Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Book Review:
Musicmakers of West Africa by John Collins
(Three Continents Press, 1985)

African popular music reflects the continent’s complex history. Periods of elegant civilization, slavery, colonialism, and struggle for independence have all influenced the music’s evolution. With colonialism, for example, came the European sounds of Mozart and Beethoven. Shortwave radio and records repatriated the African sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and rekindled awareness of brothers and sisters in the Diaspora. As African artists began to record their music, merchant seamen assisted in its evolution by carrying records from one area to another.

Musicologist J.H. Nketia once wrote, “In studying African music...we cannot afford to be completely oblivious to the factors that are affecting it for good or ill, for the African and his culture no longer enjoy the isolation of the past. The presence of change impresses itself on the [music] field worker, however devoted he might be to the cause of indigenous African music. It might arouse his sympathy for the African who is striving to adapt himself to new musical ideas, or it might make him contemptuous of the innovations he meets. The feeling of admiration which the complex rhythms of drums engender in him might turn into disgust at the sight of the guitar or the saxophone....In whatever way we judge these innovations, we cannot ignore the fact that they are the ‘growing pains’ of a new era, a new phase in the evolution of African music which merits some notice, and perhaps sympathetic understanding of the peculiar situation in which the African now finds himself.”

These innovations get more than some notice and sympathetic understanding from John Collins in his latest work Musicmakers of West Africa. Collins, a musician himself, has lived in Ghana much of his life, growing up there, studying at the University of Ghana, and playing with many of West Africa’s leading bands. His book is a compilation of interviews and essays done during the early to mid-70s resulting in a history of the music from the mouths of those who created it. While the work is dated, it provides the context for the music's current state.

Unlike his other current work, African Pop Roots (West Africa, 16 Dec. 1985, p. 2646), which suffers from its scatter-gun approach, what we have here is a focused history of the Pop music of Ghana and Nigeria. There are brief chapters on the music of Sierra Leone, Benin, and Congo/Zaire, but they are only minor (and incomplete) digressions from the author’s main agenda.

Collins traces the evolution of the music from early highlife through minstrelsy, juju, and afro-beat. “Highlife,” he says, “grew out of the music styles present in the coastal towns of West Africa during the last century, which led to a fusion of indigenous dance rhythms and melodies with influences from the West....As African musicians absorbed ideas from the West, they were more susceptible to this than the classical music of the Europeans. The reason is not difficult to understand since black music from both sides of the Atlantic is almost exclusively dance music and places great emphasis on rhythm. They have much in common.”

While some condemn western influence on the music, Victor Uwaifo for one takes a sharply different view. To a Collins question about such critics he responded that, “Unfortunately, they fail to see that the foundation of my music is very music is rich in African culture as demonstrated in the beat and lyrics. The fact that I use modern musical instruments to produce my sound has not altered the basic character of the music; otherwise we might as well argue that a historian writing ancient history with modern tools, like a Parker pen and paper, is a farce. The tools he uses to write his history will not alter the facts and the dates of his book. Nature abhors a vacuum. Thus we have experimentation and evolution of ancient African culture.”

The interviews Collins has chosen to include are especially fascinating as they reveal the artists’ inner struggles to reconcile their traditional musical training with the onslaught of foreign influences. Kofi Ghanaba (formerly Guy Warren), reflecting on his career says, “When I was young it was [western] jazz that dominated me. I was naive and thought that was the thing. But it is the African music that is the mother, not the other way around....I had to make a choice between being a poor imitation of Buddy Rich or playing something they couldn’t. I could play jazz well, but I possessed something that nobody else had, so I started to play African music with a little bit of jazz thrown in, not jazz with a little African thrown in.”

Also of particular interest is the large role military troops and wars have had on the music. The old colonial garrisons with their brass bands strongly influenced early highlife. During World War II, Allied troops were stationed in West Africa, resulting in the spread of more new musical ideas. The Nigerian civil war, as musician turned journalist Segun Bucknor explains, gave rise to the popularity of juju music. “In the fifties and sixties, up to 1966-1967, highlife was the main thing, and most of our musicians came from the east. But with the war and the crisis most of the easterners went to Biafra and highlife bands were grounded in Lagos. Some musicians who left were E.K. Arinze, Charles Iwegbue, Zeal Onyia, and Rex Lawson, who was then currently the highlife superstar. So, there was a dearth of musical entertainers in Lagos, and, since people must have their fun, they turned around to juju bands.”

The book contains the inevitable errors—the misspelling of Funmilayo, Fela’s mother’s name as well as those of Mwenda Jean Bosco, Nico Mbarga, and Afro National; quotation of the lyrics to Fela’s “Lady” and calling them “Shakara” (although “Lady” appeared on the Shakara album); and the use of the uncommon Sierra Leonese—but these are minor flaws. This and other books hitting the market will surely help to stimulate further interest in African popular music. In view of the limited amount of published material on the subject, Musicmakers of West Africa is a welcome addition and a good first stop for those seeking to trace the origins and evolution of Ghanaian and Nigerian Pop music.

This article first appeared in West Africa, 17 February 1986. Copyright © Gary Stewart 1986.



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