Written by Danielle Welbeck
At the former slave castles in Elmina, Cape Coast or Osu, 'The Door of No Return' is the name given to the last threshold crossed by enslaved Africans before they boarded ships to the Americas and the Caribbean. The oral history commonly recounted explains that once enslaved people crossed that threshold, none were able to escape captivity and return. Though there were ongoing slave trades in West Africa before the arrival of Europeans, the form of chattel slavery employed by Europeans was unlike anything ever before seen. In slave trades throughout West Africa, enslaved people were able to win back their freedom and eventually return home to their families; return was a central aspect of the trade. When the generations of enslaved people (who were taken captive during the Transatlantic slave trade) failed to return, ‘The Door of No Return’ came to be understood literally.
Centuries later, the notion of return has persisted, manifesting in pertinent ways in music. Diasporic relationships displayed in Bloom Bar and Frontback, the Afro Nation and Afrochella festivals or more recently, the Black Star Line Festival during Detty December are not a new musical phenomenon. In this article, I consider the multifaceted history of the Highlife tune ‘All For You’ by E.T Mensah and the Tempos and how it exemplifies Roots, Routes, and Return.
‘All For You’ by E.T. Mensah and the Tempos is described as an ‘old highlife tune’ by expert John Collins. Nevertheless, the melody is derived from a Trinidadian folk song
and calypso standard called ‘Sly Mongoose’. The earliest recording of the song is from the mid-1920s by Sam Manning and appears on his Volume Recorded in New York 1924-27 twenty years before the Tempos were formed.
Sam Manning was a Trinidadian actor, Vaudeville comedian and Calypsonian. After moving to New York in 1926, he developed a personal, political, and business partnership with Pan-Africanist, co-founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and first wife of Marcus Garvey, Amy Ashwood Garvey.
Ashwood Garvey helped Manning to get a position in the musical department of the United Negro Improvement Association which helped them to establish a relationship that spanned over thirty years. See more here.
In 1936, two years after he arrived in Britain, Manning, Ashwood Garvey, and Rudolf Dunbar opened the Florence Mills Social Parlour in Carnaby Street. This restaurant, bar and nightclub became an important site for people of African descent in the metropolis as well as a space for political activity. London was an important stop on Afro-Atlantic routes during the mid-twentieth century, with the Florence Mills Social Parlour exemplifying the relationship between space, music, food, and political organising in the diaspora.
Kofi Ghanaba – formerly known as Guy Warren – was an influential figure in Afro-Atlantic music during the twentieth century, with his work with American jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington; his collaborations in London with Kenny Graham’s pioneering Afro Cubists; or indeed his (re)introduction of Trinidadian calypso and Afro-Cuban percussion to Ghanaian highlife music, earning him the accolade. Recalling one of his trips to London, he explains:
‘When I was in London I went to the Caribbean Club somewhere near Piccadilly, the haunt of a lot of West Indians. It was all Calypso every night … When I came back, I brought some of these records and we learnt to play them as I knew straightaway that these musical inflections were so Highlifish’.
Carnaby Street is a mere five minutes’ walk from Piccadilly Circus, making it clear that Ghanaba was referencing the Florence Mills Social Parlour. ‘Sly Mongoose’ and its influence on highlife music speaks to a pan-African connection between the Caribbean, the USA, Britain, and Ghana dilated by musical activity.
The lyrics of Manning’s ‘Sly Mongoose’ attach this song to Jamaica as Manning opens by inviting his audience to ‘listen to the story about why mongoose fly from Jamaica’. Manning also references preacher Alexander Bedward, a ‘self-appointed political advocate for […] the marginalized and oppressed black majority’. Manning tells the story of mongoose, a troublemaker who had developed notoriety by sleeping with the preacher’s daughter and stealing a chicken from Bedward’s kitchen. In later stanzas, Manning changes the words of the refrain. Describing his journey, he explains that ‘[m]ongoose fly from Jamaica/ Slide right over down to Cuba/ Wouldn’t stop till he reach America/ Sly Mongoose’. Sam Manning’s 1920 version of ‘Sly Mongoose’ exemplifies musical Pan-African connections.
Whilst both songs are built from the same melody, there are minor yet notable differences between the two versions, which serve to paint highlife as its own distinct genre that continues to have deep resonances with creole genres from across the African diaspora. These differences speak to the migration of the melody and its new form as highlife tune in ‘All for You’. Both ‘Sly Mongoose’ and ‘All for You’ share similar instrumentation and structure. The frontline plays through the refrain; then a verse is sung by the soloist before a chorus sings the refrain again. The most notable difference between the instrumentation of both songs is the addition of Afro-Cuban percussion (claves, shaker, and bongos) in ‘All for You’, which was introduced to the Tempos by percussionist Kofi Ghanaba following his time in London. Instead of the “ta-ta-taa, ta-ta” 3-2 or “ta-taa, ta-ta-ta” 2-3 clave rhythms that we hear commonly in Afro-Cuban music, the claves play what is colloquially referred to as the highlife rhythm.
The final route, is one from Louisiana, USA, to Accra just one year before independence. On the 23rd of May 1956, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and his convoy arrived in Ghana. As they disembarked the aircraft and landed on the tarmac, they were met with a large group of trumpeters playing E.T Mensah and the Tempos’ ‘All for You’ at the Accra Airport (Highlife Giants John Collins), which Armstrong later said he recognised as a ’creole song from Louisiana’. This moment of disembarkation was comprised of both tangible and diasporic connections, in the arrival of Armstrong to Ghana, as well as audible connections, given the relationship to the Caribbean (via London) in ‘All for You’. This moment of disembarkation was more than just a connection between Armstrong and Ghana, as it signified a wider Pan-African kinship.
The story of ‘All for You’ demonstrates the beauty of the Afro-Atlantic feedback loop. Musical roots forged in West Africa beginning to make their return via several routes throughout the Afro-Atlantic world.