#YNaijaOnTheScene: We attended the 1st Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Highlife Music Conference – here are the highlights

by Eromo Egbejule


In 2011, the summer anthem on the continent was Ashawo (Nwa Baby) by Nigerian highlife and dancehall singer, Flavour Nabania. Unknown to many even till this day, the song was the remake of Sawale, a 1960’s hit by Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, unarguably the most popular Nigerian highlife musician that ever lived. His influence is easily recognizable in J. Martins, Wzboyy and Duncan Mighty, all Flavour’s contemporaries.

For all his talent and fame at the time, Lawson never fully utilized his potential, dying untimely in 1971 at 36 as he was travelling by road to play at a gig in Warri, Delta State.

To fully imprint his legacy in the sands of time and keep alive his ideals and that of the genre he so popularized, the University of Port Harcourt organized a conference between the 21st-23rd January, 2015. The first step towards that was the endowment in 2012, of the Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Chair in Music to the Department of Music.

On the first day of the conference, there was a keynote address by the respected Benson Idonije, who was a columnist for The Guardian for 18 years and also the first manager of Fela Anikulakpo-Kuti. Idonije who is grandfather to Burna Boy, one of the Afrobeat-influenced new kids on the block, addressed squarely the lingering dispute in Nigerian and Ghanaian circles over the actual ownership of the highlife genre.

In his words, “The origin of highlife is associated with the guitar in its palmwine style, a West African phenomenon that was simultaneously experienced along the major coastal cities of West Africa including Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Only the name ‘highlife’ originated from Ghana. The music existed in the beginning, along the West African coastal countries where it bore various names and tags as dictated by the cultural circumstances and sociological developments in each country.”

“Highlife started as a catchy name for the songs played at clubs by such early dance bands as the Jazz Kings, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies and later, the Accra Orchestra. The people outside called it highlife as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside who not only had to pay a relatively high entrance fee of about seven shillings and sixpence, but also had to wear full evening dress, including top hats if they could afford it.”

“It is interesting to note that before this name (highlife) was introduced to Nigeria, this same music had assumed such labels as Palmwine, Ashiko and Steaming, the approach that was popularized in Lagos by the Calabra Brass Band, otherwise called The Lagos Mozart Orchestra, a brass band of trumpets, tubas and trombones led at the time by Asuquo Bassey, a Calabar indigene”.

There were other papers on highlife and its evolution throughout the years as well as the mutual borrowings by both Nigerian and Ghanaian highlife by a range of scholars. There was Prof. John Collins of the University of Ghana, Legon; Prof. Mark LeVine of the University of California; Prof. Tunji Vidal of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and Prof. Onyee Nwankpa, occupant of the Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson Music Chair at the University of Port Harcourt, Choba.

The academic sessions were interspersed with concerts in the evenings – the ultimate being a poolside highlife concert in which Ebo Taylor, the legendary Ghanaian jazz guitarist and highlife performer played a couple of nostalgic tunes including Heaven, his 1977 hit whose riffs have been sampled by R&B superstar, Usher for 2010’s She Don’t Know. Lawson’s catalog of songs were also performed in the exact slow-tempo form he recorded them, by the Rex Jim Lawon Memorial band, composed (no pun intended) of students from the Department of Music.

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