E.T. Mensah The King of Highlife

Posted June 1st, 2009 at 9:16 pm (UTC-5)

One of the greatest joys of an intuitively organized-read disheveled-archive is the potential for surprise discoveries. Even after ten years of poking through our stacks of reels I still find interesting recordings I have never heard. Over the last month, whenever I could find a few minutes, I have gone down to the archive and pulled out tape after tape looking for a recording of a Dr. Nico interview. I still haven’t found that interview, in fact I haven’t yet been able to confirm that Dr. Nico was ever interviewed by the VOA, but I did find several interviews with another legend of African music.

In October of 1981, Ghanaian Highlife pioneer E.T. Mensah was invited to New York by some of his former musicians who had settled in the United States. Once word spread that Mensah was in the U.S., a concert was quickly organized in Washington D.C. featuring the golden highlife of ‘The Tempos’. Several days before the concert, E.T. came down to our nation’s capital and stopped by the VOA studios. These next two interviews were made during his brief visit to our studios.

This first interview is the more informative of the two. Leo Sarkisian talks to E.T. about his early career as a pharmacist, his early musical training, his musical favorites, and about 1970s guitar band highlife.

This next interview was done by two journalists from the English to Africa service; they are not identified on the reel and nobody recognizes their voices. Their questions are less informed and often not terribly insightful, but I wanted nonetheless to post this interview because E.T. Mensah peppers his answers with some unaccompanied snippets of some of his more famous melodies.

After listening to these two interviews I started going through our collection of highlife recordings. There are a few that I particularly enjoyed and that I’ll be posting in the next few days.

(The wonderful 1952 picture of the Tempos is from John Collins out of print biography ‘E.T. Mensah, King of Highlife’, that was published in 1986 by Off the Record press).

4 responses to “E.T. Mensah The King of Highlife”

  1. Anonymous says:


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  2. PKO says:

    I found this by chance, but I really enjoyed hearing it. I believe my father was tutored by Koo Nimo on guitar playing. My father has passed so many years ago, so this really reminded me of him. Guys like E.T. were before my time and stands as unknown heroes. It was nice to her his voice and his thinking. He seems like a nice man. He did not project any negative vibes. I think High Life Music today is of poor quality and needs to be revived with good musician. Musicianship has declined in the advent of cheap electronic studio music composition. There are no real horn sections anymore, which greatly cheapens the music. One musician recently lamented that there is great frustration among musicians due to piracy which has lead to lack of profitability for musicians. Indeed this a an international problem, but it is much more problematic in Africa where there is no legal protection of intellectual property. I hope we can find our way back before the culture is lost.

  3. ORBORDOR says:

    Feels good to hear from the King of Highlife,Lets hold on to this good music.

  4. […] a link to an audio interview […]



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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