Died: July 1996
Mensah pioneered the development of the swing-jazz influenced highlife dance-bands that were so popular throughout West Africa in the 1950’s and 60’s. Indeed, these urban dance bands became the musical zeitgeist of the optimistic period of early independence. Their successful use of sophisticated western instruments to play African tunes mirrored the fact that a western socio-political structure was also becoming rapidly Africanized.
While still a small boy, E. T. began playing flute in the Accra Orchestra, a youth band formed by Teacher Lamptey around 1930. Lamptey, the headmaster of a James Town elementary school, had been a member of one of the first dance orchestras in Ghana, the Jazz Kings, formed in the early 1920s. Accra Orchestra became the best-known prewar orchestra, and many of Ghana’s top musicians played in it, including E.T., Joe Kelly, and Tommy Gripman.
E. T. and his older brother Yebuah went on to form their own Accra Rhythmic Orchestra, which won the Lambeth Walk Dance Competition in 1939 at the King George Memorial Hall, today’s Parliament House. Yebuah Mensah recalled the significance of the very word highlife. “During the early twenties, was created by people who gathered around the dancing clubs such as the Rodger Club (built in 1904) to watch and listen to the couples enjoying themselves. Highlife started as a catch-name for the indigenous songs played at these clubs by such early bands as the Jazz Kings, the Cape Coast Sugar Babies, the Sekondi Nanshamang, and later the Accra Orchestra. The people outside called it highlife as they did not reach the class of the couples going inside, who not only had to pay high entrance fee of 7s 6d., but also had to wear full evening dress including top-hats.”
The high-class dance orchestras were eclipsed during the Second World War, when American and British troops were stationed in Ghana. They brought in jazz and swing. Nightclubs and drinking dives were opened to cater for them with names like the Kalamazoo, Weekend-in-Havana and the New York Bar. They also set up dance combos and played with local musicians.
The first combo was the Black and White Spots, set up by Sergeant Leopard. E. T. left his brother’s orchestra and joined up with Leopard’s jazz combo as sax player in 1940. Sergeant Leopard, a Scot, had been a professional saxophonist in England. According to E. T., it was Leopard himself who introduced them to jazz techniques as he “taught us the correct methods of intonation, vibrato, tonguing, and breath control, which contributed to place us above the average standard in the town.”
Just after the war, E. T. joined the Tempos, set up by Ghanaian pianist Adolf Doku and an English engineer and sax player called Arthur Harriman. At first the band included some white soldiers, but after the war the Europeans left and the band became completely African. Joe Kelly became the leader, followed by Guy Warren and ultimately in 1948, by E. T.. It was a seven-piece band with E. T. doubling on trumpet and sax, Joe Kelly on tenor sax, and Guy Warren (known as Kofi Ghanaba) on drums. Guy Warren made an important contribution as he had been playing Afro-Cuban music and calypsos in England. So the Tempos not only played with a jazz touch, but incorporated calypsos into their repertoire and added the bongos, congas and maracas to their line-up.
The Tempos made many trips to Nigeria beginning in 1950 with Kelly and Warren. In 1953, with Spike Anyankor and Dan Acquaye new in the line up, the whole band drove to Lagos and stayed two weeks with the brother of the famous Nigerian dance band leader Bobby Benson. Both times the Tempos received a tremendous welcome, for although highlife was beginning to become popular in Nigeria through recordings, there were as yet no dance bands there. From this time on, the Tempos began to make regular trips to Nigeria, traveling once or twice a year by station wagon, usually stopping of along the way at Lome in Togo, and Cotonou and Porto Novo in Dahomy (now Benin). They stayed for up to three months at a time, as Nigerian immigration law imposed a ninety-day limit on such visits. The Nigerian trips enabled the band to turn professional in 1953. E. T. even set up a second band in 1954, the Star Rockets, to carry on at home while he was away.
When E. T. first went to Nigeria in 1950, highlife was hardly known outside the boundaries of Ghana and even by 1953, Nigerian dance bands such as Sammy Akpabot’s Band, the Empire Band and Bobby Benson’s Band were still playing mostly swing and ballroom music. By the mid-50s, the Tempos’ continual touring was having an influence, and Nigerian dance orchestras began to incorporate highlife into their repertoire. Victor Olaiya, originally a trumpeter with Bobby Benson, was one of the first Nigerian musicians to play highlife when he formed his Cool Cats. Eddie Okunta, also formerly with Bobby Benson, followed suit when he formed the Lido Band. Rex Lawson and E.C. Arinze both split from the Empire Band to form their own bands; in fact Rex Lawson used one of E.T.’s numbers as his signature tune and Dan Acquaye, vocalist for the Tempos, was his idol.
On occasion, Nigerian musicians would come to the Tempos for training. Agu Norris, leading the Empire Band, took trumpet lessons from E. T. on the trumpet. In Benin city, Victor Uwaifo, then a school boy, would rush to watch and study the Tempos’ guitarist Dizzy Acquaye. Other Nigerian musicians influenced by the Tempos included Rex Lawson, Charles lwegbue, Victor Chukwu, Chief Billy Friday, Enyang Henshaw, King Kennytone and Roy Chicago.
Eventually, the relationship between the Tempos and the Nigerian dance bands went the other way as well. When the Nigerian bands started to write their own highlife tune, E. T. brought some of them back to Ghana, including Yoruba numbers “Nike Nike” and “Okamo.”
With the Tempos jazzy blend of highlife becoming all the rage in Nigeria and Ghana, the band signed a recording contract with Decca. During the 1950’s, E. T. was acclaimed the ‘King of Highlife’ ( i.e dance-band highlife) throughout West Africa. During the 1950’s, he even ran the Paramount Nightclub in Accra. It was there that he jammed with Louis Armstrong and the All Stars during the jazz great’s 1956 African tour.
The Tempos also spread their music to other West African cities. They visited Abidjan in 1955, and made a tour of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia in 1958 and 59. Liberia’s President Tubman was so impressed that he called the band back for his second inaugural ceremony.
Many important Ghanaian musicians benefited from tutelage received as members of the Tempos. Tommy Gripman later formed the Red Spots, Saka Acquaye helped form the Blackbeats, Spike Anyankor formed the Rhythm Aces. And Ray Ellis, Dan Tackie and the country’s first female vocalist Juliana Okine also paid their dues in the Tempos. Two important Nigerians Zeal Onyia and Babyface Paul Osamade also played with the group.
E. T. Mensah’s Tempos and their numerous recordings, most of them on Decca, spread highlife far and wide before E. T. retired in the 1970s. He enjoyed a bit of a comeback in the mid-eighties when he played in Britain and Holland. Sterns/Retro-Afric released two of his CDs, and England’s Off the Record Press published a biography, written by me.
When I first knew E. T. in the 70s, I was living at Temple House, James Town, in downtown Accra . E. T. used to visit me there. He recalled coming to the place as a boy with Teacher Lamptey’s Accra Orchestra, which played for Ghanaian “big people” with top hats and tails at balls held in the old tennis courts at the back of the house, now a factory. Oddly enough, ex-Osibisa percussionist Kofi Ayivor also lived there in the 1960s, and when I left, Kris Bediako, the leader of A Band Named Bediako and the Third Eye group, moved into my flat. This house was built around 1900 by a Ghanaian lawyer named Thomas Hutton-Mills who sponsored the balls that E. T. recalled. His daughter Violet was a brilliant classical pianist who reluctantly had to give up a professional musical career to become her father’s secretary. So the house has a strong connection with music.
Sadly, E. T passed away in July 1996 after a long incapacitating illness at his family house in the Mamprobi area of Accra.