Life Through the Sounds of Ghana

Africa is the focal point for all things percussive. We forget easily the influence Africa has had on government, pop culture, food, but also music! Music through the world of various African cultures, created some of the important musical implications you see in modern musical societies. Through my time here on planet earth, I recognize my past and future through my African ancestry of Ghana.

It feels like it was just yesterday when I would nervously prepare for culture day at my middle school. I could almost smell the tikka masala my friend made for the class to educate her peers on Indian cuisine. Or, the harsh stomping of calculated foot work from my peer as he embodied the essence of Irish dancing. For me, it was always a tricky topic. Culture day was designed to trace back your ancestry and discover your bloodline in a more intricate way. My ancestors were slaves. They were brought to America to be herded as cattle through rigorous work and on-going oppression. It was this fact, that it was hard to trace anything before the overruling of my people, as many of my kind feel the same struggle.

My grandmother knew a substantial amount of information regarding our family descendence. She would proclaim to me in a proud gesture, “Isaac, our family originated from Ghana”. I could remember the look I would give her as she smiled proudly, grabbing a stack of old papers. I could remember the fragile texture of the documents as she held them with poise. The documents explained our family tree and showed the accuracy of my grandmother’s statement. The only time the conversation surfaced in my life surrounded culture day. But why was I so uninterested in the facts and knowledge of my past? My mother also discussed that we may have had roots embedded in Nigeria long ago. These two entities, floated in my head for years to come.

Maybe it was because I partly could not connect well to that part of my past, as being African American established its own culture or sub culture in the African diaspora. Music of my ancestors however, would fuel this passion inside that grew with more flames, as I embarked on a musical African journey. As time went on, culture day became a chance for me to express my African roots through song and dance. The music of Ghana still sends tingles throughout my spine as I feel the past linger over me. Still embracing the traditional sound, Ghana has remained a form of modern music and a template for artistic excellence.


Music of Ghana

With many styles and variations of traditional music of Ghana, a very polarized and recognizable genre of Ghana’s repertoire is Highlife. During their past interactions as a colony of the British Empire, Highlife originated through the present-day Ghana in the beginning of the 20th century. With traditional roots of Akan music sprouting through the genre, similar melodic and rhythmic structures are played with Western instrumentation. With variations of guitars and jazzy horns the genre gained notoriety through the beautiful people of Igbo of Nigeria post World War II. According to Wikipedia, in the 1960s Highlife became a huge Nigerian focal point for national identity. Highlife remained a prevalent force until sub genres such as Hiplife made its musical debut.

The music origins of Ghana can be divided geographically into two parts: Northern Ghana, which was developed through the Ghanaians of Mande and Gur speaking collective, and the southern coastal area of Ghana developed by Ghanaians speaking Kwa dialect such as Akan. Northern Ghana positioned a heavy influence of Sahelian musical implications. With a smooth mixture of stringed instrumentation such as the Gonjey fiddle along with wind instrumentation embodied by Flutes and Horns, the traditional sound creates an ambience of different sounds. With the style set in Chromatic or Pentatonix scale, the sounds of northern Ghana are accompanied by voice in form of praise singing or storytelling through Griot followed by talking drums, Brekete bass drums or gourd drums. The Balafon is a Gourd reverberated Xylophone which is birthed from the family of struck idiophones. This instrument creates Gyil music which is a popular influence of northern Ghana music.

The sounds of the southern coast rely heavily on the strict patterns of the bells and drums paired with strong harmonized song. With the incorporation of drums and dance through the talking drum Fontomfrom. The southern coast embodies musical communication surrounding social topics and or storytelling. Kete and Adowa drums lend to spiritual traditional sounds as religious undertones reach the core of Ghana’s music. During the Gold Coast period, European brass bands, Sea shanties and distinct guitar styles helped form Highlife music.



According to Wikipedia, Ghana became an independent nation in 1957. Ghana adopted many Caribbean musical influences. High life’s incorporation of rock, jazz, ska and soukous further developed the sounds of Ghanaian pop music. Throughout the 1970s many countries gravitated to the intriguing sounds such as Ghana’s musical interpretation of Osibisa’s Afro Rock.  Guitar instrumentation melted into the mix of Ghana’s traditional music throughout 1930s to 1960s. Dancing styles through high life developed during World War II, as American and United Kingdom integrated into the Ghanaian culture bringing over jazz and swing. Bands such as The Tempos”, “King Bruce” and “Ebo Taylor” led the influential movement of pop music during the 1950s and 1960s.




Hip Hop and Hip Life

With the progression of music during the 1990s a new generation formed a valuable musical offspring of highlife. Hip life is a Ghanaian music style that infuses with Ghana’s traditional rooted sounds with modern day hip hop. Founder of the unique style, Reggie Rockstone formed the music style through his time in the United States, incorporating the two genres effortlessly. At the time, Hip hop began a progression of musical change and lyricism on a global scale.  Ghana artists that further developed high life through their music, consist ofSarkodie”, “Samini”, “Ayigbe Edem”, and “Sherifa Guna”.



When you dive into a culture that is so important to your life, through past stories and ancestry, it’s hard to connect when all you know is a certain part of your history. With music however, the development through learning about one’s past can be more impactful than just words and facts. Music can give you a better understanding for previous timeframes and build an understanding through the language of song, dance and art.

Photo: Shutterstock

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