The Fading Glory Of Palmwine Music In West Africa
Nestled in the heart of Africa, there is an alcoholic drink called Palmwine. This fizzy drink distilled from the African Palm tree is peculiar to the culture of West Africans.
It is also iconic for being a midwife of one of Africa’s most prominent music genres dubbed, Palmwine music. This genre is also called Highlife music.
It all began in the ports of Accra, Lagos, Liberia and Sierra Leone. African dockworkers and sailors who were under the Portuguese merchants of the early 1900s were the first ones to ever create versions of Palmwine Music.
They just wanted to experiment on the guitars owned by their Spaniard and Portuguese masters and began mixing the Latin music the Westerners were playing with their own native Afro rhythms. There and then, the damp dockyards became the labour room of Palmwine Music.
However, with the dawn of the millennia and the silent exit of the genre’s pioneers, such as Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Oriental Brothers, Victor Uwaifo, Rex Lawson, Nana Ampadu, Pat Thomas, Morocco Maduka, among others, without any emerging successors, the elegant genre began quickly evaporating out of mainstream musicdom.
While we can debate for donkey years on who bears responsibility for the decay – whether it is the government for failing to preserve the genre with special content programming across its broadcasting outfits, or the singers themselves for failing to raise protégés, or even on the audience themselves for getting intoxicated with the musical exports of the West while abandoning their native genres – the truth is the genre is on its deathbeds.
Fortunately, there are some individuals within Nigeria who are springing up from the musical Nazareth to become the next Messiah’s of the Highlife music industry. “The goal is for people – our generation – to experience our highlife now, to show people what highlife would have been, if it stayed,” fraternal highlife duo, The Cavemen, said in a recent interview with The Lagos Review.
In another interview with Audiomack, the brothers also noted that “Highlife music is natural to Africans, because of its texture” and this kind of music would always resonate with them.
Other strong pioneers of this new movement include musicians such as Nigeria’s Umu Obiligbo, Flavour, Zoro, Chike, Phyno; Ghana’s King Promise, Kofi Kinaata; Cameroon’s T’Neeya and Stanley Enow, among others.
They are birthing a new renaissance that is set to revive the waning genre to its lost glory. However, a few trees cannot make a thick forest.
The truest remedy to this situation is a mindset check. While indigenous award ceremonies are important to the survival of indigenous music in Nigeria, apathy is also a major hurdle to be crossed in this journey.
Nigerians need to start paying more attention to their native genres. They must enjoy the music, irrespective of their cultural affinities. To appreciate the music, they must listen with child-like curiosity and open-mindedness. Music, itself, is a universal language.
For highlife to survive the next century, there has to be a nexus between making the philosophical highlife music of the ‘70s and the philosophies of the present-day gen-z and millennials population. For the sound makers, the bulk of the work is in songwriting.
In one of their most famous songs, Anita, Benjamin of the Cavemen., is heard singing ‘Where is my shoe? Where is my coat? Pay me my salary I want to marry!’ And this embodies the “particular youthful spirit to the Cavemen; the creativity in the midst of nothing; the primitiveness and the purity,” which they describe to The Guardian Nigeria, confirming it as one of the main glimmers of their music.
The duo further explained that their music “relates to the present and to what we are facing right now. So, we express music that is serious but is unserious at the same time, you can dance to it and you can meditate on it,” in separate interviews with Audiomack and The Lagos Review.
Indeed, Highlife music could breathe with its traditional DNA of sage and bohemian intentionality, but if it is to survive in this cryptocurrency generation, the genre must also connect with the youths.
It is also useful for African artistes to popularise the reality of artistic collectives. The Kuti strategy of using a particular place, that is, the Afrikan Shrine, for shows, is a very viable CPR to the highlife music genre. While it is useful to be as mobile as possible, it is also very important to have a regular venue where people can always enjoy highlife music performances unperturbed.
It is interesting to know that this idea has succeeded, previously. For instance, the broadcasting guru who is also Burna Boy’s grandfather, Benson Idonijie, championed it with his monthly Highlife Party dubbed Elders’ Forum. This highlife revival show which was run by O’Jez Club at National Stadium, Lagos, survived for decades, trying to reconnect Nigerians to this priceless ancestral sound.
In fact, more recently, in April, within the highlife ancestral birthplace of Ghana, veteran Ghanaian highlife greats collectively clamoured for the preservation of this glorious genre, according to reports from local Ghanaian tabloid, Graphic Showbiz.
These legends, including Ambolley, A.B. Crenstil, Gyedu, Blay, Bessa Simmons, among others, all canvassed for the need to make Highlife music a national treasure.
“If care is not taken, there would be a time when we do not even have an identity when it comes to music,” Ambolley said. Launching a revival platform dubbed, Highlife is Alive Fan Club, the veteran squad also clamoured for the establishment of an annual international highlife festival, to strengthen efforts at preserving the genre.
According to them, the Highlife fan club would train budding musicians in the art form of highlife music, while also creating a platform to preserve and promote the genre.
Other significant efforts, such as the Ghanaian event production company, 90 Degrees Tribe, are starting to yield results.
The company has started creating some significant documentaries of Highlife greats, such as Pat Thomas, A.B. Crentsil, among others, while also promising to create special events geared at rebooting the elegant genre.
It is also worthy to mention the efforts from the Nigerian Breweries Plc and the Life Lager beer franchise who have been firm supporters of the Igbo culture.
Their music contest dubbed, Hi-Life Fest, has been running for over five years – except for the pandemic year – birthing and grooming emerging singers in the Highlife music genre.
Also, the Osadebe Fest, which is a week-long compendium of activities aimed at paying homage to the late Highlife legend, Osita Osadebe, started two years ago, to attempt to revive the waning genre in the country’s music scene.
All these platforms have been viable, but are stretched too thin, in a country with multiple alternative music contests, activities, advertisements and artistes. Once again, the solution lies in the proliferation of these efforts.
At a time when more people need to be looking at boosting the efforts of the current highlife evangelists, a lot of people are looking away, and the spotlight continues to fade from highlife.
Even Afro-fusion singer, Kcee, who is a highlife enthusiast, after releasing his latest body of work, a highlife live recording dubbed, Cultural Praise Vol. 1, expressed that, truly, the problem with the genre is its lack of sufficient support among the populace, even among its proponents.
“I want to make more traditional Highlife music. This genre of music could be huge, but my Igbo brothers are not united,” he said in a recent interview with Pulse.
Finally, you cannot grow a music scene without an effective reward system. Highlife deserves all the laurels it can muster and its disciples must be awarded for their work.
So, it is important for all our music award shows to create categories that recognise and celebrate the best of indigenous African music.
If we do not celebrate ourselves, nobody would do it for us. Not the Grammys, Not the BETs, Not the MTVs. But we, Africans! Let us give ourselves the flowers we deserve!
A lot of highlife greats have come, seen and left the building. However, the party still continues, and it is time to fill up these empty seats.