This paper explores the political meaning of Ghanaian Highlife songs, which are generally regarded as pure entertainment. The paper is the result of a close cooperation between a Ghanaian insider (Asante-Darko) and a European outsider (Van der Geest). More than one hundred Highlife songs were collected, transcribed, and translated. All these texts are recorded songs. Nearly all Highlife songs examined in this paper are in the Twi (or Akan) language. (The Akan are a collection of culturally related societies with mutually intelligible languages. They number about four million people and live in the southern part of Ghana.) It should be made clear, however, that Highlife is also performed in other languages, within and outside of Ghana.
This brief paper does not discuss the methodological problems involved in the use of artistic expressions for anthropological purposes. This has been done elsewhere (Fabian, 1978; Asante-Darko and Van der Geest, 1981). Instead, it analyzes the meaning of songs and people's reactions to them. The first section of the paper provides background information about Highlife music in Ghana. The second section deals with the hidden meaning of art in general and, in particular, with the hidden political meaning of Ghanaian Highlife songs.
Highlife is a blend of traditional Akan rhythms and melodies with European musical elements, such as the use of European instruments and harmony. It encompasses a variety of artistic expressions: music, dancing, story-telling, and theater. Performances by Highlife bands are called concerts, even in the Twi language. They usually start with a comic or tragi-comic play filled with musical effects and intermezzos and end with a performance of Highlife songs (Richard, 1974; Collins, 1976a). Both the play and the songs can be about many different topics, rural or urban, modern or traditional, true events or stories. Generally, however, the songs deal with the problems of everyday life: poverty, marriage problems, hatred, gossip, shame, sickness, and death (Bame, 1974; Ricard, 1974). Apart from live performances, Highlife owes its popularity to recordings, which are produced in Ghana.