The Dying Breath 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 is hinged to the culture of West Africans.

I remember growing up as a child, watching Nollywood movies and seeing the Palm Wine used at Igbo wedding ceremonies. It was always comically-delightful to see a bride present the palm wine drink to her husband as a confirmation of his status as her groom. While the groom happily guzzled the gourd to its last drops, a band would begin to play a harmonious blend of rhythmic percussion strings, gongs, and snare drums, accompanied by Igbo folk lyrics, to celebrate the euphoria brewing in the atmosphere. But this is only one cultural recognition of palm wine. The sour-sweet drink is not only reckoned for its versatile uses in Afro-communal and esoteric relations; it also midwifed one of the greatest genres in musical history – the Palm Wine Music. 

It all began in the ports of Accra, Lagos, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The dockworkers and sailors who were under the Portuguese merchants of the early 1900s were the first ones to ever create versions of Palm Wine Music. They innocently just wanted to experiment on the guitars owned by their Spaniard and Portuguese masters and then 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 Palm wine Music. 

Soon, this sound traveled across the colonies and spread into various musical sects in Africa. They began to develop the sound in their local bands. In the 1920s, Afro-guitarists began to hone the sound even more. The iconic Kumasi Trio led by Kwame Asare was the first to actually record the first palm wine music album. They created various styles of the genres, such as the ‘Yah Amposah’ style, ‘Dagomba’ style, and the ‘Native’ style. Soon, other musicians across the continent, like Ghanaian Kwaa Mensah, Nigerians Irewolede Denge, Tunde King and Ayinde Bakare, the Famous Scrubbs from Sierra Leone, among others began to explore this fusion of African and Latin-calypso music and palm wine music evolved as one of the most iconic genres in the Afro music industry.  End of history class. 

Now, fast-forward to several decades of globalization, the genre struggles to survive. The late 70s down to the 90s witnessed the last generation of popular Palmwine music, also known contemporarily as High-life; the moniker given to it around the 50s by the Westerners who thought Africans were playing music that embodied their high-spiritedness. The last class of acclaimed High-life powerhouses included the legendary Osita Osadebe (Osondi Owendi; 1984, Kedu America; 1996; Ndia na Ndia; 2004, among others), Oliver de Coque (Oliver and His Expo ’76; 1976, 1978, 1980), Oriental Brothers (Oriental Special; 1974, Murtala Muhammed; 1977, Udo Ka Nma; 1984, Nwa Ada di Nma; 1996), Pat Thomas (Yesu San Bra; 1977), Nana Ampadu and the African Brothers,  to name a few. 

However, as the use of mobile internet spread across Africa, the continent experienced an influx of exposure to Western music. While this exposure widened the playground for African musicians, most young people lost the predilection for indigenous music. The media also contributed to this, as it popularized American Hip-hop, Jazz, and RnB on its airwaves. And, slowly, with the demise or retirement of the genre’s powerhouses, highlife music began to draw its last breaths. 

‘Phoenix Phase’

Highlife music has found itself on the deathbeds of culture. However, it has not totally surrendered the fight; there is a new school of contemporaries spreading the gospel of Highlife, in a new but fresh form. 

The musical ingenuity of the Osadebes, the Kwame Trio, and all the greats have resurrected in the vocal arteries of neo-highlife singers who have masterfully created melodies that appeal to the young and old alike, again. The pioneers of this new wave include musicians such as Nigeria’s Cavemen, Femi Leye, Umu Obiligbo Flavour, Zoro, Chike, Phyno; Ghana’s King Promise, Kofi Kinaata; Cameroon’s T’Neeya and Stanley Enow, to name a few. 

Problematically, The Ghana Music Awards is the only award show that celebrates Highlife music as a distinct category. Other prestigious indigenous award shows in the continent have ignored the legendary genre. They categorize the genre’s new forms under a generic label called ‘Alternative Music’. 

Restoring Palm Wine Music’s Legacy

Our indigenous music, such as Highlife, Apala, Afrobeat (without the ‘s’), Juju, among others, have gradually been replaced with Afro-fusion music that is denied its true surname and instead are categorized under one-size-fits-all genres such as “Afrobeats” and “Alternative”. As African music soars globally,  there must be concerted and deliberate efforts to preserve the legacy of the great Palmwine Music if is to survive beyond the previously mentioned “Phoenix Phase”.  

The solution is simple; at least in its explication.

Reviving the hibernated glory of Palm Wine music starts with us reigniting awareness of it. What better way than to start awarding the few who still safeguard the fort of this, our musical legacy? Also, there should be more media support for music of the genre. Perhaps, radio stations can dedicate a specific percentage of their local content obligations or persuasions toward sharing the history of this beautiful, perhaps media houses can spend time through film, documentaries, and well-researched articles chronicling the origins and development of the artform and finally, perhaps art galleries, and cultural foundations can spend time hosting exhibitions around the icons of the genre. There are many more approaches that can be taken. I’m sure. Now is the time.

1 comment
  1. It still baffles me that the “Headies” does not have a high-life category. It’s fundamentally absurd that anyone has to remind them of such a legendary genre of African music. Thank you for this.

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