Sly Collins is reigniting the light of highlife music

Obiba Sly Collins: ‘ …If we don’t promote our own, who will do it for us

When a veteran musician insists that highlife music can never die, one is bound to listen to and judge by what kind of highlife does he play and for how many years has he been playing it.

For Obiba Sly Collins, veteran musician and multi-instrumentalist to say these comforting words about Ghana’s authentic music, it means he has his foot on a stone and ready to throw it into the market to alert all that the sad passing away of such legends like CK Mann and Papa Yankson among a tall list of others should not mean an end to our internationally acclaimed music.

Though many still wonder whether the music is alive and doing well, Collins is one Ghanaian musician who has consistently recorded and released highlife singles and albums down the years being the stark opposite of the current market trend when all you hear is a version of what the presenters call afrobeat or dancehall music to which many of the young and up and coming singers are turning to.

But not our Sly Collins who has again released another highlife single – Wonko menko – a throwback to the days of big band highlife music where the horn section plays a pivotal role in the rendition of the music while the vocal style tells you that you are in Ghana, where the music originates.

A self-produced single which he did with Philip Owusu, Collins still insists that nothing, no kind of music will ever rob Ghanaians of their beloved highlife despite the apparent ascendancy of the other genres even on radio playlists.

‘While on the surface it might look as if highlife is slowly suffocating to death, the reality is that those who appreciate good music, those who buy music, are not going for the new wave music which like typical pop music quickly fades out as it is just popular for the time while highlife music remains the heart and soul of any party in Ghana because the people know what is theirs and what is good music.

‘It might interest you to know that the number of new generation musicians doing their stuff in the highlife vein is awesome, they are in the majority, and when you attend social gatherings, their music is played most but because they are not making noise over it many think our music has lost a place in our homes.’

As he told a newspaper recently, “We need to flood the industry with more highlife songs and I believe it’s time we re-brand highlife to meet the demand of its lovers in Ghana and beyond. I will urge music stakeholders to support the highlife music because it belongs to us.” Well said, Sly Collins!

Based on that belief, he wants more joint efforts between the new and old generation of highlife musicians so as to catch the vibes – getting the new sound affixed to the old so that both generations can be part of this new musical revolution.

Whatever music you play, he explained, you cannot depart from the roots, the musical scales are the same and there is nothing one can add to it. Whatever will be lovely will be the experience the older generation of highlife musicians have to add to the energy that comes from the youth thereby getting the two solidly involved in taking highlife music to new horizons, beyond the realms traversed by the ET Mensahs and the Ramblers Band of old whose musical works are still very relevant and have become collectors’ items.

‘Innovation and creativity are needed to bring the music up to speed with current worldwide trends. Every music must evolve and be relevant both culturally, and in tandem with the times so as to improvise and be able to keep a couple on the floor as long as the music lasts.

‘When the pioneers played highlife, dancers wore tuxedos same way the musicians also dressed reading their music scores, but times have changed. We, highlife musicians, are also dressing up as pop musicians while the dancers want to dance with more energy unlike what was in the past.

‘That entails that the music must catch up with the times and bring the youth in and that’s what I’ve seen of the youth venturing into highlife music as they have brought in the energy that is needed to propel the music further. That is the spirit we need to push the music on to the international scene,’ he added.

He also enjoined proprietors of entertainment spots to give highlife music the necessary push it deserves as our local music plays a great role in tourism. ‘What is the point in an American visiting an entertainment spot in Ghana and still listen to Jay Z or John Legend’s music, music he has been listening to all his life.

‘As a tourist, he wants to experience something unique, something different from what pertains in Europe or the USA and the best welcome we can give him is our highlife music which will be refreshing in his ears; that is what the entertainment spots – hotels, restaurants, night clubs, pubs complemented by the electronic media must do, they must play our music constantly, and that’s the only way they can promote us,’ he added.

In concluding the interview, he said: If we don’t promote our own, who will do it for us.