What is highlife music?
The music of the Yoruba people had always consisted of drums (dundun, bata, akuba), flutes, xylophones and “agidigbo,” a boxed stringed instrument. After World War 2, soldiers coming back home from Europe brought the guitar. Added to the big-band instruments of jazz especially horns from the U.S. and Caribbean, this modern sound was called “high life” because it was adopted by the elites – the rich and educated classes in Lagos and other parts of Yorubaland.
Where did highlife music come from.
Although highlife became a unique modern Yoruba commercial music, its origins are jazz from the US and calypso from the Caribbean islands, along with the music of the Akan people of Ghana. Many of the early masters of highlife, like E.T. Mensah, came from Ghana. The main American influence was the trumpeter, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (see image), who many highlife musicians adored.
The heyday of highlife.
The early pioneers of highlife in the early 1950s were Fatai Rolling Dollar and Julius Araba. But it was Bobby Benson in Lagos who is regarded as the father of highlife with the release of “Taxi Driver” in 1956. The late fifties and early sixties were the heydays of highlife, dominated by Victor Olaiya, Ambrose Campbell and Roy Chicago who played at Abalabi Hotel, Mushin (see the evocative painting “Lagos women at Abalabi, 1964”) By 1969, highlife was on the wane, giving way to juju music and soul music imported from the U.S.
The modern influence of highlife.
Highlife influenced Fela Anikulapo-Kuti into creating Afro-beat. Modern Nigerian hip hop artists such as Davido and D’bang have borrowed heavily from the highlife of the 1960s, which can be regarded as the main stem of all modern Nigerian commercial music.
Illustration: "Lagos women at Abalabi, circa 1964" Ink on paper, Oladele Olusanya. An evocation of the heyday of highlife music in Lagos when Roy Chicago played gigs at Abalabi Hotel, Mushin