Seemingly a children’s story, which is what the artist claimed to get out of an interrogation, Ebi Te Yie is in fact charged with political meaning.
By the time Nana Kwame Ampadu, leader of the African Brothers Band, released this song, its genre, Highlife had been established in Ghana as a major tool for political expression. Highlife is a music genre that was born in Ghana at the turn of the century, it blends traditional Akan instrument sounds with European sounds. It originated from approximately the end of the nineteenth century, when Fante people on the coast acquired European instruments. The genre was associated with African aristocracy during the colonial period, and spread fast to the rest of western Africa, where it is now extremely popular.
Ampadu formed his African Brothers Band in 1963 and they were one of the many guitar-based highlife groups that rose in the country those days. But they soon differentiated themselves from the rest, avoiding the common practice to cover other group’s compositions,and only performing their own songs, that usually carried a political message. They became popular, and were considered one of the most innovative bands as they often experimented with other musical styles like reggae or rumba and Afro-hili, a form of music meant to incorporate all of the African forms.
In Ebi Te Yie, allusive speech and well placed metaphors are deployed to avoid political censorship or drive home sensitive social messages, Ampadu narrates a story about a meeting in the animal kingdom. The translation of the lyrics speaks for itself:
Once upon a time there was a general meeting for all animals to discuss their welfare. Every species of animal including the leopard and the duyker attended the meeting. It happened that the leopard sat right behind the duyker and subjected it to an unbearable bullying and ill-treatment while the meeting was in progress. First the leopard pinned down the tail of the duyker with his claws and he would not allow the latter to participate in the deliberations. As soon as the duyker began to speak, the leopard would shout him down and tell him that the meeting was not for small animals or hit him on the head and tell him that he was talking too much. The bullying and intimidation became so agonizing that the duiker could not bear it; he shouted, “Petition please on a point of order, chairman, secretary, gentlemen, honourable members of the meeting, we have had some deliberations since the meeting began, I would suggest we adjourn it until another day because not all of us are well or comfortably seated at this meeting. Some of us are well seated. Some are not so well seated, but others are not well seated at all.” The animals gave careful thought to the duiker’s remarks and read between the lines and got the full meaning because they had all seen what was happening. Thus they agreed to this suggestion and the meeting was adjourned.
(Author’s note: a duiker is an antelope native of Sub-Saharan Africa)
The song was released in 1967, just a year after the first military coup that left Ghana in a political turmoil of corruption and tension after the overthrow of President Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) government. Although Ampadu claimed the song was simply a story that his father had told him, Ghanians saw the allegories of inequality in the post-colonial society very clearly, and the song soon became the source of many political discussions. Ebi Te Yie was banned on the radio shortly, just like many highlife songs in the 60s, and Ampadu was held under interrogation to explain the true meaning of the song.
Proving the power and importance of this song, Ebi Te Yie is an expression that is still used in Ghana to express feelings of inequality.