Beyond Highlife: (Afro)Beats in Accra | Julian Apter

I spent the month of June in Accra, Ghana interning at Akwaaba Music. The label releases current music across the continent of Africa and ensures that it is monetized globally, as many African musicians were completely left out of the shift to streaming services. Ben LeBrave founded the label, a polyglot that travels all over the continent to scout out undiscovered talent to sign and publish. He organizes tours to Europe with the artists on his roster, and I’ll never forget Gafacci, ecstatic as he stopped by the office before he left to Berlin. He pretended to be calm and collected but his wide eyes revealed that he had never left Ghana before, and realized at the airport that he had to turn around because he forgot his passport.

I learned about Akwaaba Music through its promotion of left-field and experimental beat makers, intrigued by its motto in Nigerian pidgin, “we dey inside.” Beats were originally hip-hop instrumentals before the addition of a rapper or singer, but recently have become their own genre and art form. Composers of beats are referred to as beat makers, and act as record producers; advising and providing artistic direction, audio engineering with effects processors, and mixing audio levels. Now anyone with a computer and an internet connection can download a free beat composition software called Fruity Loops, and there are many talented beat makers and musicians who work on computers in Africa. Most of the universities in Ghana that I visited had kids making beats on their laptops in some capacity.

Every day drew on different skills, like recording musicians, audio engineering and producing their projects, and sending press releases and emails to reporters covering current musical trends across Africa. I charted information on many music festivals across the continent to potentially send artists to on the Akwaaba roster, uploaded music to the label’s YouTube page, met local DJ’s and went to clubs to research local musical taste making, and wrote for the label’s blog on an emerging venue called Republic. Work was Monday to Friday from eleven to five, and for lunch I would walk a little down the dirt road to find grilled tilapia with onion, peppers, and banku (fermented corn combined with cassava), or pounded yam with egusi stew or waakye (rice, beans, and noodles). Tuesday nights I went to jazz nights at +233 Jazz Café, Wednesdays at Republic, Thursdays at Club Carbon, Fridays for highlife at Chez Afrique, Saturdays at Labadi Beach.

While a significant amount was spent at the computer, I usually met and interacted with the musicians on the label that I worked for, and in their gratitude they took me to the heart of youth culture and nightlife in Accra. Nshona took me to Club Carbon and introduced me to all of the club promoters and house DJ’s, and my boss did the same at Republic. I made beats with them in the studio at work, continually impressed with the melodies they created and the rhythms they sequenced. I counseled them about audio engineering and mixing and mastering their own tracks, and they took me to the best lunch spots around. I was moved by the many musicians I met making a living in West Africa paying the bills through deeply appreciative audiences. The profound connection of music to dance reoriented my perspective on the music that I want to create in the future; I want to compose tunes and beats that focus more on kinetic energy and making the body bend and curl. As a student in the BA/BFA Program, I study guitar at the School for Jazz, with a double major in anthropology and culture and media. I met highlife guitarists, jazz piano and bass players, West African percussionists, composers, and beat makers; all functioning at an incredibly high level and in many cases collaborating with each other. The networks were small but extremely tight-knit and connected, and I eventually brushed up against the drummer in Fela Kuti’s band from my strong attendance at highlife events. I learned about the significant amount of publishing and textual production that is necessitated by small music labels, and I built skills pertaining to building social media presence through utilizing local networks, booking tours, and reaching out to music journalists. I appreciated contacting music journalists and reading their musical and cultural analyses on sites like OkayAfrica, the Guardian, and Fader and learning about many different music genres coming out of Africa including Kuduro, Kizomba, and Gqom. I would like to move to Accra for a couple years after graduation, to a small pink house on a second story not unlike the office that I worked at for a month. I will teach lessons and record musicians by day, and play highlife at +233 Jazz Club and DJ sets at Club Carbon by night. I will tour from Senegal to South Africa with the excellent jazz musicians I met there like Victor Dey Jr., as well as collaborate with the innovative and idiosyncratic producers and beat-makers I met there like Nshona Muzick, single handedly responsible for creating the beat behind the dance and genre called Azonto, and DJ Gafacci, who blends west African rhythms with electronic modular synthesis. My job and the labor made me much more aware of the myriad musical scenes in Africa, including the musical festival circuit and what specific cities listen to and create. There’s plenty happening in West Africa, and I want to take part.


This is where we could record and listen to audio mixes in an acoustically treated room.

This is where we could record and listen to audio mixes in an acoustically treated room.

This is the space where Ben LeBrave and my co-workers Pizarro and Richard did our work on computers.

This is the room I slept in. There was a second-story view that looked down the road. Every night at the desk I would record notes and observations on my days.

There was a modest kitchen, but I hardly ended up cooking. We made tea and stocked water and Ghanaian Club Beer in the mini-fridge.

TeshieBoi is a well-known rapper from Teshie, Ghana. He chooses to rap in Ga, one of the local languages in Ghana. He has hits such as Naadu, Medusa, and Debo.


This is a video of musicians playing at the jazz and highlife night every Tuesday at +233 Jazz Bar. There I met the pianist Victor Dey Jr. and drank beer afterwards with the bassist Bright Osei.

These are audio recordings I did of Ayorkor, a singer, arranger, and songwriter based in Accra. To learn more about her:

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