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Burger Highlife Explosion!!!
On the last day of the Busara music festival, concertgoers sat down to sink their teeth into some food, and their eyes and ears into Burger HighLife Explosion!!! The Goethe Institute’s documentary pays homage to a Ghanaian-origin music genre, but is it palatable?
The title is a juicy mouthful, and it breaks down well: Firstly, ‘Highlife’ refers to the popular West African music genre originating out of Ghana as early as the 1920s. A fusion genre with its own evolution – this style started by marrying Ghanaian tradition with magpie musical influences from cultural contact - jazz, swing, and even ballroom. All through the sixties, highlife music spread across West Africa with unmatched popularity, distilling into a sound characterised by traditional instruments and beats matched with guitars, horns and synthesizers for an upbeat coastal brew.
The ‘Burger’ then comes later. Following Ghana’s military coup in 1981, enforced curfews curtailed nighttime activity, hitting the highlife music scene the hardest. As a result, some of Ghana’s most talented packed up and plugged into Germany instead. Ergo we arrive at "Burger Highlife", or as highlife legend George Darko puts it, "burger means citizen or resident in German. So ‘burger highlife’ music is highlife music meant for Ghanaian residents in Germany."
The ‘Explosion’ was inevitable. Ghanaians in other European countries began to jump on the Burger bun, while a stream of records from Dusseldorf studios sustained popularity for highlife in Ghana. Artists later brought back their new sound (and recording equipment) to Ghana - some as famed musicians, some enthroned as kings.
The documentary thus focuses on the German chapter of highlife’s long history of musical influences. Reading more like a retro VH1 playback, the film is dominated by 1980s music videos and performances shown nearly in their entirety. As music video footage plays, erstwhile highlifers pop up in corner frames to comment on their former work. This effect, matched with superimposed marquee and animated frame transitions, produces a cinematographic style not unlike that of the featured music videos from decades prior.
As a result, the film lacks robust narrative structure. Perhaps the focus on Germany was too narrow, and a broader swathe of the highlife's evolution would have contextualised the subject and baited more viewers. Nonetheless, it seemed the film failed to keep pace with the adrenaline high of the festival. A small turnout of Busara fans sat down more for respite and refuelling than to check out highlife jams. What did they miss? For starters some serious food for thought. The film climaxes with an artful sequence of shots of artists’ and academics’ responses to the same question: "If it is true that there are only three things that can alter a man's sense of himself – religion, sex and drugs – what then is highlife?”
As the camera moves slowly from Darko’s feet to head showcasing the musician’s full royal garb, I drew on my little grasp of Film Theory 101 to question the ‘gaze’ behind the camera. Is this a German scope on West African music culture, and its brief stint in the Deutschland? Or do viewers get a Ghanaian lens on life and music in and out of the German diaspora?
Directors Wilma Kiener, Dieter Matzka and Alpha Yahaya Suberu cast a wide net of interviews to dabble into both sides of the story. Among Ghana’s musical talent the film features movers and shakers Pat Thomas, Lee Dodou, Bob Fiscian, Albert Jones and Atongo Zimba. The film also includes insight from Professor John Collins from the music department of the University of Ghana, and producers like Bodo Staiger and Peter Krick of the former Skyline Studios.
At times I held my breath as some German professionals skirted a tad too close to describing Ghana’s best as talent untapped until their arrival in Germany. Regardless, it is undeniable that highlife’s sojourn in Hamburg came with immense impact. The sheer wealth of high quality sound and footage that came out of this period speaks to unprecedented access to recording resources for the Ghanaian musicmakers.
And as eras before, proximity to Western culture informed this music in style, instrument and content. I mean, no one can say that Atongo Zimba’s No Beer in Heaven came straight out of Accra.
Does 'Burger Highlife' have a lasting flavour? With a history building up to a centennial in Ghana, highlife music has made an undeniably lasting mark in West Africa and will continue to, Burger or no Burger. Then again, I for one haven’t been able to get Lee Dodou’s Ahuma Tia out of my head since.