- Praxis, Perspectives, and Methods of Ghanaian Popular MusicA Special Issue in Honor of John Collins
The 2017 issue of Ghana Studies honors the scholarship of E. John Collins, Professor of Music at the University of Ghana, Legon, and founding director of the Bokoor African Popular Music Archives Foundation (BAPMAF). As a special issue, it draws attention to the sweeping contributions John has made during his illustrious career as a scholar, journalist, bandleader, guitarist, union activist, and recording engineer. It is no exaggeration to state that over the last four decades John has revolutionized understandings of Ghanaian popular music and theater. More generally, he is one of a handful of scholars who have pioneered the study of African popular culture, arguing for its political and cultural significance in the face of critics who have seen the popular as not worthy of scholarly attention. In contrast, his research demonstrates how popular culture is crucial to how most people have experienced broader structural issues of power, money, race, politics, and mobility in the 20th and 21st centuries. His writings, as well as his wider efforts to promote the work of West African artists, have also made Ghana's popular cultural landscape one of the most widely studied and best understood on the African continent. Resonating far beyond the study of popular music and theater, John's work has transformed our efforts to reconstruct and analyze the sociocultural dynamics of colonial and postcolonial Ghana and West Africa more widely.
The articles that follow do not fully capture the multifaceted importance of John's work. Nor is that their intent. Instead, they all take inspiration from, and seek to build upon, his path-breaking efforts to understand [End Page 3] various aspects of Ghanaian popular culture and its wider social, political, and economic climate of production and consumption. By unveiling the breadth of John's weighty contributions, these articles seek to promote additional research on the vibrant and fluid domains of West African popular music and theater, mediums that have long outpaced our efforts to document them. They also seek to provide overdue recognition of John's manifold contributions, a need that became particularly salient during two recent scholarly gatherings. The first occurred in June 2015, when many of the contributors to this issue took part in an interdisciplinary conference titled "Memory, Power, and Knowledge in African Music and Beyond," held at the Dhow Countries Music Academy (DCMA) in Zanzibar. The conference, which brought together an international cohort of scholars, musicians, and archivists, was marked by several lively conversations about the historical and contemporary intersections of musical practice, power, social memory, and identities within African societies. John's unexpected absence also marked the gathering and sparked a series of formal and informal conversations about his sweeping influence on the study of African music and the need to formally recognize it.
Roughly one year later, we congregated with another impressive group of interdisciplinary scholars at the University of Cape Coast to take part in the "Global Ghana" conference, sponsored by the Ghana Studies Association. Over the course of four invigorating days of conversations—which bounced across anthropology, cultural studies, economics, education, ethno-musicology, gender studies, history, literature, political science, religion, and sociology—we acquired additional vantage points from which to appreciate the considerable impacts that John's work has had on our understanding of present-day Ghana's social, cultural, and political complexities.
John's work with Ghanaian popular music began in 1969, when he initiated his studies at University of Ghana, Legon. His father, Edmund F. Collins, had come to the Gold Coast to help establish the philosophy department at University College—which would become University of Ghana. John was a guitarist, and when he arrived in Accra he quickly began playing with numerous musicians. He became friends with comedian and theater troupe leader Y. B. Bampoe and began touring with his wildly popular concert party highlife group, the Jaguar Jokers. John became fascinated with this style of guitar band highlife and the concert party theater, an ecclectic theatrical style combining music and storytelling that was at the height of its popularity across West Africa. Bampoe recounted that...