E.T. Mensah and the Tempos

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E.T. Mensah of Accra (1919-1996) led the Tempos from 1948 onwards.

Known as "King of Highlife", he was one the founding fathers of African popular music. His career stretched from the early 1930s to the late 1980s, and his music reached beyond Ghana to all corners of Africa and Europe.

After school he and his brother joined the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra, playing European dance music, but also incorporating new developments from Black Americans and West Indians in the Gold Coast. European musicians with the Allied forces were also playing in the Gold Coast. He joined Sergeant Jack Leopard and his Black and White Spots.

Just after the war, E. T. joined the Tempos, set up by Ghanaian pianist Adolf Doku and an English engineer and sax player called Arthur Harriman. he joined the Tempos band along with Joe Kelly and Guy Warren. Warren had played with Afro-Cuban musicians in America and Europe, and had brought records, including calypsos, leading to new influences in post-war highlife, now performed for an African audience.

He told Prof. John Collins: 'We urgently wanted an indigenous rhythm to replace the fading foreign music of waltz, rumba, etc...We evolved a music relying on basic African rhythms. A criss-cross African cultural sound, so to speak. No one can really lay claim to its creation. It had always been there, entrenched in West African culture. What I did was give highlife world acceptance.'

The Tempos visited Nigeria in 1950. At that time, dance bands there were still playing swing. A Nigerian version of highlife resulted.

At first the band included some white soldiers, but after the war the Europeans left and the band became completely African. Bob Johnson notes:

“The Tempos jazzy highlife sound became the sound-symbol or zeitgeist of the early independence era as its use of a western jazz-combo format to play African music reflected independence itself, when the western socio-economic colonial format became Africanized”.

For an example of highlife's Ghanaian social commentary, infused by American-Cuban musical style, listen to the Inflation Calypso.

Mensah composed over forty highlife tunes in support of Ghana's first leader, Kwame Nkrumah, provide music at major CCP rallies and accompany the leader on State visits to neighboring countries.

E.T. Mensah composed the following songs in support of Ghanaian nationalism, utilizing the highlife idiom, strongly influenced by jazz, even as nationalism was influenced by African-American intellectual figures, such as WEB Dubois.

Ghana Freedom

Ghana, Guinea, Mali