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  • Popular Performance and Culture in Ghana*The Past 50 Years
  • John Collins


This paper examines contemporary African culture from the mid-20th century through the lens of the popular arts. Although Ghana is the focus, first I look at some of the general features of what is a transcultural sub-Saharan phenomenon and take the story back to the late 19th century, when popular cultural forms began to be created by the newly emerging African urban masses, the maritime workers, and the cash-crop farmers, who blended or "syncretized" local forms with those of Europe and America (including its black diaspora), introduced through colonial soldiers, missionaries, and traders, as well as through then available forms of mass media. Despite their hybrid nature, these new cultural forms contained and still contain distinctive features that express the identities, symbols, and underlying value orientations of their African creators, practitioners, and audiences. The ability of these new art forms to reflect the moods and outlooks of Africans undergoing rapid sociocultural transformations is helped by their often ephemeral and transient nature, or what Karin Barber (1987, p. 12) calls their "aesthetic of change."

These new African art forms go far beyond what in the West is normally called "art," for they embrace coffin designs (Burns, 1974; Secretan, 1994); house and barroom murals (Beinart, 1968; Szombati-Fabian & Fabian, 1976); local portrait photography (Amicchia, 1999; Hales, 1998; Sprague, 1978); sign-writing; advertisements (from barbering to bread labels [Middleton, 1974]); wire bicycles (Jackson, 1978); lorry slogans [End Page 175] (Kyei & Schreckenbach, 1975); comic literature;1 and local cloth designs.2 Popular performance lyrics and text also generate catch-names and idiomatic expressions, which I discuss later.

Most Africanist writers on popular culture generally agree that the practitioners of popular performance and popular art are drawn largely from the "intermediate" groups in African society. These groups (consisting of urban or urbanizing Africans, skilled and semiskilled artisans, transport workers, seamen, traders, minor civil servants, cash-crop farmers, and so on3) have developed since the 19th century between the national elites and the vast class of subsistence peasant farmers. The intermediate status of some of Ghana's pioneering popular performers is exemplified by the highlife guitarists Kwame Asare (Jacob Sam) and his nephew Kwaa Mensah, who also held down jobs as a carpenter, a mining surveyor's assistant, a watch repairer, and a cocoa broker. Sutherland (1970, pp. 5, 18) also mentions that Bob Ansah and C. B. Hutton, of the 1930s Two Bobs concert party group, had been a small storekeeper and a tribunal clerk, respectively.

To jump forward several decades, if indeed emergent African popular arts and culture involved the crossing and blurring of cultural boundaries (transculturation), the "aesthetic of change," the "intermediate" layers [End Page 176] of society, and urbanization, then one can see contemporary emergent separatist churches (spiritual, aladura, apostolic, and Pentecostal) also as manifestations of popular culture. They are transcultural or syncretic in that they incorporate African features like dancing, possession, spiritual healing, exorcism, and divination. The local church congregations are drawn from the very same "intermediate" masses as are popular artists.4 The churches are also relevant to urban change in that they are concerned with the "chaos" (Brempong, 1986, p. 260) and "horrors" (Barber, 1987, p. 50) of modern city life, such as prostitution, alcoholism, extreme social stratification, and broken homes.5 Furthermore, the "popular" churches are what Kenneth Little (1970) calls "fictional kinship groups" that provide tension-management mechanisms for the anxieties and problems faced by new city dwellers.6 But it is also crucial to remember that the "popular" separatist churches directly draw upon African popular performance as well. I return to this later, but there are also early examples that illustrate the dynamic and transcultural nature of separatist churches from the 1920s: the Ghanaian Church of the Twelve Apostles,7 which utilized tambourines, rattles, and dancing; and the Nigerian aladura or "praying" churches (also established in Ghana), which employed the frame drums of local assiko (or ashiko) popular music (see Waterman, 1990; and Collins & Richards, 1989).

There are two further introductory points to make: first, the importance of popular performance to the youth; and, second, its double or circular...


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