seeds are removed. After it is scrubbed clean, it is covered with a net with cowries or beads woven into it. It is interesting to note that similar instrument is also common in Latin American countries.


Known by many names, depending on whom you ask, this instrument is often regarded as the ‘talking drum’ thanks to the sounds it can produce that resemble human speech. It is usually hourglass in shape, but you can meet other variations. Unlike many other drums of the region, this one has two drumheads that are connected by tension cords made of leather.


Even though it is technically a drum, ekwe looks like nothing you would expect. It is made out of a hollowed out wooden log; it has two rectangular openings and a handle. Musicians usually use small sticks to beat out a rhythm. Ekwe was once used for communication, as its sounds can be heard from quite far away. These days, you can hear it at traditional events.


Hausa musical instruments and their names Let’s take a little break from the drums and talk about a long metal trumpet known as kakaki. When we say ‘long’, we mean it, as this instrument can reach up to four metres in length. Kakaki are only played by men at king’s palace. It is mostly used by the Hausa people in Nigeria.


Let’s end this overview with something that literally translates as ‘big drum’. This type of drum is the largest among the aforementioned drums; it is made out of wood and ornately carved. One of the most popular carvings is the face of the goddess of the sea Olokun. This instrument is frequently used alongside talking drums, as well as Bata and sakara drums. Back in the day, it was only played in king’s service, and if anyone else dared to use it for other purposes, they could be arrested for sedition.


Oburoni Woewu /Antie Christie (7″) Decca 45-GWA 4058
Murusu Maye Den / Abonsam Fireman (7″) Decca 4 5 – G W A 4071
The Ramblers International – Kae Dabi / Ponko Abodam album art Kae Dabi / Ponko Abodam (7″) Decca 45-GWA. 4057
Oyi Edze (7″) Decca 45-GWA 4072
The Ramblers International – Womma Wonka album art Womma Wonka 2 versions Decca
The Ramblers International – Kosor Kopor / Mitee Momo album art Kosor Kopor / Mitee Momo (7″, Single, Mono) Decca 45-GWA.4115
The Ramblers International – Nyimpa Dasenyi / Work And Happiness album art Nyimpa Dasenyi / Work And Happiness (7″) Decca 45-GWA 4116
The Ramblers International – Ewuraba Artificial / Obra Rehwem album art

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