- Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana by Nate Plageman
The social and cultural change associated with the rise and proliferation of urban centers in Africa under colonial and early independent rule has been a founding analytical theme in Africanist popular music studies, particularly in the context of West Africa. Highlife music, one of the region's earliest and most influential forms of popular music, has attracted a wealth of scholarly attention since the 1970s, resulting in the pioneering and prolific work of John Collins, as well as writings by David Coplan, Sjaak van der Geest, and Kofi E. Agovi, among other scholars. Given this considerable body of literature, another book-length publication on highlife music and urbanization ran the risk of appearing superfluous. Yet historian Nate Plageman's recent contribution, Highlife Saturday Night: Popular Music and Social Change in Urban Ghana, asserts its significance by offering intriguing new insights into what has now become a distinctly historical subject of inquiry. [End Page 223]
Plageman's work owes its fresh insights to an expansive perspective on Ghana's evolving urban recreational realm, on the one hand, and to a specific analytical focus on gendered and generational power relations, on the other. Although the book is organized chronologically to encompass the history of highlife from the emergence of its earliest forms in the late 19th century through its gradual decline in the 1970s, Plageman does not limit its scope to the culture of highlife—itself consisting of an already "ever-changing array of musical products" (p. 13). Instead, he expands his analysis to the larger socio-musical domain of urban dance music, which also allows for the consideration of other genres, such as European ballroom and American rock 'n' roll. He captures this larger domain by focusing on "Saturday Nights," in the context of which modern dance music not only constituted one of the most prominent sources of recreational pleasure for large segments of Ghana's growing urban population, but, as Plageman argues, also provided a crucial arena for diverse groups of people to engage in "larger struggles over space, resources, and the allocation of power" (p. 6).
Plageman examines this phenomenon through a wealth of primary sources consisting of ample written, audio, and visual materials, including meeting notes, government documents, event announcements, photographs, and music recordings, as well as a rich oral history collected in numerous interviews with musicians, music and dance enthusiasts, and other stakeholders involved in Ghana's dance music scenes up to the 1970s. He is particularly concerned with the articulation of power with social constructions of age and gender, pivotal—and, in urbanizing Ghana, increasingly contested—criteria of social differentiation and stratification. Consequently, much of his analysis revolves around different populations of young adults, the traditionally subordinate junior members within Ghanaian societies, and the ways in which they used the larger sociomusical domain of "Saturday Nights," including dress, sociability, and song lyrics, to challenge generational power structures, establish new social networks, and reconfigure gender relations.
Chapter 1 explores the involvement of young migrant workers in early forms of dance music, such as osibisaaba and ashiko, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; chapter 2 closely revisits the rising black middle class's adoption and development of European ballroom culture in the formal context of social and literary clubs during the first half of the 20th century; chapter 3 considers the enthusiasm of urban youth for dance music in newly arising nightclubs from the 1940s onward, including the embrace of American rock 'n' roll in the 1960s; and chapter 5 is dedicated to the challenging journey of junior musicians transitioning into male adulthood. As Plageman examines how these divergent groups of predominantly young people used the larger cultural domain of dance music entertainment as a means toward greater personal freedom and social empowerment, he also investigates how various political [End Page 224] authorities, including chiefs and elders (chapters 1–3), the British colonial administration (chapters 1 and 2), and Kwame Nkrumah's party (chapter 4) attempted...