He came close…like danger.
And nearly stole my heart, nearly snatched it out of its pulsating cavity.
But he didn't use his hands. He used the lazy groans of a steel guitar, psychedelic whines of wah-wah pedals and funky synthesizers to hypnotize me. They call him King of Juju. They call him Sunny Ade.
Long before the juju king, I soared in an affair with South Africa, where I splurged breaking dawns with Hugh Masekela’s feisty trumpet solos and Miriam Makeba’s sultry croons. I was South African—Xhosa on the weekdays, Zulu on weekends…dancer always.
Frivolous rendezvous with Congolese makossa and rumba left me giddy and gloating and blushing and bubbly and desiring more. Soukous Stars, Koffi Olomide, Werrason, Papa Wemba, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Kanda Bongo Man, Awilo Longomba...I knew them all in one fanciful blur. They’ve kissed my palms, held me square on my shoulders and one by one, they’ve sauntered into my happy-go-lucky dreams of hot, stifling nights in Le Club Nautique de Kinshasa, Le Savanana and Chez Ntemba International.
But no matter how far it drifted my heart always came back to West African Highlife. Highlife, you are the story of my people, the hymn echoing in arboreal cathedrals where canopies of treetops gather in holy arches; where tropical breezes conjure ancestral saints destined to earthen altars tucked away in understory sanctuaries. Yours is a blessed sound. Yours is an amazing grace.
They call you music. I call you Lover.
And this is my ode to you.
Lover, I do confess, you make me feel like I’m your one and only- even if I’m not.
So with the assurance of death from overdoses of joy, I pressed my palms against my spinning head upon my initial hearing of “Nya Asem Hwe” by City Boys Band. I was sure that my brainwaves had gone awry, swung right off their paths into an awakening of euphoria.
How can music touch me in places that I never knew existed?
Highlife. You’ve wooed me, stripped me naked with thumping percussions accompanied by lightly lilting guitar riffs, intermittent metallic clangs, insanely righteous harmonies and subtly pacing bass notes. Just have mercy on me. Don’t blame me because I fell in love.
Your feverish bellows loosened my hips eons ago, springing them left, right, up, down, front, back. Fluttering, praying hands flail softly and my knees quiver whenever you, Highlife, enter the room. Bring in the vocals and I’m gone. My body is here, but I’m gone. Pulled into another plane of existence where Highlife emerged, a realm of God-like blackness and a love so innocently pastoral, innocently sublime.
Highlife, you are the soundtrack of my life. Spinning fusions of agony and hope, despair and joy, peace and turmoil. You express what I cannot express with those otherworldly rhythms in Francis Kenya’s "Nyamele Se Metianu," Charles Iwegbue’s “Egwu Ukwata,” The Heartbeat’s "More Time." And when time calls for a transition into a more sentimental mood, a more philosophical atmosphere, that’s when I bask in Osita Osadebe’s "Ana Masi Ife Uwa," Peacock International Band’s "Eddie Quansah," Rex Lawson’s "Jolly Papa" and then surely one of the best compositions of all time, Celestine Ukwu’s ‘Onwunwa.’ Anyone who has not heard "Onwunwu," has not quite lived yet.
And if you, Lover, were to manifest as food, then S.E. Rogie’s "My Lovely Elizabeth" would be a bowl full of ripen strawberries. Juicy, refreshing bites of sweetness on a steamy afternoon. African Brothers Band’s "Onipa nnse hwe" would be a bar of granola, chewy. Crunchy. You give new meaning to the phrases ‘food for thought,’ ‘sugar in my tea,’ ‘butter on my bread.’
You make me feel precious, like gold… raw, like flesh.
They say you came from Nigeria, others say from Sierra Leone, or even Ghana. Wherever you came, you were born into the belly of West Africa, pulled into this world by ancient hands cradled together to receive your coming. They knew you were coming, the way old women know when death is coming. Your birth sparked a cascading symphony of thunderstorms pounding through the land, from Conakry to Onitsha… and beyond. You pushed your way into this dimension of the living, bringing with you an extraterrestrial power, bringing with you the griot’s voice.
Highlife, I’m convinced that you are the sound of a quaking world wrapped in the colors of Africa—cradle of humanity.
Dusty, root laden, shadow colored, earthy tones of nirvana, Highlife, you’ve brought me through happiness and pain. How do I thank you?
You’ve given me the courage to see my homeland the way it deserves to be seen, in all its dignified nudity.
It’s a homeland where people dance like convulsing spirits, thrusting the dusts of the Sahara from beneath.
You’ve shown me the way to appreciate everything that came before me and to anticipate what will come after me. Because Highlife, you’ve helped me understand that Africa will survive in spite of all the rape of hundreds of years; will come to know itself better than any hegemonic colonialists can, even the neoliberal ones with stark resemblances to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
And if only the politics of our homeland could sync as well as you do, I’m sure that our smiles would be more authentic.
So teach us how to blend, groove, love, rationalize, thrive, exercise the thing in our heads we call brains and nurture a truer democracy.
Because Africa isn’t really a land of crooks and thugs. It’s a land of people who have forgotten themselves. Highlife, help us to remember that there was a time when we knew our names and we bore them proudly. And we were ladies in our own right, before high heels, oyibo wigs, and skin toners; gentlemen before neckties and boxer briefs. And we told our own stories without shame. But now, we wear shame and disgrace in drab hues strewn across our bodies, flying first class to faraway lands where we can ignore the reflection of our dying souls. Disregard the poverty of our people.
We’ve diminished your relevance to mere party music, played while we wiggle our expanding waists. But you are a way of life. Your lyrics speak of ageless truths, moral goodness, a respect for the Supreme. So with my offerings of Highlife to the Supreme, I come to worship draped in bright adire and kente, crowned in glittering silken head scarves—no oyibo shoes, this is holy ground.
Highlife, you make me feel like running home, like dancing, giving, thriving until I return to the ground from whence we came.