Pop and rockJimi Hendrix watched them rehearse, Stevie Wonder joined them on drums, and Fela Kuti partied with them in Lagos. Osibisa, whose African sunshine sound captivated the planet, have now returned
Thu 29 Apr 2021 08.00 BST
Two Ghanian pensioners are discussing how they first met, almost 60 years ago, in Londons Soho jazz scene. Teddy Osei, a saxophonist and drummer, and Lord Eric Sugumugu, a percussionist, forged a friendship playing among the diaspora. Sugumugu had a gig with Ginger Johnson and His African Messengers, while Osei played with Dudu Pukwana, the great South African jazz saxophonist. Sugumugu is ebullient, leaping out of his seat to exclaim about their role in making the 60s swing: among many other things, he was part of an African drum troupe the Rolling Stones employed at their 1969 Hyde Park concert. Although Osei wasnt there himself, he did join the Stones to perform Brown Sugar on Top of the Pops.
Osei, aged 87, is a stroke survivor, his voice rarely rising above a whisper. But with a new album out, he wants to tell his story as an unsung pioneer: as founder and leader of the band Osibisa. Best known for their two mid-70s hits Sunshine Day and Dance the Body Music, Osibisa never conformed to genre, mixing Ghanian highlife music with jazz, soul and rock, and later funk and disco. This hybrid music, drawing from across the diaspora, is exactly what you hear in todays young Black British stars performing drill, Afro-swing and Afrobeats.
Listen to Sunshine Day by Osibisa
Osei nods in agreement at the suggestion his sound was prescient. I was born in Kumasi, Ghanas second city, and played highlife with my band the Comets in the 1950s. I shifted to Accra but I wanted to go abroad. He travelled to London in 1962. I got work in a hotel, washing dishes, and enrolled in evening classes. I played jazz and rocknroll, often working with my fellow Africans we were one community. Back then, there were very few Africans in London. Now its full up! He laughs, then adds: But its good they all got a chance to come here.
International audience Osibisa performing for the BBC. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns
Leading Cats Paw, a soul music covers band, Osei worked across Europe until, after an extended sojourn playing Tunisian hotels, he returned to London in 1969 determined to form Osibisa. Their name derived from osibisaba, a prewar proto-highlife rhythm. Two of his original bandmates were friends from Ghana, another two were Nigerian.
I wanted to make a difference to the African music scene, says Osei. I wanted to make a different sound. Initially so poor the band were forced to rehearse in Oseis Finsbury Park basement flat, it was when three Caribbean musicians joined that Osibisa found their sound. Wendell Richardson could play rock guitar, explains Osei.
Osibisa quickly made a mark, their dynamic fusion allowing them to play the Roundhouse and Ronnie Scotts alongside African and Caribbean haunts. Jimi Hendrix dropped in to see them rehearse: He loved our rhythms. If hed played with us, he would have lived. But it was Stevie Wonder who, while in London in 1970, was so enamoured by Osibisa he joined them on stage on drums, then helped engineer a record deal.
Stevie Wonder was so enamoured by Osibisa he joined them on stage on drums, then helped them get a record deal
They were managed by Gerry and Lilian Bron, industry veterans who had previously managed the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. It was they, says Osei, who insisted on Tony Visconti producing Osibisa and Roger Dean designing their LP covers. (Dean later crafted fantastical visions for Yes.) Was it a culture clash, Visconti and Dean being associated with British rock bands? No, says Osei, both men listened to him. Visconti was leaning on me for suggestions as to how to get the right sound I love him for that! And Dean asked what kind of ideas I had. I said, Something African and suggested an elephant. He drew a flying elephant and its been Osibisas logo ever since.
Roger Deans flying elephant for the album Woyaya.
The bands eponymous debut album and follow-up Woyaya, both 1971, were Visconti/Dean efforts that sold strongly internationally and are now regarded as their finest work. Music for Gong Gong, from their debut, quickly became a soul DJ favourite (Louie Vega has remixed it), while a moving interpretation of Rahsaan Roland Kirks Spirits Up Above is one of Woyayas highlights. I mention this and Osei replies: Roland Kirk, he jam with us in London. Seeing Im impressed, Osei says Osibisa also played with Sun Ra when the maverick American made his UK debut in 1971. Sugumugu then describes his Belsize Park African music club Iroko where the Osibisa/Kirk jam took place as the place where all Black musicians visiting London headed to. Fela came there!
The Nigerian star Fela Kuti is now seen as the pioneer of Afrobeat, but Osei and Sugumugu want to make something clear. Fela got all his vibes from Ghana, says Osei. Thats where he got his rhythms. He then did everything his way no one could tell him anything. He was a character.
Without Osibisa, adds Sugumugu, Fela wouldnt have happened. He had his own beautiful madness.
Osibisa were the first African band to command an international audience, as well as being hugely popular across their home continent. But, as they developed a pop sound in the mid-70s, the likes of Kuti and King Sunny Ade became the dominant figureheads for a new wave of African roots music that would capture international attention in the 80s.
Fela was very friendly to me, maybe because we both play keyboards, says Robert Bailey, a co-founder of Osibisa, who remains in the band. The first time we met him in Lagos, I remember he was so pleased to see all of us. Bailey was only 19 when he joined, finding the music fascinating. It was very familiar to me with all the rhythms that I had played and listened to in Trinidad. Not only did the eight musicians bond but, he says, audiences also responded immediately.
Good vibes performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 2010. Photograph: Photoshot/Getty Images
The ethos was happy music and good vibes. We got on to the student union circuit and shared the bill with many rock groups Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull which was a great experience. I was amazed how fast it all happened. We then toured for four years with an occasional week off. It was fine for a while, but it became exhausting.
So much so that Bailey first left the band in 1975: Osibisas revolving-door policy has seen band members coming and going over the decades. Teddys always been very calm, says Bailey, so there has never been any bad blood between us. Ive taken time out to work as an arranger and bandleader but I love to return to Osibisa. Its something special this African and Caribbean music made in London.
Is it true, I ask, that marijuana played a big part in Osibisas sound? Oh, yeah, replies Bailey with a laugh. Its a spiritual drug and we were heavy smokers.
Calling the shots Teddy Osei in 1974. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns
After releasing 1977s Black Magic Night: Live at the Royal Festival Hall, Osibisa concentrated on touring, commanding huge audiences across Africa, India (100,000 people attended one concert in Kolkata) and Latin America. Ghanian guitarist Kari Bannerman joined after Wendell Richardson was drafted into Free, and recalls his first tour with the band being in Thailand. Then they played in Lebanon the Israelis had bombed the airport the day we arrived and Syria. People all over the world loved the vitality and spontaneity of the music, says Bannerman.
We brought Black people together in America, the Caribbean, Africa. Osibisa gave Africans confidence in their own music
Indeed, seeing them at the London Barbican in 2015, I was struck by their musical ebullience. That year, Osei also suffered a stroke that stopped him from touring, but at 87 he still calls the shots: while he doesnt play on New Dawn, Osibisas first studio album in 12 years, Osei signed off everything from the songs to the sleeve design. I suggest that contemporary African pop stars Burna Boy and Fuse ODG are Osibisas sonic offspring but the veteran jazzman appears bemused by my suggestion. They talk, he says. Not so much singing and playing. Sugumugu, not about to let the moment pass, declares: Yesterday I listened to Afrobeats on Kiss FM and they all come from Osibisa!
What is he most proud of? Osibisa, he says, brought Black people together in America, the Caribbean and Africa. Osibisa gave Africans confidence in their own music.
New Dawn is out now on Marquee Records.
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