‘Everything felt new’: the cross-cultural joy of Ghana’s ‘Burger Highlife’ music

Nightlife was booming in Ghana in the 1970s: live bands like James Brown, Kool and the Gang, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones played to sold-out dancehalls, and pop music from Europe and the USA dominated the radio. Traditional sounds were often marginalized as DJs turned to funk, soul, disco and rock – but those heady days didn’t last.

Political turmoil stemming from a series of coups and military dictatorships would soon drive out many of the country’s most talented musicians. As the country headed towards an economic crisis in the 1980s, Jerry Rawlings’ government imposed an embargo on live music and imposed a 160% import tax on musical instruments. “People who made a living from playing live music couldn’t do it anymore,” recalls Herman Asafo-Agyei, later bassist for the bands Osibisa and Native Spirit. “So people fled.”

As early as 1979 the Musicians Union of Ghana estimated that 25% of musicians had emigrated in search of better opportunities, many to Germany, Britain and other European countries. Ghanaian highlife music – a local style that fuses elements of traditional music with jazz, often featuring brass, guitars, vocals and percussive rhythms – took on a new identity abroad. Danceable polyrhythms were overlaid with the sounds of polyphonic synthesizers; Recordings sent back to Ghana endeared a whole new generation to this futuristic music. Some simply called it “Fusion”, others used the term “Burger Highlife”, referring to the German word “bürger” and cities like Hamburg where it originated. A new compilation series called Borga Revolution! now shed some light on this vibrant and overlooked subgenre.

George Darko & Bus Stop Tape.George Darko and the Bus Stop Band

It all started with George Darko, whose 1983 single Akoo Te Brofo – a lively funk couch banger full of wild sax, synth bass and the kind of disco kick-and-snare you’d expect to find at New York’s Paradise Garage nightclub – is often considered the birth of the burger high life. Wilson Boateng, a former London minicab driver who came to the UK in the mid-80s as a budding musician, was there to see Darko and the band Bus Stop performing live at the Eredec Hotel in Koforidua when the phenomenon first emerged.

“Oh, that was something special that day,” Boateng recalls. “They had all these new instruments and a mix of white European stars among them – all playing Highlife. The song was all over the airwaves and people were so excited. We went in a new direction and the music was amazing.”

Though inspired, Boateng was dissatisfied with life in Ghana after the Rawling military coup (“there were no jobs, the economy was declining, the soldiers used violence – people were scared”), so he upped the ante and moved to London to get a job in a Methodist bookshop across from Madame Tussauds. The city “strolled,” he tells me, expressing his delight at arriving in a place where “everything [felt] new’, and after leading praise and worship songs in local choirs at nearby churches, Boateng began writing his own music and recorded it at Barrington Studios in Brixton in 1988.

“Ghana didn’t have synthesizers,” he recalls. “[But] in London they were very popular. All the top stars and bands used them and I was very interested in them too. It made my music completely different.” Elements of jazz, rock and disco were incorporated into an album later titled Highlife Rock, featuring tracks like Mabre Agu and Asew Watchman, which featured funky guitar licks and wobbly midi bass lines with faux partying -Horns unite. Boateng pressed 1,000 copies on vinyl and cassette and sold them by hand to Ghanaian shops across the city.

“I was hoping it would do well in the market!” he says. “But the people I relied on to sell the album let me down. They messed everything up – and as a result, it didn’t sell the way I expected. It was hard for me.” The album may not have had much impact at first, but Boateng is sort of the star of the new compilation: an archive photo of the young, stylishly dressed artist performing in the singing booth adorns the cover of the first volume of Borga Revolution! Ghanaian dance music in the digital age, 1983-1992.

Equally determined was Joe Appiah of Uncle Joe’s Afri-Beat (whose tracks Eshe Wo Kon Ho and Mr DJ are highlights on the compilation). His career began while he was in high school in the 1960’s as a singer in the state-sponsored Zone F Brigade Band. But when the Nkrumah government was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, the group was disbanded. “We had to find a new place as professional musicians,” Appiah recalls, and over the next decade he cycled through bands as a series of military uprisings rocked the nation.

