With the passing of trumpet player, saxophonist, and vocalist Emmanuel Tettey "E.T." Mensah on July 19, 1996, at the age of 78, Ghana lost one of its most influential musicians. Respectfully known as "the father of modern highlife," Mensah played a vital role in the evolution of Ghana's music. In the early '90s, Mensah recalled his revamping of highlife, explaining, "We urgently wanted an indigenous rhythm to replace the fading foreign music of waltz, rhumba, etc. We evolved a music type relying on basic African rhythms, a crisscross African cultural sound."
A native of the small village of Ussher Town in Accra, Ghana, Mensah initially played fife in an elementary-school band. Switching to trumpet and saxophone in his teens, he quickly attracted attention with his expressive playing. At the age of 18, he formed his first band, the Accra Rhythm Orchestra, a group comprised of five saxophones, guitar, and African drums. Although he joined Scottish trumpet player Jack Leopard's band in 1940, he remained only a few months before accepting an invitation to become a charter member of a highlife band, the Tempos. He soon assumed leadership of the group. In contrast to early highlife groups, which were modeled after jazz big bands of the 1940s, the Tempos was one of the first to adapt highlife rhythms to a small-ensemble approach. An essential element of the band's sound was Mensah's singing in a variety of indigenous Ghanaian languages.
Although the original lineup of Tempo disbanded in 1942, Mensah reorganized the group six years later. Mensah and the group toured successfully throughout Great Britain in 1953. Among their many hit singles were "Donkey Calypso," "School Girl," and "Sunday Mirror."
Trained as a pharmacist, Mensah occasionally worked in the field to supplement his income as a musician. Music, however, remained his prime focus. Mensah attracted global attention when he performed with Louis Armstrong during celebrations of Ghana's independence in 1957. Two years later, he composed a song to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ghana.
Although he maintained a low profile in the early '60s, Mensah began the first of several comebacks in 1969. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he embarked on a world tour in 1986. In 1986, a biography of Mensah by musicologist John Collins, E.T. Mensah: King of Highlife, was published by Off the Record Press in London and Ghana State Publishing Company in Accra. ~ Craig Harris