Another successful highlife dance band was the Black Beats band. A band set up in the 1950s by two spectacular musicians King Bruce and Saka Acquaye. Like many dance bands, the group was set up to step away from the usual and create a unique sound of highlife music. The Black Beats band throughout their existence enjoyed huge popularity not just in Ghana but also in West Africa and Europe.
The Black Beats had an interesting sound influenced by the traditional music, Palm wine music as well as what can be called the Accra street music at the time such as the Adaha and kolomashie sounds. It was important for King Bruce to have this sound be imported into the dance band music to create a more ‘Ghanaian sound’ amidst the global influences that were coming from the USA and some parts of the Caribbean. Another thing that set Black Beats apart was the fact that it was also important to give vocalists center stage in music making and performance which was at the time rare. Due to the variety of instruments and instrumentalists that a Dance Band could take (as many as 20) vocals were seen as some sort of supporting entity in the early days of dance band music. With the Black Beats Band, King Bruce made it a point to centralize vocalists hence paying more attention to lyrics, themes in songs as well as sourcing the best voices in the industry. The Black beats also made music in a variety of languages such as Ga, Fanti, Twi and even Yoruba. This gave them a huge audience in Ghana.
The Black Beats was set up in 1952 by King Bruce and Saka Acquaye who had recently returned from Europe from further studies and were entering the creative scene. King Bruce had grown up in a predominantly musical family however he didn’t receive enough support to take up a career solely in Music. This led him to gain training in serving as a Civil Servant. After attending Achimota School, he found himself in England for further studies but the music never left him. King Bruce’s love for music stems from the fact that his mother was part of Etsi Penfo, an all women's singing group. His brother Pappoe Thompson also taught him how to play the Piano. According to John Collins, his other brother Eddie Bruce also belonged to a band called the Canteen who played palm wine guitar band music. While in school, King Bruce learned from various musicians such as Ephraim Amu and Philip Gbeho. While in the UK, He also learned to play the trumpet. King Bruce made friends with several musicians in Accra after his return. He learned from drummer Guy Warren, Joe Kelly and E.T Mensah occasionally playing with the Tempos. King Bruce joined the Teacher Lamptey’s Orchestra playing the Trumpet and this would set the tone for his entrance into the music scene. During his short gig with The Tempos and Teacher Lamptey’s Orchestra, he met Saka Acquaye.
Saka Acquaye was not just a musician and successful saxophonist. He was also a great sculptor and dramatist who would become renowned playwright in Ghana later in his career. It was during his time with Teacher Lamptey’s Orchestra and the Tempos band that he met King Bruce and in 1952,the two set up the Black Beats Band. After the collapse of the Accra Orchestra King Bruce and Saka would invite members like Jerry Hansen to join Black Beats.
The name Black Beats band was inspired by the sounds that King and Saka wanted the band to be recognized and remembered for. The Band name was proposed by King Bruce. The two run the band until Saka left for the USA in 1953 to pursue his passion for the arts. He set up his own African Ensemble which played for Nkrumah during his visit to the USA.
Meanwhile, King Bruce took sole responsibility of the Black Beats with the exit of Saka and managed a band of about 15 musicians who played a variety of instruments and had great vocal range. King also composed music for the band in Ga which became an instant hit and set the tone for their future success. By the end of the 50s King Bruce would be known as the most popular band leader with his band being in high demand for all sorts of functions. King Bruce and the Black Beats were commissioned by Decca records to compose and record songs for the Queen of England’s visit to Ghana. The visit was set for 1959 bit the queen would not make it until 1961. However the Black Beats did record song for her visit, a popular one being Queen Elizabeth.
Some popular songs from the Black Beats also include Lai Momo , Aban Kaba, Abasi Do and others like Ona Noko Tamo Neke , Srotoi Ye Mli and Adoke Mi. Due to their great success, they were also able to work with Ghanaian highlife composers Oscarmore Ofori and Bob Cole. Both of them helped to bring a variety of languages on board when King composed them.
The Black Beats boasted of names like Jerry Hansen who would break away to set up the Ramblers Dance Band, Mike Lewis Wadawa and Frank Barnes who were exceptional vocalists known as the Black Birds, Eddie Owoo, Frank Coffie, Kwesi Forson , Sammy Odoh , Thomas Tamakloe, and Aryee Hammond.
Other members like Anthony Foley, Bengo Blay, Stanley Lokko, Jimi sax, Jerry Bampoe, George Ofori and Quarcoo joined in 1961 after a few of the members left with Jerry Hansen to for the Ramblers Band.
The breakaway was as a result of a huge misunderstanding between Jerry Hansen and King Bruce and other members of the band who believed that they were being cheated. They believed that the royalties being paid by Decca to their band was more than what they were being paid by King Bruce. Kwesi Forson, Eddie Owoo, Aryee Hamond and Frank Coffie left with Jerry.
Out of the 15 band mates only 6 remained and these were understudies. Together with new recruits, King Bruce spent approximately 6 months training the second generation to be up to par with the first generation. The Second generation of Black Beats went on to create hit songs like Se Na Woti, Odo Forfor and several others. King Bruce at one point also welcomed two Nigerian vocalists who expanded their reach.
The Band has the albums Black Beats Rhythms, Tropical Rhythms and Black Beats Encore all under Decca Records to their credit. At the time, albums or records were not a big deal hence musicians and bands focused more on live performances and releasing singles.
While managing the Black Beats, King Bruce continued to work as a Civil Servant however, in 1968, which much difficulty, he handed over band leadership to Sammy Odoh after he received a position as Head of the Administrative Civil Service which meant he had to stop playing. He took the role as manager of the Black Beats often getting them gigs and keeping up to speed with things through Sammy. He also continued to compose Music. His love for music saw him manage a number of other bands and support the Gold Coast Association of Musicians as well as MUSIGA.
The Black Beats continued to exist through the 60s and 70s. After retiring in 1977, King Bruce re-recorded several songs with his bands.
Not much is known on how the Black Beats finally disbanded, but like many musicians who were being hit hard by the economic and political tensions, several of them sought opportunities in other West African countries or in the USA and Europe. King Bruce died in September of 1977. His Son, Eddie Bruce released the Golden Highlife Classics Volume Two in 2007.
Written and Research by Elizabeth Johnson
Aidoo, S., 2022. Saxophone Solos in Ghanaian Highlife Music: An Analytical Study of Tempos and the Ramblers International Bands. [online] Ugspace.ug.edu.gh. [Accessed 12 July 2020].
Collins, J., 2018. Highlife time 3. 3rd ed. Accra: DAkpabli & Associates.
Amoaku, K., 2002. Afrijazzia: All That Jazz In Ghana. [ebook] [Accessed 18 July 2020].