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E.T. Mensah

Dubbed the “King of Highlife,” horn player and vocalist E. T. Mensah nurtured the form in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in 1919 in the Gold Coast, now Ghana, Mensah learned to play flute while at the Accra Government School. He went on to play piccolo in a children’s orchestra in Accra and was encouraged to form a band by the orchestra’s leader, Joe Lamptey. He formed his own band, the Accra Rhythm Orchestra, at eighteen, and joined Jack Leopard’s band in 1940. A few months later, he joined the first iteration of the Tempos, a group mostly comprised of European soldiers stationed in Accra and intended for informal jam sessions. The group broke up in 1942 but was reorganized in 1947 with Mensah as its leader, no European players, and a focus on small-ensemble highlife performance. During this period, Mensah opened up a pharmacy to fund his musical endeavors. In 1953, Mensah and the Tempos embarked on a successful tour of England and had a series of hit songs in the country. One year before independence, in 1956, Louis Armstrong traveled to Ghana and performed, with Mensah, the song “All for You.” The performance was recorded and released as a short film titled “Jazz Comes Home to Africa.” The decline in highlife’s popularity in the 1960s and the rise of Afrobeat and Afro-funk led Mensah, still respected in the community, to attempt a series of comeback tours beginning in 1969. The international world music vogue of the late 1980s led to a world tour by Mensah (now wheelchair bound) in 1986. He died in 1996.