Friday, October 21, 2005

Digital Static: Where Does Hiplife Come From? (Pt. 2)

The last few days have seen me sorting out my DV tapes, which are the primary record of the Hiplife Complex. This blog is merely a parasite. It survives from sucking small morsels of information off those more than 35 hours of footage I shot over several months documenting hip-hop and hiplife in Ghana earlier this year. As I get myself more organized, I'll be posting some clips and photos take from my collection, but for now it's just words unfortuntely. But as the first couple posts attest, there's much to be fleshed out, so I may as well continue.

Hiplife came about in time dominated by electrified highlife and gospel, both of which are heavy on the cheesy synths and drum machines, while light on the live bands that formerly made decent livings playing around Ghana. Live band refers to a group that plays actual instruments in an acoustic or electro-acoustic ensemble (i.e. electric guitars, brass, winds, keyboards, trap drums, and amplified voice). Somewhere in the late-70s and early-80s, these live bands began to die down. After a series of unstable military regimes, and then two coups led by the charismatic J.J. Rawlings, Ghana found itself in a stark economic situation. For several years (from around 1980 to 1983) there was a curfew, killing nightlife and leaving the numerous bands without gigs. At the same time, music had been taken out of the schools' curiculum, making way for Rawlings' idea of utopic agrarian education. Students learned how to do more practical things like tend to farms and make handicrafts instead. The final major factor leading to the near disappearance of live band music in Ghana was a 150% import duty placed on musical instruments, it seems someone in government considered a saxophone with which one would make one's living to be a luxury...

Musically, people were getting into something different in those days anyway. What they call burgher highlife was going on by the late '70s. Since so many Ghanaian musicians (and doctors and lawyers, etc. for that matter) sought better working conditions in other countries during the '70s and '80s, there were large expatriate communities in a places like Germany, England and Nigeria. Hamburg had an enormous number of Ghanaians living there, which made for a pretty happeneing music scene. These musicians blended some of their hometown style with what was hip in late '70s Germany. Burgher highlife came out of this era and filtered its way back to Ghana, making a lasting impression on local highlife. This a poppy highlife with a dash of disco in there, four on the floor with wah-wah guitars. Sounds cool on paper but it turned out to set Ghanaian pop music on a (some say downard spiral) course toward where we find it today. Burgher highlife is downright metallic in its production. I mean, the drum machine beats sound so dated, tinned out and cliche (and they probably were even in their time), I can't help but sort of cringe when I here some of this stuff. Lyrically, I understand, the useful lessons and social commentary classic highlife has always been known for are still in there. Highlife today is still evolving and still commands a good deal of attention, albeit in consolidated quantities. No doubt, there will always be space for some form of highlife in the mainstream spotlight, so far as highlife is for Ghanaians what rock n' roll (or jazz for older folks and squares) is for Americans.

Gospel is huge in Ghana, representing the largest share of the marketplace. With a watered-down reggae drum machine beat, it is tricked out with less-than-modern, and not-even-close-to-realistic samples. That's chill anyway because Ghanaian gospel is wholesomely G-rated and seems to be enjoyed by just about everyone. One funnny thing I found out when asking about female rappers in Ghana is that people often expect a girl to be a gospel singer, while guys are usually hiplifers. I met a few female rappers who rocked the mic hard in their own feminine way and they mentioned this perception sometimes. While there are a lot of successful male gospel singers in Ghana, it seems like the majority are female. Through tours of church congregations nationwide, along with numerous Chirstian radio stations in every major district, gospel musicians move relatively massive quantities of cassettes and CDs. I've even heard that this pay to play, or payola, radio scheme/scam that is currently afflicting hiplife artists hasn't significantly affected gospel DJs. The hiplifers could certainly learn something from the grassroots marketing techniques and the highly-touted morally constructive behavior of Ghana's gospel artists...

So, now, the contemporary commercial backdrop, which is the context for the emergence of hiplife, has been set: on one hand, you have teched-out highlife that became less and less recognizably linked to the internationally favored highlife of yore (compare contemporary champions Ofori Amponsah, Daddy Lumba, Daasebre Gymenah with E.T. Mensah, King Bruce, and Nana Ampadu's early stuff), and on the other hand, you have gospel's repetitive, occasionally nauseatingly plastic pulse. Looking at the musical and aesthetic environment hiplife developed in, is comes as little surprise to find the majority of hiplife embodying both the flashiness of contemporary highlife and the culturally relevant issue-raising of gospel.

Hiplife didn't start out this way though. At one point, early on, it had the well-known hip-hop beat taken from abroad. Facing West, the youth favored the American style of music for the first few years. And then some local influences took over and the music has never been the same...more on what hiplife sounds like now and how it got there in the next chapter, keep with me!

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