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  • John Collins:Highlife's Accidental Archivist
  • Catherine M. Cole

"I've always been inquisitive," John Collins said in a 1993 interview.1 Innate curiosity and fate propelled John Collins onto a life path unique in the history of Ghana or, indeed, much of Africa. In 1952, at the tender age of eight, fate brought John from his British homeland to the Gold Coast colony where his father helped establish the Department of Philosophy at the University of Ghana during the final years of British rule. Yet fate also sent John home: his parents' divorce prompted an abrupt return to Britain for the remainder of John's childhood. However, it was curiosity that brought him back to independent Ghana in 1969. He came with a guitar in tow and equipped with the knowledge of how to play rock and roll—knowledge that Ghanaian musicians were keen to acquire. While John was ostensibly studying sociology and archaeology for his BA at the University of Ghana, his real passion was trading musical knowledge. He taught Ghanaian musicians how to play rock and roll, and they, in turn, taught him the distinctive chord progressions and offbeat rhythm of West African highlife music. This interweaving of performance cultures is both a defining feature of John's life and, more broadly, a defining feature of the musical practices in Ghana that have been his abiding passion.2 Perhaps this is why Collins has said of Ghana, "This place is my destiny."3 [End Page 13]

During nearly half a century, John's inquisitiveness and passion led him to become a musician, music producer, archivist, journalist, teacher, activist and policy maker on behalf of musicians, and a scholar, attaining a PhD in ethnomusicology from SUNY Buffalo in 1994. John's interest in African popular music was matched by Ghanaian musicians' interest in both local and transnational cultural flows, regardless of origin. John has found Ghanaian musicians to be radically pluralistic, with voracious appetites for ideas, techniques, styles, and genres regardless of cultural derivation. "Despite the fact that the musicians and actors slept on village floors, and had little formal education, they were very cosmopolitan guys, and gave their own creative interpretations," according to John.4

Transnational cultural traffic has been central to Ghanaian popular culture dating back to the nineteenth century, at least. When the British brought soldiers from the Caribbean to fight in the Ashanti War between 1873 and 1901, calypso came along with them.5 The flow of people to and through Ghana during the twentieth century via immigration, trade, colonization, military operations, and Christian missions also brought a circulation of objects and cultural practices: sheet music; Gramophone records; silent and talking pictures; American minstrelsy; Western dances such as the fox-trot and the waltz; musical styles such as American blues and soul, as well as Latin American rumba, pachanga, and samba—all of these, when they arrived on Ghana's soil, readily took root with local artists who appropriated, integrated, and transformed what they found, while also abandoning ideas as they saw fit. Without the prolific documentation provided by John Collins, we would be hard-pressed today to even begin to understand the scope of these cultural flows. As Nate Plageman writes in this current volume, "Collins … has unveiled remarkable insights into how otherwise invisible people decolonized imported cultural resources, recovered lost histories, and outlined imagined futures." In a land with limited literacy and archives skewed by colonial biases, performance cultures potentially provide a valuable record of public discourse. The dynamism of lived artistic practice is compelling, but accessing these historical sources is challenging. Researchers of African popular culture have to approach questions of sources and methods with an appetite for innovation, appropriation, experimentation, irreverence, [End Page 14] and iconoclasm—not unlike the approach to sources and methods that popular artists themselves use.

From James Brown, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin in the United States to Fela Kuti in Nigeria and Bob Marley and the Wailers in the Caribbean, the flow of musical genres and styles to and through Ghana has been steady and from many directions. But ironically, formal education, including scholarly knowledge production with its conventional disciplinary boundaries and geographic frames, has...


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