GHANA ; FIFTY YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE FOR AFRICA'S BEACON STATE ++ British Colonialism ++ the Raising of the Green, Gold and Red Colours of Ghana outside Parliament in 1957 Signalled a New Era of Hope for the Continent. by Paul Vallely

Article excerpt

His name is Reggie Rockstone. He is the godfather of hiplife. He is the new Ghana. No, more than that, he is the new Africa. Next week is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the end of British colonialism. On 6 March 1957, Ghana, the first African nation to gain its independence from the final crumbling of the British Empire, celebrates the glorious event.

At midnight on that day, half a century ago, the church bells rang across the city of Accra. The Union Flag was lowered in the square outside Parliament and the green, gold and red colours of a new nation were hoisted. Not far away, on what had been his former white masters' polo ground, Kwame Nkrumah, the father of pan- Africanism, did a little dance and spoke of a new dream, a new freedom, a new Africa.

Ghana's independence became a sign of hope for the entire continent, and the first breeze to the white colonials of what was to become what the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, called "the wind of change". But the wind continued to blow, at times becoming a gale and even a hurricane, which the people of Africa could not harness. The story of Ghana became the story of a continent in microcosm, a tale which moved from colonialism, through state socialism, dictatorship by generals, obsessive free-market mania, and, hopefully, now emerging out the other side into a better world.

In the 1950s, the music in the colony, which was once known as The Gold Coast in recognition of its major export, was played by Africans but danced to by the European colonial-class at parties to which the locals could only aspire. The music, too, tells the story of a journey.

It was called highlife, and dance orchestras played at it at the parties of the white elite. It was a strange, regimented parody of the fashionable jazz in the salons of Europe but eventually it began using native songs and kpanlogo rhythms. Then the African musicians took it home, and it became, in a further transmogrified form, adopted by the poor black rural guitarists of the Fante people.

In the decades that followed, while the newly independent black elite in the Ghanaian capital turned increasingly to Western music, highlife bubbled and brewed, incorporating elements of swing, jazz, rock, ska and soukous in a cultural fusion which was quite new.

Now, in the decade that followed, it has melded with something else, hip-hop, to form something else: hiplife, a cross between highlife and rap, of which the aforementioned Reggie Rockstone is the king. He raps in both English and Twi, a Ghanaian dialect. He draws massive crowds in their tens of thousands. The music's popularity has eclipsed all other styles and now surpasses western music in terms of airplay.

Music is a metaphor for much else. For, after suffering five decades of severe decline, in a fusion of socialism, military cronyism and neo-liberal capitalism, Ghana again appears to be on the upswing, with a slowly but steadily growing economy in what Patrick Smith, the editor of Africa Confidential, calls "one of the best functioning multi-party democracies in the continent".

It has been a long haul. At independence, Ghana had a substantial natural resources, a functioning economic infrastructure, a good education system, an efficient civil service and $481m ([pound]245m) in foreign reserves. Its economy was on a par with that of South Korea or Malaysia. "If you look at the trajectory between 1957 and now," Mr Smith says, "it hasn't just not progressed; it has gone backwards."

Such is the story of all Africa. When the sun began to set on Europe's foreign empires, and former colonies across the globe began in the 1960s to prepare themselves for independence, nobody was much worried about Africa. The anxiety was all for Asia. After all, Africa was a place of great mineral riches and vast agricultural fecundity. Asia, by contrast, seemed to have only problems and population. …