In 1998 Ghana lost one of its greatest highlife exponents, the Accra born King Bruce who composed many highlife classics, particularly in his native language Ga. He had a particular ability to write his Ga lyrics in a poetic way and put to haunting and relaxed melodies.
King Bruce was born in James Town, Accra, in 1922. His musical experiences started early and were varied. His mother belonged to a traditional women's singing group called Etsi Penfo. His eldest brother Kpakpo Thompson taught him piano. Another brother, Eddie Bruce, played palm wine guitar styles like "fireman" and "dagomba wire," in a band with a group of seamen called Canteen. At the same time and much against his parent's wishes, King was a keen follower of the Accra street music, such as the alaha (also called adaha), kolomashie, tsibode, koyin, and other popular dance-styles played by the local Ga-Adangme ethnic group.
At the prestigious Achimota College secondary school, King continued to be inspired by music, particularly by some of the teachers who taught there. These included Phillip Gbeho, who composed Ghana's national anthem, and Doctor Ephraim Amu. Doctor Amu was, as King recalled, "my house-master as well as my music teacher and taught us his Twi and Ewe songs. He had come to Achimota after he lost his appointment as a teacher at the Akropong Training College because of his strong African tendencies. He didn't believe in the idea of going to classes or church in Western-style suits, but always wore traditional kente cloth or batakari. He had these strong feelings about African culture as far back as the 1930s and was welcomed at Achimota, as the founders of the school--Guggisberg, Fraser, and Aggrey--were strongly interested in promoting African ways."
It was at the end of his schooldays at Achimota that King developed a taste for swing and dance-band music, for as he told me, "These were the war years and we had British and American army units stationed here. They had bands for their entertainment and so ballroom music progressed very much. The airport was virtually taken over by the Americans and one wing of Achimota College itself was taken over by he British resident minister, who was taking care of the British war effort here. So this was the time of musicians like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodnmn and Artie Shaw; so by the time I left Achimota, I had a definite taste for jazz and swing."
King did not actually start playing in dance band, however, until he had spent a couple of years in England studying to be a civil servant with the P & T (Posts and Telegraphs) and learning to play the trumpet. On returning to Accra in 1951 he hung around for awhile with top musicians like Adolf Doku, E.T. Mensah, Kofi Ghanaba (Guy Warren), Joe Kelly, and Papa Hughes. He occasionally played clips (claves) for Ghana's leading highlife dance-band, the Tempos. When King felt he was ready to go on stage with his trumpet, he joined Teacher Lamptey's Accra Orchestra.
King stayed with this group until 1952, when he and tenor saxophonist Saka Acquaye formed the Black Beats band. King recalled, "The name just came out spontaneously. One evening when we were coming home from rehearsals, Saka asked me what name we were going to use. Without hesitation, I said `Black Beats.' The reason was that Doctor Amu at Achimota had impressed on us the necessity for doing things African. At the same time, we were all very much enamored with jazz, swing and music with a beat. So we were all interested in playing good dance-band music, but keen on giving everything a recognizably African beat."
In contrast with other Ghanaian dance-bands, the Black Beats vocalists (the Black Birds, Lewis Wadawa, and Frank Barnes) dominated the instrumental line-up; and in this they were influenced by the swing and "jump" music of Afro-American Louis Jordan. It was with this high vocal profile that the Black Beats began to release a string of highlife hits for the labels of the day, HWV, Senophone, and Decca. The titles King composed included "Teemon Sane" (A Confidential Matter), "Laimomo" (Old Lover), "Nkuse Mbaa Dong" (I'll Never Return), "Nomo Noko" (A Thing of Joy), "Srotoi Ye Mli" (Distinctions), and "Agoogyl" (Money - a song composed by Oscarmore Ofori).
