Highlife legend Paapa Yankson was finishing his sixteenth and final album until his passing at his Dansoman residence last Friday, July 21. According to producer Dan Graal (with whom he was working on the project), it consists entirely of love songs: to a neighbor, to family, a lover, humanity.
Old and poorly, he would not be bound from his passion, for he still frequented the studio, pursuing the one thing most familiar to him –the one thing through which he interpreted the world: music. Yankson spent his final days in the studio, says Graal. He was carried, in a wheelchair, from the car to the studio for his sessions.
Wheelchair or not, Benjamin Paapa Kofi Yankson (as he was born in the 1940s) still performed at public events, and still overwhelmed audiences with uncommon charisma. He commanded he atmosphere with vivid charm and uplifting aphorisms. It was evident in the eyes of those gathered under his feet, swaying their arms, and singling along to his evergreen choruses.
Over an illustrious career which commenced in 1987, the musician has addressed a wide variety of issues –faith, jealousy, grace, odium, choices, life… but he has always returned to the root of all themes: love. He is credited with authoring some of the most important love songs in remembered history. His sterling repertoire is littered with several highly influential love records: Show Your Love, Obiara Na Nedofo, Adwen Pa, Bebia Odo Wo, Asomdwoe Wo Ho, Tena Menkyen…
That last song, a convincing duet with Paulina Oduro, is among the country’s most iconic — a true classic. Introduced by tender whistling and a ripe tenor, the melodious tune captures flawlessly, a sentimental exchange between a couple in love. It is rendered with adorable playfulness, and impeccable vocal confidence that it cuts across generations in its impact.
It is no wonder that Paapa Yankson would intend for the album with which he walks off into the sunlight after over thirty years of service, to be themed entirely of love songs. It is what his life has been dedicated to. It is what his life has been based on.
It is important to be reminded, amidst all the chaos, of the essence of love in our being. This was Yankson’s calling, and boy has he carried it out diligently. This is why the nation was so enamored by him.
Empire’s inaugural Bottles & Bands concert (November 2016) was among the last platforms he performed on. A truly surreal experience, event proved a testament to how deeply he was cherished. Every few minutes in his performance, on-air personality Giovani, who served as MC for the night, would interrupt and make an announcement of donations from corporate bodies and individuals who could not hold back their love for the highlife icon. Amounts donated that night summed up to about GHC 50, 000. The smile which remained on his face showed it all. He did not utter many words, but was clearly overcome with gratitude at the compassion on display.
A similar scenario can be recalled from this year’s Ghana Music Awards held back in April. He had just been conferred with “Lifetime Achievement Award”, and had been served a marvelous tribute by Adina and Akwaboah Jnr. Again, that smile could be seen behind his glasses. It was there he announced that he would release new music again soon. But alas, it never arrived. Perhaps posthumously though…
As expected, tributes have poured in from every direction: contemporaries to new age musicians, government officials, and fans all over the world, but they’ll never quite be enough to fully express what he meant to all of us.
Even until his passing, Paapa Yankson’s voice remained unscathed, if anything, it was enriched with age — that deeply moving tenor which has mirrored in his songs, various aspects of our lives since co-founding the famous Western Diamond Band. Due to the richness and perpetual relevance of his style of composition, he managed to hold his own even in the years after he became most prominent –again, Tena Menkyen serving as reference. The song remains a fan-favorite several decades after its release.
Yankson comes from a generation of revolutionaries. He belongs to a celebrated core of acts from Ghana’s west (stretching all the way from Cape Coast to Takoradi). Together with the likes of Jewel Ackah, C. K Mann, A. B Crentsil, and Gyedu Blay Ambolley, they have served as true coastal giants — blameless ambassadors for music from that area, commendably rivaling counterparts from Accra, and bringing weight to the statement “the best comes from the West”. Now a cemented expression, it also extends to other cultural aspects as speech, mannerisms, etc. Successfully, and with unbelievable longevity, they have managed to advance a bold influence of folkloric music shaped by daily seaman coastal vibes…vibes which abound in the music of generations after them: Paapa Yankson’s son Silas, rap groups TH4 Kwages and Sass Squad, and in recent years, Kofi Kinaata, Castro, Pappy Kojo, Akiti Wrowrow, and T Phlow – the new crop “Fante Confederacy”.
Paapa Yankson was always in high spirits at public events, and held to a firm conviction that he would walk unaided again. It was so tangible –this faith –that people at the end of his words had no option than to believe too. Maybe that confidence extends to his legacy too.
When you take the music that Kofi Kinaata is doing today – his approach to songwriting, there’s no question that Paapa Yankson continues to influence the process strongly. That is why, in a decade to come (especially relating to style, rhythm, flair, presence), it would be even more apparent what jewels he would have left this younger generation, pearls which will simply never be repeated.
Member of pioneering bands as The Carousel Seven, Western Diamond, and Golden Nuggets, Yankson is a native of Winneba, and alumnus of Takoradi Methodist Ahantaman Secondary Commercial School. He has also lectured and performed and performed in several countries including the United States, Canada, Belgium, United Kingdom, Germany, and Holland.
He’s recipient of major honors as The Grand Medal of Ghana (2006), and a Kokomba award for Best Composition for his song Yaaba.
For years to come, a legend’s name will forever be etched in the hearts of many. Yankson’s life and times in music stand for the beauty abundant in today’s yearn for good music. That rallying theme is embedded in a resolve that sits at the very heart of a decent conversation on just who brings the party home.
He brought it home on many occasions. Years on, he may have to lie motionless and without life – to observe how fitting or otherwise his final rites would be. This time, the party has to be thrown by Silas and co., maybe Kinaata, maybe Wrowrow, maybe the Fante VanDamme Pappy Kojo.
A Fante god goes home.