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29.08.2006

The Rebirth of Highlife 

By Alex Last
BBC, Lagos

Fatai Rolling Dollar is 79, but you wouldn´t know it.

Small and thin, eyes sparkling beneath his signature cloth cap, cigarette and guitar in hand, he´s the oldest of the highlife stars still active on the music scene.

From the 1940s to the 1960s, highlife was the sound of West Africa.

It was Africa´s first example of musical fusion between African traditional songs and rhythms with western styles such as jazz, Caribbean calypso, Cuban son, rumba and military band music.

The new forms spread as sailors brought new influences and instruments back to the West African coast from the 1920s.

It got its name because the bands played in clubs frequented by the elite; people who were living the high life.

Made famous in Ghana, highlife spread across the region. It was pioneered in Nigeria by the likes of Bobby Benson, Dr Victor Olaiya, and Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson.

Rolling Dollar started playing music in the 1940s, first using a thumb piano, before moving onto the guitar, and joining highlife bands in Lagos in the hey-day of the 1950s and 1960s.

Decline

But in Nigeria, the music gradually went into decline - sparked by the Biafran civil war from 1967 to 1970 which split up bands, as musicians joined the army, and nightclubs closed.

"The whole band´s boys went to join the army, the navy and the air force," Rolling Dollar recalls.
"One day, we went to play at a club, and an army officer went and smacked one of my boys.

"The next day he went and joined the army. And so from that time, highlife went down, because there was no-one to play it."

In the years that followed, new forms of music derived from highlife took over in Nigeria: Juju and Afro-beat in the 1970s and 1980s.

These days hip-hop, R&B, and rap dominate the Nigerian music market.

But some people are trying to revive highlife.

In Ojay´s bar in Lagos, the last Sunday of each month is the Great Highlife Party, when old stalwarts like Rolling Dollar come and play with the bands.

It´s a chance to hear the classics, but also to bring the music to a new generation.
"Highlife declined over the years, but we are trying to revive it, because we feel that this young generation should know where our musical culture is coming from," says Benson Idonije, a music journalist and broadcaster who has been promoting the highlife revival.

Mr Idonije hopes the music will influence Nigeria´s current music scene.

"Just now hip-hop is the contemporary thing - you find Nigerians imitating the American style," he says.

"But if they were inflamed by highlife, which we are trying to bring back, they would be fusing it with highlife.

"If you listen to Ghanaian hip-hop, they call it hip-life, you find that in that country, even though it is hip-hop, the underlying beat is highlife. So they have an identity, but we don´t have in Nigeria, because young Nigerians are looking up to America for their future."

Packed

Inside the club, the place is packed.

On stage, the large bands with drums, bongos, guitars, trumpets and saxophones play the tunes, often cover versions of the hits from decades ago.

Then Rolling Dollar bounds on stage, singing, playing the guitar, and dancing.
Each tune is about 10 minutes long, and the performance defies the years. Nigerians both old and young are up and dancing at the front.

Many of those in the queue to get in are younger Nigerians in their 20s and 30s.

"Highlife is the kind of music that when you listen to it, you feel more relaxed, than this modern music," one young woman says.

A young man joins in: "When I was growing up, my dad used to listen this kind of music. I´m more interested in finding out what it was about.

"Highlife is our heritage, its something that I grew up with, its something I enjoy, listening to and dancing to."

Although many of the old highlife greats are no longer alive, the music is still popular, and as many including Rolling Dollar believe, its influence on Nigerian music over the decades means it will never die.

"Today we are trying to push highlife back again. And it´s coming back. From highlife, people got something - they got hip hop. What they are singing and dancing to now, it´s from highlife."


Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/africa/5287018.stm

Published: 2006/08/28 01:40:17 GMT
 

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