The history of Ghanaian highlife music cannot be told without the honorary mention of the legendary music group, Wulomei. The Ga rootsy band founded in 1972 centered on local instruments like the Gombe drum, shekere, and the Atenteben bamboo flute. Indigenous sounds like ‘Kpalongo’ and ‘Kolomashie’ were their unique style that appealed to most youth in the Ga community.
Wulomei developed into an ensemble that presented to Ga audiences a unique and symbolically potent display of Ga music and culture through assembling a mix of local and foreign musical styles and resources, as well as Ga religious traditions. Seemingly at the edges of both Ga traditional music and the country’s foremost popular music style, highlife, their appeal to audiences extended to other parts of Ghana as well. After they were established in 1972 many other groups were formed based on Wulomei’s artistic and musical model concerning costume, instrumentation, stage presentation, style, and compositional approach.
Soon enough, their music spread across Ghana and West Africa. During the 1970s and 1980s, Wulomei made several successful tours to Europe and the United States. Key members of the band were Nii Tei Ashitey- the founder of the group, Saka Acquaye- the dramatist and Naa Amanua Doodo- the lead vocalist. The lead singer, within her short span with the group, significantly influenced the band’s success. She was the first lead singer for the group and also wrote some of the songs they performed. Her work with the Wulomei band earned her a spot as a highlife legend in Ghana and will forever remain as such. We take a look into the life of Mary Naa Amanua Doodo (commonly known as Naa Amanua) and her career, which spans over 50 years.
Born in 1952 at Mayera, a small community after the Pokuase township in Accra, she was raised by her grandmother Madam Salomey Ade of blessed memory. She grew up in that same community where she had her basic education. It was while she was in primary school that she realised she could sing. She attributes this realisation to her singing in the church harvest celebration and her nights out with the other children of her village while the adults enjoyed the music of bands that used to play in her village. After her grandmother passed away, she relocated to Osu to stay with her father. She also started singing in her school choir when she moved to Osu.
"She was recruited to sing in the Burma Camp St Georges Anglican Church which at the time needed people who could sing to build up their church choir...."
Naa Amanua is from a family of musicians. Her father was a guitarist and her mother was a prolific dancer and singer. She believes her interest and love for music were developed at a tender age while living with her parents. She was recruited to sing in the Burma Camp St Georges Anglican Church which at the time needed people who could sing to build up their church choir. That continued when she moved to Accra to attend middle school, where her music career took off.
While working as a city guard at the Tema City Council, now A.M.A, One Mr. William Dadson identified her capabilities as a singer and recommended her to the band Wulomei. The band already existed but did not have a lead singer. She auditioned and was offered the role of lead singer on that very day. This was the year 1973.
That was the beginning of many exploits from the highlife band, Wulomei. Ga folk music spread globally through international tours by Wulomei and others to locations in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and North America. Back in Ghana, further developing the Wulomei model were the many children’s ensembles that formed in Accra in the mid-1970s that provided musical training to youth in the city. Wulomei’s repertoire similarly drew on a range of local resources and outside influences, in addition to pieces that demonstrated the creative abilities of Ashitey and others in the ensemble in that they were simply original compositions created within this newly established musical framework. Their explicit references to Ga musical pieces added to their local appeal, but more significantly, Wulomei’s contemporary compositional approach and unique artistic presentation.
As an example, early pieces like “Walatu Walasa”, “Soyaama”, or “Kpeshi We” were deeply influenced by the Ga recreational musical genre “Adaawe”. “Walatu Walasa” became the title track for Wulomei’s first album, and according to Ashitey was written in 1973 in support of the Acheampong regime and its promotion of self-reliance programs like Operation Feed Yourself (OFY) and “One-Man Contractors”.
Naa Amanua’s vocal style gave the piece a lamentation-type quality that facilitates reflection to the listener. The piece was built around the title phrase that was sung by the lead vocalist and used as the refrain performed in a responsorial style. She together with the band released so many other hits including “gyae nsa nom” “mawie ga”, “kaafo, akrowa”, “twa omanye aba”, “Akosua serwa”, “maafio” and “Takoradi”.
"They performed for the then-President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta during their African tour in 19 78. Liberia, Togo, Kenya, and Benin were amongst the many countries they visited whilst on tour...."
Her stay with Wulomei was short-lived as she left the band after only five years with them due to a few structural issues. After leaving Wulomei she joined the Suku troupe. The Suku troupe was more diverse as compared to Wulomei. Their style encapsulated culture entirely which involved dancing, singing, acting, etc. they performed at theatre shows. The first album from Suku was “aw)dime”. They performed for the then-President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta during their African tour in 1978. Liberia, Togo, Kenya, and Benin were amongst the many countries they visited whilst on tour.
After a decade with the Suku troupe, Naa Amanua again left to form her group called Odomankoma band in 1988 and released ‘Mi yen Maya‘ in 1989. Although she did not write any of the songs that the bands sang, she claimed that she could put herself in the position of the character in the song. Because music was her passion, she could deliver it as easily as if she had written the songs herself. Moreover, because most of the songs bordered on universal human experiences she could thus associate with whatever issue she sang about. Most of the songs she sang were about “advising people, marriage, and ridiculing people in society about their deeds”.
Mary Naa Amanua Doodo has been honoured on several platforms and events for her contribution to highlife. Amongst her many citations are Ghana Music Awards honorary award, Ghana Music and Fame Awards (lifetime achievement award 2017 and 2018), Mega Musical Concert in 2017 (The Pallister Solidarity Campaign and African Voices), and many more. At 70 years old, she sometimes performs at the +233 jazz bar in Osu.
Written and Research by Paapa Quaicoe (2022)
Reviewed by the AOTH Team
Paapa is an aspiring badass creative marketing strategist. He loves coming up with ideas and exploring new ways of doing things. He has a strong interest in art, photography and creative content. If there’s any opportunity to contribute to the culture, sign him up because that’s what he lives for.
Kyere, A. (2012). A Comparative study of the lives and works of selected Ghanaian female musicians from 1980 - 2010[Thesis] pp.1–155. Available at: https://ugspace.ug.edu.gh/handle/123456789/5482 [Accessed 12 Aug. 2022].
Webb, G. (2015). ‘Ma la ma wie Ga’ (‘I will sing and speak of Ga’): Wulomei and the articulation of Ga identity in stylized form. African Music: Journal of the International Library of African Music, 10(1), pp.52–83.
Festival of American Folklife Program Book (1975). Available at: https://folklife-media.si.edu/docs/festival/program-books/FESTBK1975.pdf