The King of Highlife
E.T. Mensah, the multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and undisputed King of Highlife, who sadly died in 1996 was the artist who inspired RetroAfric’s mission to re-present classic tracks by Africa’s masters of popular music.
The first collection, All For You, was released as a vinyl LP in 1986. Since then technology has moved on apace and the label has re-mastered the original material which is now cleaner and more splendid than ever. The album has been brought up to CD length with the addition of three previously unavailable tracks. A new catalogue number for All For You [RETRO1XCD] denotes the added value version. A second compilation album from the early 1960s Day By Day [RETRO3CD] was RetroAfric’s first CD format release, which included the perennially popular title track.
E.T. Mensah [May 31, 1919 – July 19, 1996]
E.T. Mensah, the undisputed King of Highlife, was one the founding fathers of African popular music. His career stretched from the early 1930s to the late 1980s, and his music reached beyond Ghana to all corners of Africa and Europe.
Emmanuel Tettey Mensah was a natural musician, whose talent was spotted at school by ‘Teacher’ Joe Lamptey. When Lamptey formed the Accra Orchestra in the early 1930s E.T. joined as a piccolo player. He soon progressed to saxophone and also learned to play organ and trumpet.
After leaving school he teamed up with his brother Yebuah and the influential jazz drummer Guy Warren [Kofi Ghanaba] in the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra. European dance music was the prevailing fashion but, during World War II, musicians picked up new developments from Black American and West Indian comrades who were stationed in the Gold Coast. There were also ex-professional European musicians with the Allied forces, and E.T. joined Sergeant Jack Leopard and his Black and White Spots.
E.T. was also studying pharmacy. In 1943 he qualified and was stationed in the Ashanti region. When he returned to Accra in 1947 he joined the original Tempos band with Joe Kelly and Guy Warren. Warren had travelled to Europe and America, playing with Afro-Cuban musicians and he returned with the latest records, including calypsos. This refreshing influence became part of post-war highlife, which was now directed to a more solidly African audience.
‘We urgently wanted an indigenous rhythm to replace the fading foreign music of waltz, rumba, etc,’ Mensah told the writer and highlife archivist, John Collins.* ‘We evolved a music relying on basic African rhythms. A criss-cross African cultural sound, so to speak. No one can really lay claim to its creation. It had always been there, entrenched in West African culture. What I did was give highlife world acceptance.’
In 1948 Mensah broke away to re-from the Tempos under his own leadership, offering a revitalised version of highlife, with more modern instrumentation and a wide variety of local rhythms.
The Tempos’ relaxed style was immediately popular. E.T. made his first visit to Nigeria in 1950 when dance bands were still playing the dated swing music. The Tempos played at the club of Bobby Benson who quickly adapted his own style to create a Nigerian version of highlife.
When Mensah recorded his first 78rpm discs for Decca West Africa in 1952 he was quickly proclaimed the ‘King of Highlife’. Songs such as Nkebo Bayaa, Munsuru, Essie Nana, covering topics from love to social commentary were delivered in Ga, Fanti, Twi and Ewe. Highlifes and calypsos sung in English includedSunday Mirror, Don’t Mind You Wife , Inflation Calypso and All For You – one of his catchy theme songs which became a big-selling hit.
After various personnel changes just before these recordings the band members on the first sessions included Les Brown [guitar] Tommy Gripman [trombone] Spike Anyankor [alto sax], Tom Thumb Ado [drums] Dan Acquaye [bongos] Pappoe [maraccas] Moilai [claves] and Duke Hesse [congas]. The regular singer was Dan Acquaye, but there were many instrumental numbers, featuring Mensah’s sweet horn arrangements.
The band split up again shortly after and for the next recording sessions in 1953, newcomers included Glen Kofie [trombone] and two Nigerians; Baby Face Paul [tenor sax] and Zeal Onyia [trumpet]. Dan, Spike and Tom Thumb remained loyal.
The Tempos made frequent and lucrative tours of Nigeria and business was so good that Mensah could run another band in Ghana while he was away. Eventually, however, Nigerian musicians complained that E.T.’s success was spoiling their opportunities and his visits were curtailed. In 1953 Mensah made his first solo trip to London where he performed with jazz regulars in the African clubs of Soho and recorded some 78rpms for HMV’s GV series..
In 1956, E.T. welcomed Louis Armstrong on his tour of Africa and they jammed together in front of enormous crowds. By now he had his own club, the Paramount, where Armstrong played, but soon after Independence economic problems forced him to shut it down. Officially acknowledged by the Nkrumah government, E.T. was expecting to be sent on tour to England, but the funding did not come through. Instead the band set out in 1958 on a tour of Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, which included playing for several heads of state.
His records were well known, with songs such as Nkebo Baaya reaching as far as Congo. Even so, by the 1960s, E.T. was playing part-time, saying that he had never expected to earn a living from music. In 1969 he took a new Tempos line-up to England for a three month tour, culminating in a dance at the London Hilton Hotel. The repertoire now included elements of Congo rumba, soul and pop as well as calypso and the new reggae beat which was dominating London.
During the 1970s, the brassy, dance band highlife was overtaken by other forms and it faded from the scene. In the late 1980s, however, E.T. re-emerged from the shadows, and his revival presaged a renewed interest in classic highlife and pan-African popular music in general.
ET (right) in 1937 with JA Mallet
In 1986 a show was given in Mensah’s honour in Lagos, where he joined old colleagues including Victor Uwaifo and Victor Olaiya on stage. That year he took the stage again in London and Holland to promote the original RetroAfric compilation LP All For You. This current CD is a completely re-mastered and extended version of the first RetroAfric release.
E.T.’s contribution to Ghanaian and African heritage was never forgotten. In 1989 he was formally honoured with the title Okunini (Very famous man) for his contribution to the country’s culture. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate. More recently his music has been revived in cinema and television advertising, historical documentaries including the epic People’s Century series, and CD-Rom encyclopedias. E.T. Mensah’s highlife was the sound of African independence days. He will always have a place in the hearts of West Africans.
Highlife aficianados should also check King Bruce’s Golden Highlife Classics for more of the Ghanaian big band sound.
John Collins’ E.T. Mensah King of Highlife [Off The Record Press, 1986] Highlife Time [Anansesem, Accra, 1994] Music Makers of West Africa [Three Continents, 1985]