E.T. Mensah, the undisputed King of Highlife, was one the founding fathers of African popular music. His career stretched from the early 1930s to the late 1980s, and his music reached beyond Ghana to all corners of Africa and Europe.
Emmanuel Tettey Mensah was a natural musician, whose talent was spotted at school by ‘Teacher’ Joe Lamptey. When Lamptey formed the Accra Orchestra in the early 1930s E.T. joined as a piccolo player. He soon progressed to saxophone and also learned to play organ and trumpet.
After leaving school he teamed up with his brother Yebuah and the influential jazz drummer Guy Warren [Kofi Ghanaba] in the Accra Rhythmic Orchestra. European dance music was the prevailing fashion but, during World War II, musicians picked up new developments from Black American and West Indian comrades who were stationed in the Gold Coast. There were also ex-professional European musicians with the Allied forces, and E.T. joined Sergeant Jack Leopard and his Black and White Spots.
E.T. was also studying pharmacy. In 1943 he qualified and was stationed in the Ashanti region. When he returned to Accra in 1947 he joined the original Tempos band with Joe Kelly and Guy Warren. Warren had travelled to Europe and America, playing with Afro-Cuban musicians and he returned with the latest records, including calypsos. This refreshing influence became part of post-war highlife, which was now directed to a more solidly African audience.
‘We urgently wanted an indigenous rhythm to replace the fading foreign music of waltz, rumba, etc,’ Mensah told the writer and highlife archivist, John Collins.* ‘We evolved a music relying on basic African rhythms. A criss-cross African cultural sound, so to speak. No one can really lay claim to its creation. It had always been there, entrenched in West African culture. What I did was give highlife world acceptance.’