Stan Plange… Exit Of A Highlife Icon
The recent passing of Ghana’s Stan Plange, the guitarist and arranger who took West African highlife to inspired musical heights, has not stirred enough emotion – from home and abroad. Even in Ghana where he grew up and made remarkable impact, his death has not generated the reaction befitting of his immense musical stature. Needless to say that only a few highlife faithful are aware of his demise in Nigeria. Unfortunately, another highlife giant has died unsung and unmourned!
Certainly, there is a huge generation gap which has disconnected the past from the present – a musi -cultural continuum which was truncated by the apathy of military rulership in both countries – from the late 60s to the 90s. Otherwise, why would a Stan Plange not be accorded the recognition he rightly deserves for his exploits as leader of Uhuru Professional Dance Band, perhaps the first progressively big band in highlife history? Why would he not be celebrated for his big band arranging expertise, a craft he mastered in the simulation of harmonies that are abundantly evident in such highlife classics as Go Slow, Born Throway and Ahoefe? Why would we not salute a guitarist who led a big band in an era where exponents were usually restricted to the rhythm section- only to enjoy solo opportunities if you played the‘lead’ and you were creative and adventurous? Why would we not hail a guitarist who held a 21 – piece band together successfully from the rhythm section – at the time it was fashionable for band leaders to be front – liners on trumpets and vocals? The history of highlife in Nigeria and Ghana cannot be complete without the mention of Stan Plange.
As a guitarist, Plange had a sound professional grounding; and benefitted from Kwame Nkrumah’s benevolence of enjoying scholarship abroad – to study music. Sharing in this same facility were Ebo Taylor who is still around and waxing strong with a band of his own. Others are Eddy Quansah who established a sound identity for the Star Gazers Dance Band as its initial band leader, Teddy Ossei who co-founded The Comets and later Osibisa, among others. This was in the fifties. But Plange put the professional polish to his career in Lagos, Nigeria when, along with singer Joe Mensah and other notable Ghanaian musicians, he was recruited into a formidable aggregation fronted by Nigeria’s Chief Bill Friday, a trumpeter and influential musician who was famous for touring and performing along the west African coast.
In Nigeria in the late 50s, the band first settled into the residency of Nat’s Hotel situated at Ojuelegba, Surulere Lagos where, as guitarist, Plange employed advanced chords both in the execution of solos and accompaniment. Like Ebo Taylor, he influenced a whole new generation of Nigerian guitar players most notably Alaba Pedro who had a successful stint with Nigeria’s Roy Chicago. But the first exponent to benefit from his progressive approach was Don Amechi (now Don Kemona) who had a long stint with Chris Ajilo and His Cubanos. Plange’s guitar virtuosity was however greatly appreciated when the band moved to Ambassador Hotel, Yaba where, at ‘Tea Time Dances’ on Sundays, he entertained dance floor communities with interminably long guitar solos soaked in palm wine.
Until his death, he was regarded by musicians and critics alike as the greatest big band arranger in highlife history- an accolade that is traceable to his experience with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Dance Orchestra where he took on the guitar, combining this weekly radio show with his regular night stands with Chief Bill Friday at Ambassador Hotel. In an interview I had with him in 2005 while in Ghana collecting materials for Highlife My Life, he gave credits to the late Fela Sowande and Steve Rhodes for equipping him with the knowledge of arranging in multi-part harmony, saying that he owed his ability to arrange for big bands to the tutelage he enjoyed from these two musicians who were the band’s music directors at different times. He had learnt to compose and arrange while on a scholarship provided by President Kwame Nkruma of Ghana who gave a lot of support to the arts, but the NBC Dance Orchestra afforded him the opportunity to consolidate and expand the scope of his knowledge.
And it was the burning desire to translate the full potentials of this acquired knowledge to concrete reality that he took over the leadership of Broadway Dance Band in the early sixties from Nigeria’s Sammy Obot, a trumpeter who taught Rex Lawson the rudiments of the instrument. Plange stamped his authority and sound identity on the band as it transformed to Uhuru Professional Dance Band, an aggregation where all the musicians felt at home with music scores and sheets. Plange scored for almost all the instruments of the 21-piece orchestra, incorporating calypso, Latin American music and other forms into the band’s vast highlife repertoire.
It may not be fair to claim that Plange’s Uhuru Professional Dance Band was the greatest in Ghana. Like Nigeria, all the bands had their different qualities which fans sought after. After all, ET Mensah’s Tempos Band was there as the pace setter and pioneering influence; The Stargazers had a distinctive sound identity even though a semi big band; Jerry Hansen’s Ramblers Dance Band later increased in size, becoming a big band noted for its longevity. Also unleashing the ideal highlife sound on their various fans were The Globe Kings, The Ghana Messengers led by George Lee, King Bruce’s Black Beats, The Africana Rhythmiers led by Payne Mc Folson, The Comets fronted by Teddy Ossei, The Workers’ Brigade Band, among many others who all sounded musically professional. But they all had great respect for Stan Plange’s Uhuru Professional Dance Band where highlife was bristling with modern chord progressions, unchained melodies and brilliant harmonies.
The last time he was in Nigeria on a musical assignment was in August, 2008 when he came from Ghana together with Ebo Taylor – to participate in a workshop put on by the Department of Creative Art, University of Lagos – on behalf of the African Music Archive, Department of Anthropology and African Studies, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mains, Germany. Together with their Nigerian counterparts such as Chris Ajilo, Orlando Julius and Peter King, they discussed the transnational dimension of highlife through Nigeria, Ghana, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Until his death, Stan Plange was a teacher of music – in both theory and practical – in some secondary schools in Accra. His death has left a vacuum that will be difficult to fill.
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