E.T. Mensah - Biography
By Robert Leaver
Musician and bandleader E.T. Mensah was a crucial figure in the development of modern African music. From Ghana in West Africa, Mensah and his band the Tempos set the standard for a new musical hybrid known as highlife. Educated under a British colonial system, Mensah’s music served as a soundtrack for the celebration of African independence. A dapper man whose dignity and pride animated his personality, Mensah earned his nickname “The King of Highlife.”
Born in the Ghanaian capital city of Accra in 1919, Mensah was fortunate to study at a school that became famous for its drum and fife band. His teacher, Joe Lamptey, is credited with introducing Ghana to the sound of large dance bands specializing in European flute, brass, and wind instrumentation. As part of Mensah’s rigorous education, he studied classical music and learned to play the organ and saxophone. While still just a teenager, he was honored to be part of Lamptey’s Accra Orchestra as their piccolo player.
Upon leaving school in 1939, Mensah joined his brother and the soon-to-be-legendary drummer Guy Warren in the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra. The group incorporated folkloric rhythms and instrumentation into their repertoire. As the Second World War began, a Scottish soldier named Jack Leopard started a band called Leopard and His Black and White Spots. The name referred to the integrated membership of the band, which included the young Mensah on alto saxophone. Although they emulated European dance bands, African-American soldiers and musicians from the Caribbean introduced them to swing jazz and calypso. Mensah enthusiastically embraced the music of the African Diaspora.
Being a practical man, Mensah also studied to become a pharmacist and earned his certification in 1943. He was then stationed in the Ashanti region and did not return to Accra until 1947. After the war, he joined the popular Tempos band in Accra where he made his mark playing his instrument of choice, the trumpet. The Tempos were a large band with a swinging brass section. Their organization and appearance mirrored that of a large jazz band or calypso orchestra. Band-mate Guy Warren brought back calypso records from London and also introduced Afro-Cuban instruments such as congas, bongos, and maracas to his band.
As the audience for highlife was changing from that of colonial elites to an increasingly African audience, the music naturally transformed itself. The Tempos were among the vanguard of highlife bands that were re-Africanizing highlife. Their cosmopolitan notion of music included Cuban son, Trinidadian calypso, French Caribbean biguine, and Afro-American swing. There is a palpable irony in the fact that it was through the music of the African Diaspora that Mensah, Warren, and their musical cohorts re-discovered their own West African folklore.
In 1948, Mensah re-formed the Tempos under his directorship with the intention of updating the instrumentation and incorporating more local African rhythms. His intent was to bridge the gap between the perceived high-class audience for jazz band highlife and the lower class guitar based music. By the time he made his first 78 rpm recordings for Decca West Africa, his band had developed a looser more popular style. His recordings featured Les Brown on guitar; a brassy trio of trombone, trumpet and saxophone; and a rhythm section that incorporated Afro-Cuban instrumentation such as bongos, congas, maracas, and clave. His records became instant hits and soon he was traveling with the Tempos to neighboring Nigeria to great success.
At one point, Mensah simultaneously maintained groups in both Ghana and Nigeria. In 1953, he traveled to London where he recorded several sides with local jazz musicians for HMV’s GV series. Singing in English, Ga, Twi, Fante, Ewe, Efik, and Hausa, the Tempos were the first Anglophone African band to reach an international audience. Songs such as “All For You,” “Inflation Calypso,” “Tea Samba,” and “Bus Conductor” reached beyond the confines of West Africa. All For You (1994 Retro Afrique) and Day by Day (1994 Retro Afrique) are both excellent collections of his 1950’s and 1960’s hits.
Mensah’s success allowed him to establish his own club, the Paramount, in Accra. One of the highlights of his career happened there in 1956 when American jazz giant and trumpeter extraordinaire Louis Armstrong came to Ghana on his African tour and jammed with Mensah. Ghana became the first Sub-Saharan African country to throw off the colonial yolk and achieve independence in 1957. Mensah’s propitious song “Ghana Freedom” celebrates the event. Although acknowledged as a cultural hero by President Kwame Nkrumah, a much-hoped-for official tour of the U.K. fell victim to new country’s economic duress in 1958. That same year Mensah took his group on a well-received tour of Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone