Black Stars of Highlife

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We have recently completed a 25 minute documentary about Highlife, West Africa’s most popular form of music. It’s a project seven years in the making, and having raised completion funding through a crowdfunding campaign, we have begun submitting to international film festivals,
hoping to secure our first screening this Summer.

Tracing the history of Highlife music from its origins in Ghana and through its many       fusions (including Afrobeat), Black Stars of Highlife reveals a story of musical
cross-pollination between West Africa and the West.
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The idea that Africa is the cradle of popular music is a familiar one. Spirituals led to gospel music, to the blues, to jazz, soul,and funk. But while modern Western music was shaped by African influence, the popular music of Africa was being shaped by influences coming in the other direction. Our film explores a story of musical cross-pollination between West Africa and the West, specifically Ghana, where Highlife Music was born. It features interviews with some of the biggest names from a golden period of Ghanaian music, and with some of the DJs and labels responsible for the resurgent interest in Highlife and Afrobeat.

As much as the film is a celebration of the music (and the soundtrack includes excerpts from some outrageous tunes), the narrative is underpinned by the social and political context of the history of the music. Moreover, it touches on the failings of an industry which left many of its most cherished artists in financial hardship.

That their music has been rediscovered by an international audience decades after it was recorded gives our film a bit of a Buena Vista flavour. We only hope we can add to the momentum.

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DJs like the late John Peel and Charlie Gillet were the first to give a platform for “world music”. Of the myriad styles from around the globe encompassed by that term, the one which really crossed over into the mainstream of Western consciousness was  the dancefloor-friendly sound of Afrobeat. Highlife did not get the same international recognition, but Fela created his Afrobeat by blending Jazz with Highlife music.

Itself a hybrid musical style, nothing lends itself to fusion with other music quite like Highlife. In simple terms, Highlife is a mixture of indigenous African rhythms with Western instrumentation. It was named “Highlife” because it originated with ballroom bands playing American swing style music to the hoi polloi at exclusive gatherings, but it began to evolve as Ghanaian musicians had more and more freedom to incorporate their own rhythms as the independence movement gathered momentum.

“Highlife” became the umbrella term for all popular music in West Africa. There are two distinct styles — guitar Highlife and brass band Highlife — but common to both is the ethos of fusion. When Ghanaians started hearing Jazz, Soul, Rock and Funk coming out of America in the 60s and 70s, they quickly absorbed these influences, influences which themselves were of African origin. This was the so-called “boomerang effect”.

When people hear Highlife and Afrobeat for the first time, it surprises them how familiar it sounds — similar to the classic American soul, funk and psychedelic rock with which they are familiar, only with a more exotic flavour mixed in.

Around the turn of the century there was something of a goldrush on old African records. DJs from Europe and America (most notably Duncan Brooker, Miles Cleret and Frank Gossner) started digging in West Africa for rare grooves, and Western audiences got their first taste of music which had been long forgotten. That music has been bringing dancefloors to life ever since. The African music scene is still niche, but more and more people are coming into its discovery.

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Click on the link above for profiles of all the featured artists and contributors to the film.

C.K. MANN
EBO TAYLOR
TEDDY OSEI (OSIBISA)
NANA AMPADU (THE AFRICAN BROTHERS)
GYEDU-BLAY AMBOLLEY
KOFI AYIVOR (THE TEMPOS & OSIBISA)
AMARTEY HEDZOLEH (HEDZOLEH & THE PSYCHEDELIC ALIENS)
MALEK CRAYEM (THE PSYCHEDELIC ALIENS)
A.B. CRENTSIL (THE SWEET TALKS)
KOO NIMO
BESSA SIMONS (OSIBISA)
RALPH KARI-KARI (THE NOBLE KINGS)
VICTOR TIEKU (THE EGYPT 80 & Kampsite Music)
SAKRA AFRICA ORCHESTRA

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DICK ESSILFIE-BONDZIE (Essiebons Records)
CARLOS SAKYI (Ghana Copyright Administration)
JOHN COLLINS (Musicologist, University of Ghana)
MILES CLERET (Soundway Records)
MARTIN van AALST (Hippo Records & ChopTime Music)
SAMY BEN REDJEB (Analog Africa)