Kwaa Mensah has been recognised as a master of Palm-wine highlife music, which is made up of the acoustic guitar, clips/claves and local hand-drums.
Mensah was born in Lagos in the 1920s but raised in Cape Coast, his relative Kwame Asare, also known as Jacob ‘Sam,’ helped teach him how to play the guitar. By the 1930s, Kwaa had begun to play in the Cape Coast Adaha band (Adaha which is a musical style that is utilised by brass band instruments, fifes and the flute).
The Cape Coast band was known as the Atwem Band (Atwem meaning drawing, as in to draw a bow). As a young man, Mensah started off playing the ’pati’ and the ‘fifes.’ In the late 1930s, he decided to leave the Atwem band to set up his own band called The Silver Stars Konkoma Group. The group was much larger in size and with Mensah reintroducing the guitar as part of the structure they become more successful than the Atwem band.
Like many, Mensah created other groups and bands but it wasn’t until the 1950s where he had an opportunity with HMV to record his own music. Mensah did venture into the concert party side of highlife music and it was a huge hit for him. Yet, after some time, Mensah decided to go back to his roots and elevate the sound we know him for; Palm-Wine music.
In a 1975 interview with lecturer, musician and researcher - John Collins - Kwaa advised younger musicians that, if they want to play cultural music they should be authentic to cultural instruments.
Researched and Written by Paulina Nkansah
Collins, J., 2018. Highlife Time 3. 3rd ed. Accra: DAkpabli & Associates.
Fondation-langlois.org. n.d. Ghana's Highlife Music Collection: Biographies and Interviews. [online] Available at: <https://www.fondation-langlois.org/html/e/selection.php?Selection=HIGB
Oti, S., 2009. Highlife music in West Africa. Lagos, Nigeria: Malthouse Press.