A few months back, a group of Germans organised a workshop on the declining fortunes of highlife music at the University of Lagos. The gathering, which drew participants from West Africa and beyond, deliberated on the past, the present and the bleak future of highlife. Femi Esho, Managing Director, Evergreen Musical Company and one of the supporters of highlife music in Nigeria, presented a paper on the future of the music genre in a changing world. The paper presented by Esho, who started collecting highlife works in his teens, drew attention and applause from participants. He was later met by two Ghanaians, Ebo Taylor, a former member of both Stargazers Band of Ghana and Broadway Dance Band, and Standplant, who performed with the famous Uhuru Dance Band of Ghana. The artistes, like most highlife lovers in Ghana, wanted Evergreen Musical Company to duplicate its reproduction of vintage works of highlife masters in Ghana. This became necessary following the disappearance of great works by legends like E.T. Mensah, Joe Mensah and groups like Black Beats of Ghana, Ramblers Dance Band, Broadway Dance Band and Uhuru Dance Band. Now, highlife lovers in Ghana can heave a sigh of relief, as Esho begins the process of re-packaging these lost works. Recently, he travelled to Ghana where he held talks with musicians and their agents on how to quickly reproduce the works, which are all in his archives. According to Esho, the deal covers production, distribution and issues of royalty.Until 1951, Ghana remained the only country in West Africa with significant interest in highlife music. That year, however, highlife came to Nigeria through E.T. Mensah, the famous Ghanaian trumpeter who collaborated with Bobby Benson, Nigeria’s doyen of highlife. Benson’s Taxi Driver, considered Nigeria’s first highlife number, came shortly after. Mensah returned to Nigeria a few years later to do a duet with Victor Olaiya, another Nigerian highlife giant. The collaboration was very successful, resulting in the creation of the smash hit, Esi Nana. It also influenced a new generation of highlife musicians. Ironically, Ghana, which brought highlife music to Nigeria, is about to depend on Nigeria. Esho and his Evergreen Musical Company are not only preserving lost works by reproducing them, but also visiting highlife clubs and encouraging live performances in Ghana. Before venturing into Ghana, Esho had repackaged numerous works by Nigerian highlife masters. In 2007, he presented the complete works of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at the MUSON Centre in Lagos. The well attended ceremony drew Fela’s fans from far and near. Other old works in new digitally re-mastered compact discs include 20 Celebrated Nigerian Music Masters, 25 Golden Hits of Seven Nigerian Music Icons and works of artistes like Rex Jim Lawson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Crosdale Juba, Adeolu Akinsanya, Ayinde Bakare, Tunde Nightingale and others. So far, Esho has not been accused of any sharp practice by the benefitting families who are usually educated on the details of the contracts before signing. He told TheNEWS that he has managed to stay out of trouble with the families because royalties are paid as, and when, due. The future, he claimed, is bright for highlife so long as the right things are done.
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