In 1961 disaster struck the band. Alto saxophonist Jerry Hansen and nine musicians left the semi-professional Black Beats to form the fully professional Ramblers dance band. Nevertheless, within a few months King had reorganized his band and with this second-generation Black Beats began releasing more hits for Decca, like "Se Nea Woti Ara" (1 Love You Just as You Are), "Kwemo Ni Okagbi" (Take Care You Don't Dry Up), "Odo Fofor" (New Love), and "Nkase Din" (I Am Quietly Poised).
During the whole period when King was running the Black Beats, he was slowly working his way up the civil service ladder, but getting a lot of criticism from his superiors for playing on stage. As King told me, "At first the opposition from my employers came in hints. Then in 1967 the opposition came in black and white as a result of a letter I received from the government. It was from the head of the Administrative Civil Service and they told me that I had now got to the stage where I was due for promotion from assistant to full principal secretary and that the only thing that stood in my way was my dance band playing. So I had to decide whether to continue playing or accept promotion. I replied that I had commitments to play up to Easter 1968, but that from April and thereafter I would comply with the undertaking and wouldn't play in public anymore."
When I asked King how he felt about this he replied, "I was very much annoyed because I had always believed that it was the actual playing in a band that sharpens your faculties and brings new ideas. When you sit down doing nothing you don't create new music. So the ban on my playing hurt me very much as I had to sacrifice a lot to play music and had always wanted to pursue it and make something out of it."
To keep his band running, King handed the Black Beats' leadership to Sammy Odoh. And instead of playing, King started managing the band, as well as other bands that soon began to base themselves at his house in James Town. During the 1970s he was running eight "BB" bands: the Black Beats, Barbecues, Barons, Bonafides, Barristers, Boulders, "B" Soyaaya, and Blessed Apostles.
Besides being a senior civil servant, composer, band leader, manager, and teacher of the hundred or so musicians who have passed through his groups, King Bruce also found time to help organize all three of Ghana's music unions: the 1950s Gold Coast Association of Musicians, the short-lived (1960-1966) Ghana Musicians Union, and the present-day Musician's Union of Ghana (MUSIGA), formed in 1974.
It was around this time that I first met King Bruce when I hired equipment from him for my own Bokoor guitar-band. I was also living in James Town, Accra, and for a while we were both on the executive board of MUSIGA. In August 1987, King gave a number of interesting presentations at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) held in Accra on "Africa in the World of Popular Music." After that I recorded in my Bokoor Studio a set of King's songs that was subsequently released locally on cassette. The tracks included "Esheo Heko" (There Comes a Time), "Onyiemo Feo Mi Feo" (Walk Beautiful), "Ekole" (Perhaps), and "Tsutsu Tsosemo" (Old time Training).
After 1977, King Bruce retired from the civil service but continued to actively pursue his musical career. He kept running two bands "B" bands (the Black Beats and Barristers) and began to re-record some of his old hits. He was also active in MUSIGA, and was involved in the recent changes in the copyright law that now make royalty infringement a criminal offence. Towards the end of his life he became for a while the manager of the sixteen-track Elephant Walk recording studio in Kaneshie, Accra, established in the 1970's by Phonogram and the local producer Dick Essilfie-Bondzie.
On April 30, 1988, an award was given to King Bruce by the Entertainment Critics and Reviewers Association of Ghana (ECRAG) for his "immense contribution to the development of Ghanaian art and culture in the field of highlife music." This musician's career in dance band music spans nearly forty years. In 1995 King, with the help of his son Eddie, launched a very successful double cassette album of old Black Beats hits on the local market. This was followed by a fifteen track CD called the `Golden Highlife Classics' released in London by the Retroafric label. 1996 he was involved in the `Highlife Month' organized by the German Goethe Institute and the local BAPMAF African popular music NGO to which he was a founding member. His biography "The King of Black Beats," written jointly by King and myself in the late 1980s, is forthcoming from Anansesem Press, Accra. It will come with a thorough discography of King Bruce's releases, compiled by Flemming Harrev. John Collins
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