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King Bruce & The Blackbeats
'Golden Highlife Classics' (RETRO13CD)


King Bruce(left) & The Blackbeats 1952

The anniversary of Ghana's Independence in March 1957 marked 40 years of African autonomy. To acknowledge that auspicious occasion RetroAfric released a nostalgic collection by the dance band supremos King Bruce and The Black Beats, titled Golden Highlife Classics [RETRO13CD]. The album features 15 memorable tracks from the 1950s and 1960s.

During those decades, highlife music ruled West Africa, and King Bruce and his 'BBs' held court in the clubs and dancehalls of Ghana. 'We were interested in playing good dance band music, but keen on giving everything a recognisable African beat,' says Bruce.

The venerated musicologist JH Kwabena Nketia commented: 'You can enjoy his music even if you do not understand the language...sounds and rhythms also make their own impact on the listener.'

With a large, horn-heavy dance band Bruce gradually took over the development of highlife from the original master, the late ET Mensah, whose anthem to Independence, Ghana Freedom, is still available on the RetroAfric CD Day By Day [RETRO3CD].

King Bruce: Highlife Master June 3, 1922 - Sept 12, 1997

The Ghanaian musician King Bruce who died in Accra on September 12, 1997, aged 75, was one of the generation which established highlife music as the voice of Africa during the pre- and post-independence eras. He was a musician, composer, accountant, civil servant and entrepreneur who 'ran' more than eight different dance bands. King Bruce was born on June 3, 1922, to a Ga family in Jamestown, the colonial, old town area of Accra, which he never left during his eventful career. His mother sang with a traditional women's group and several brothers were keen musicians. At Achimota College, Accra, music was part of the curriculum and during the war years Bruce also enjoyed American big band music.

In 1947 Bruce came to London to study accountancy but, along with many Africans, found himself excluded from the social scene. As he told the BBC, 'We had difficulties getting white girls to dance with us. So I decided to switch my interests from ballroom dancing to [playing] ballroom music.' He took up trumpet initially but was later to alternate with saxophone.

Bruce returned to Ghana in 1951 to continue his career in the Post Office Savings Bank at a time when British record companies were discovering the potential of a new market. Deliberately mixing work and pleasure, he briefly joined the seminal Accra Orchestra and stood in with leaders of the burgeoning highlife scene, E.T. Mensah and Guy Warren, before setting up his first Black Beats band in 1952 with tenor sax player Saka Acquaye. 'We were interested in playing good dance band music, but keen on giving everything a recognisable African beat,' he said. Although semi-professional, Bruce maintained a line-up of 20-odd musicians including future bandleaders such as Jerry Hansen. Main attractions were the star vocalists Lewis Wadawa and Frank Barnes.

Bruce composed in the Ga language and English but he was open to other contributors. 'In the old days people like Bob Cole and Oscomore Ofiori approached successful band leaders offering songs to record. Oscomore used to bring Twi and Fanti songs and I provided the Ga songs. That way we covered the whole country. I used to get the composers to come and sing themselves and then pay them as a guest artist or as a regular member of the band - as then, none of us was entiltled to royalties.'

Throughout the 1950s Highlife music proved unstoppable and the Black Beats recorded a string of hits for HMV and Decca West Africa. But Bruce had to juggle music with his career as a civil servant. By the end of the 1950s, after independence, his florid, horn-driven style combining Latin, African and American enthusiasms with humurous gimmicks such as 'elephant' trumpeting, had made him Ghana's most popular band leader. He even employed two Nigerian singers to widen his audience. Following hits such as Agoogyi, Mikuu Mise Mibaa Don, Aban Nkaba and Srotoi Ye Mli, Decca commissioned Bruce to record a song for the Queen's visit in 1959 but, as he remembered, 'she didn't come to Ghana until 1960 or 1961.'

In 1961, Jerry Hansen quit with nine other musicians to form The Ramblers and Bruce continued with a new line-up, but the energy was flagging. When he was promoted to Principal Secretary in 1967 King Bruce was obliged to leave the stage, but he continued to manage several other bands throughout the 1970s with names such as Barristers, Barons and Bonafides.

King Bruce retired from the Civil Service in 1977 but continued as a representative of the musicians union. Following the recognition of a national award for his 'Contribution to Ghanaian Culture' in 1988, Bruce began to collect and re-license his old recordings. To mark his 75th birthday earlier this year, a CD titled Golden Highlife Classics was released in Britain. It was the first time many of those songs had been aired for 40 years. A ceremony was due to be held in October for the launch of a biography by the Highlife historian John Collins.
A diabetic who had suffered lately, King Bruce died at Korley Bu Teaching Hospital, Accra. He leaves 12 children.

King Bruce: born June 3, 1922. Died Sept 12, 1997

King Bruce & The Blackbeats
'Golden Highlife Classics' (RETRO13CD)

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