Feb. 14, 2014. On the evening of February 6, 2014, Professor Lacy S. Ferrell gave an entertaining lecture titled "Popular Music in Ghana from the 1920s to the Present" as part of the on-going 2014 CWU History Club lecture series. Refreshments were served and students and attendees mingled before the talk. "This is so much fun!" remarked Erika Naficy, a CWU sophomore and history major. "We should do this more often," Todd Goings, a graduate student and member of the CWU History Club added. Between twenty-five and thirty people were in attendance, including history students, faculty from several other departments, as well as other students from the larger university community.
Professor Ferrell's talk focused on the popular music of Ghana, known as "Highlife," which emerged when Ghana was a British colony. A blend of local rhythms and foreign influences that intermixed in Ghana's ports, subgenres quickly developed that were influenced by everything from military brass bands to American blues, jazz and swing. The music became associated with the new modern fast-paced urban life that many in Ghana experienced as they moved to cities to find work in 20th century. A youth culture sprung up in these cities and Highlife was its soundtrack. Professor Ferrell elaborated on how the music and the culture surrounding it subverted age and gender hierarchies, and became a vehicle for young people to challenge existing social norms and power relations. Ferrell also showed how Highlife was rebellious--associated with smoking, drinking, and casual sex.
Ferrell sketched out how the music evolved and how various social, economic and political changes in Ghana were reflected in the music--by playing recorded clips of songs for the audience as she went. Played in the streets, in private clubs, and in nightclubs by the 1940s, those in power--missionaries and government officials-- tried (and usually failed) to control the message of the music and how people enjoyed it--mainly through dancing. When Ghana gained its independence in 1956 Ferrell explained how Highlife was the accompaniment. While it is rarely heard or performed now, Ferrell explains, Highlife nonetheless remains an important part of Ghana's cultural heritage.
For those who did not attend and might want to get a flavor of what this rich music sounds like, Professor Farrell has graciously provided this link to a great Highlife song, "Medzi Medzi," by the "king of highlife," E.T. Mensah, with his backing band The Tempos.
Click here to listen.
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