A new generation of artists are re-awakening the art of live performances – and some of them are not even singers.
The death knell on live band music, a staple of Ghanaians of the 50s through to the late 70s, was the numerous military interregnums that engulfed the country, mostly in the 70s to the early 80s. For many observers of the social and cultural scene, the effect of the numerous coup d’etats and their impact on the Ghanaian economic was costly. One of the immediate impact was the crippling of nightlife; not only the music industry but the fledging, vibrant theatre space which had received governmental impetus under the Kwame Nkrumah, General I.K. Acheampong administrations.
Writing about the period in his book “Contemporary Ghanaian Popular Music Since the 1980s “, renowned music expert Prof. John Collins noted: “After an initial ‘honeymoon’ period the economy quickly began to decline and finally ground to a halt in the late seventies’’. The immediate result of this economic decline was the exodus of some notable highlife musicians to Europe – mostly Germany and North America.
In their efforts at salvaging the Ghanaian economy from total collapse, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) military government would impose high import taxes on musical instruments, thus dousing any flame of hope for the resuscitation of the industry. Prof. Collins put it eloquently, writing: “This interregnum in the music industry between the mid/late 1970’ and 1984 was immediately followed by the imposition of huge import duties (160%) on band equipment, and then, a little later, (1988) music education was demoted in the school curriculum’’.
With the ‘death’ of live outdoor entertainment like highlife or band music coupled with advancement in technology, the Ghanaian artists who sojourned to Europe and North America began recording music using new computer software. Apart from the cost-effectiveness of the new technological innovation- the music was programmed rather than recorded live, a new brand of highlife was created. Pioneered by George Darko, “borga highlife” would soon become the new wave, attracting a lot of interest among a more youthful audience who gravitated to its fast-paced, western-styled disco and funk elements.
In the mid-90s, a new form of music emerged in Ghana. Led by a crop of youthful artists, hiplife, a fusion of elements of highlife and American hip-hop would begin to compete with borga highlife, which at that point was in decline. It was a matter a time before hiplife became the dominant music genre in the country. If borga highlife had the art of live performances on the ropes, hiplife landed the final blow that knocked the artform out.
Whereas the old generation of musicians and gatekeepers criticized the artificiality of hiplife music, the new generation of artists and their youthful patrons, including the private radio stations that had emerged around the same period helped propagate the genre through its youth-oriented programmes.
For a greater part of the life cycle of hiplife, live performances were considered a worthless exercise. (Worthless here meaning unprofitable rather than inconsequential). This phenomenon was not only peculiar to hiplife artistes. Most contemporary highlife artistes ditched live band performances for miming on stage. And the reasons were quietly tenable- the performances lacked vigour, the artists looked boring onstage and the music played did not carry the same infectiousness as the studio versions heard on cassette tapes.
In the midst of the darkness that hovered over hiplife and its associated music variants like dancehall music, in terms of performances, was an illuminating hope. Spearhead by Samini, the dancehall music ace made live performance one of the pillars on which he built his brand after his evolution from Batman to Samini. His mastery of the artform and the subsequent applauds that came with his performances inspired others to follow suite. In 2014, Okyeame Kwame would perform at the first edition of his ‘The Versatile Show” backed fully by a live band. These live performances partly contributed to a new awakening.
The pursuit and reception of live performances were not readily accepted by a section of people, mostly the youthful audience and some of the artists themselves for obvious reasons. In their view, such performances lacked the ‘energy” that recorded music exuded; the showmanship was also lacking. In short, it was a boring venture to pursue. However, the narrative is gradually changing. It appears the criticism that staying at home and listening to records is better than going to shows where an artist would appear on stage and mime their songs is beginning to dawn on some of these artists.
In recent times, a crop of young musicians have dedicated themselves to performing live, thus exhibiting both their talents and offering their audience worthwhile experiences – their monies worth. Artists like the FOKN Bois, M.anifest, Trigmatic, Blitz The Ambassador, Worlasi, AkAN, Stonebwoy, Sarkodie, Yung Pabi have been exploring this aspect of their art. (The FOKN Bois, Samini – the primus of the bunch- and Stonebwoy are an exceptional case.)
One of the reasons for this surge in live band performances is the emergence of music bands in the country. Over a period of years, bands like the Musical Lunatics, Band FRA, Senku Live, Safoa Band and others have become household names on the music circuits. Led by a team of young musicians, these bands have forged relationships with some of today’s artists, backing them during their live shows. Some have even gone further to collaborate with some artists on their projects – like what Worlasi and Senku Live did on his recently released “The Man & The god” album.
At the two editions of his annual event that I have attended, rapper M.anifest has made live performances a crux of “Manifestivities”. All the artists billed on the show execute their performances backed by a live band. And, they often end up bringing their best act to the stage. One of the utmost reasons people patronize live concerts is the sense of connection that the audience feel. By watching their favourite artist on stage, fans get the opportunity to ‘touch’ these artists that they rarely get the chance to meet. Again, the energy, passion and ‘madness’ that overflows at these shows are mostly memorable, euphoric and consuming. In short, they are mostly remarkable experiences.
Live concerts again afford the audience another opportunity to appreciate the stagecraft and energy that these artists share on stage. One of the highlights of last year’s “Manifestivities” was watching rapper Ko-Jo Cue’s live performance. It was unexpected, it was fresh and, it was excellently executed. The night proved the point that a series of rehearsals, a good band and a good stage concept goes a long way to enhance an artist’s overall craft.
Another artist whose stagecraft has improved along with his music is Worlasi. As a fan who has observed his career since 2016, it was great to read and hear positive reviews of his performance at both the amphitheatre of Alliance Francaise- where he held his “The Man & The god”concert and “Manifestivities” in 2019. Like Worlasi, Yung Pabi and AkAN have continued to push the limit of their artistry, one stage at a time. I am yet to see them drop an average performance whenever they have mounted the stage. In their quest to make a lasting impression on their audience, some of these artists improvise their performances with drama thus offering their creativity a mark of authenticity.
Whether the pursuit of live music performance is a deliberate plan by some of the artists to offer more on stage than mime their own songs or the approach is being dictated by the times we live in, or event organizers are the ones requesting them to perform live, one thing remains true: an artist who can sell a good live performance stands to win in the long run.