“I was a soul singer… one of the best in Ghana!” Appiah exclaims. He had built a following in his home country and set his sights on becoming famous. At the request of his fans, he traveled to Amsterdam in the late 1970s to collect money: the plan was to found and finance his own band with his own instruments after his return to Ghana. But things turned out to be less simple.

“When I got here, I had to do cleaning jobs or work in factories because I needed money,” says Appiah, who still lives in Amsterdam. “I had to do all the jobs that lay ahead of me. But still I couldn’t come [enough to buy] a set of instruments.”

Appiah managed to record his own works in Amsterdam – and he finished them in Ghana with the help of some local talent. Among them was the legendary multi-instrumentalist Kiki Gyan – then a member of the successful Ghanaian-British band Osibisa, who had had a big hit in the UK in 1975 with the Afro-rock classic Sunshine Day.

Herman Asafo-Agyei performing with Native Spirit in Vancouver, circa 1989.Herman Asafo-Agyei performing with Native Spirit in Vancouver, circa 1989

“I wanted to see if I could find someone to listen to my music and take me where I need to go,” Appiah says of the resulting 1988 album Owo Odo. But it didn’t come to that, and the record was not a financial success. “People made copies of the songs and sold them themselves,” Appiah says of the piracy that hampered his release plans. “So I stopped. I didn’t do it again.” Despite the disappointment, the music remains intriguing: Owo Odo sells for over £200 in second-hand marketplaces, no doubt thanks in part to Gyan’s presence and Appiah’s distinctive vocals.

Where Boateng and Appiah struggled to set the world on fire, Herman Asafo-Agyei succeeded. Himself a member of Osibisa between 1985 and 2011, Asafo-Agyei was the leader of his own burger highlife band in the mid-’80s, which managed to secure an international career.

Asafo-Agyei studied law in London in the 80’s and was also a session bass player, working on reggae, afro funk and even rock music recordings. After performing with Osibisa in front of 50,000 people in Ghana at the behest of the government, Asafo-Agyei formed Native Spirit, intended as a backing band for Ghanaian highlife artists performing in the UK. They found other opportunities in the US and Canada, including as a backing band for singer Pat Thomas, and were signed to the Afronova label. “Our first album was very well received by the local music magazines – they were rave reviews,” says Asafo-Agyei. The dream of an international breakthrough soon seemed to become a reality: “I thought I had a future with this band.”

Native Spirit reached some high points: Asafo-Agyei recalls supporting Fela Kuti when he was on tour in Canada; played at “a club in Minneapolis that Prince owned,” the legendary First Avenue; and to headline a Toronto Harbor concert to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s release from prison (“a hugely important moment for me,” recalls Asafo-Agyei). They recorded two albums, but during Odo San Bra Fie, from the self-titled first of them, one of the funkiest offerings on Borga Revolution! the second was never released due to label disagreements and the group disbanded. Today Asafo-Agyei is the pastor of the Northolt Grange Baptist Church in London.

“Highlife was my blood—it was our tune, our sound,” says Appiah. But while he, Boateng and Asafo-Agyei all continued to write new music, the genre’s popularity was already declining by the late ’80s, as were the sounds of disco and boogie waning together. Ghana’s economy rallied, and by the late ’90s — despite standout tracks like Paa Jude’s bright and infectious Madonna-esque Odo Refre Wo being released on labels like Peckham’s Asona Records — the burger highlife was being replaced by exciting new hybrids in Ghana , like hip-hop and reggaeton-influenced hip life.

Burger Highlife nonetheless remains an essential milestone in the development of Ghanaian music – and in 2022, the music sounds as fresh and captivating as anything else. The optimism is contagious, and the musicians still radiate it. Appiah is elated as he says goodbye to our phone call. “If there’s someone who wants to take me to the top, I’m ready for it!”