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Reviewed by:
  • Highlife Time 3 by John Collins
  • Gavin Webb
John Collins. Highlife Time 3. Accra: DAkpabli & Associates, 2018. 631 pp. Photographs. References. Bibliography. $34.99. Paper. ISBN: 978-9988-2-7619-5.

Over the last decade, ethnomusicologists and connoisseurs of popular music from Africa have welcomed a growing number of monographs devoted to highlife music, or books engaging contemporary offshoots such as hiplife. A foundational text to any study of Ghanaian popular music is without doubt Collins's seminal work Highlife Time (1994), now released in its third edition by the publishing outfit DAkpabli & Associates. Despite the importance of Highlife Time, it is unfortunate that there appear to be no reviews of the first two editions in any scholarly journal.

The story of highlife in Ghana is almost a century and a half old. Throughout this period, highlife has not only been a dynamic form of artistic expression and entertainment for performers and patrons but also a compelling prism through which to view important social, political, economic, and historical transformations in the Gold Coast and Ghana. While Highlife Time 3 has the same "feel" as earlier editions—fifty-plus chapters organized by multiple sections, text interwoven with transcribed interviews, presentation of thematic sections largely through seemingly self-contained chapters, a journalistic narrative punctuated by moments of profound insight, and emphasis on primary materials—this latest edition presents significant revisions and updates. On a more personal level, Highlife Time 3 reads as Collins's magnum opus in that it is the culmination of his fifty-plus years of living in Ghana as a researcher, performer, archivist, journalist, professor, producer, and fan of Ghanaian popular music.

At 631 pages, this book covers a lot of ground. Following a 52-page prologue divided into three parts and a 17-page introductory chapter, Collins organizes his narrative into ten sections made up of 64 chapters, concluding with a coda. Better editorial attention could have helped clear up the cumbersome organization of materials, some typo and formatting issues, and one instance where ten pages of text from chapter 56 repeats verbatim in chapter 57.

The prologue updates readers on popular music's development in Ghana since the mid-1990s, establishes the musical styles informing recent developments ("musical pots" as Collins describes them), and gives an account of "millennial highlife" and how highlife's resurgence after the bleak period of the 1980s and 1990s is grounded in the concept of the "highlife imagination." This concept ultimately describes the musical parameters at the heart of compositional and performance norms found all over [End Page E21] southern Ghana and built into the structure of highlife—emphasis on syncopation, offbeat timing, polyphony, polyrhythm, etc. For Collins, the "highlife imagination" is akin to a musical grammar that has found expression in the many foreign- or locally-influenced permutations and offshoots that have developed since the emergence of the earliest proto-highlife styles in the late nineteenth century.

The introductory chapter presents an account of highlife's development in Ghana beginning from the 1880s to the present. Here Collins reveals the book's ambitious rationale, which is not only to unpack highlife in a nuanced way, but also to cover its "cousins" in places such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Collins asserts that highlife's interconnectedness to styles such as maringa, juju, or makossa and its impact across many parts of West Africa should compel enthusiasts to consider it an "ECOWAS music." (78)

The subsequent ten sections are the heart of the book, engaging high-life's evolution over the last 140 years. Collins builds the first seven sections chronologically, with the last three focusing on important topics informing readers of highlife's broader implications in Ghana and West Africa. In order these sections are:

Highlife Time 3 represents an important contribution to the study of popular music in Africa for several reasons. First, Collins unearths the critical factors leading to the decimation of Ghana's popular music industry by the neoliberal period of the 1980s. These include political turmoil and subsequent economic collapse, two years of night curfews and drought, mass expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria, imposition of import taxes on instruments, removal of music from the...


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