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Remembering Mac Tontoh of Osibisa

Published by Guardian on Thu, 02 Aug 2012

THE well publicized death of Kiki Gyan, the organ-grinding member of Osibisa; and the group's kind of return-from retirement performance effort seven years ago in Accra, Ghana, both brought the memory of Osibisa once again to public consciousness. But, making ground-breaking headline news for the group two years ago was the shocking death of trumpet player, Mac Tontoh, perhaps the most influential and colourful member of Osibisa.Heralding a new music trend known as Afro rock, Osibisa burst into international prominence with a low profile launch in London in 1970. The group was founded by saxophonist Teddy Ossei, drummer Sol Amarfio and of course trumpeter Mac Tontoh whose great organising ability and public relations helped to put Osibisa on the road to success.I met Mac for the first time in January 1966 when I took the Koola Lobitos to Ghana on the band's very first tour of that country. The band did not have enough money for accommodation and so we just managed to house the boys in a cheap hotel while Fela and I went to stay with friends. Mac was one of the friends who provided us with accommodation, in Asylum Down, Uhuru House, Accra.An amiable, friendly and jovial person, when Uhuru came to perform in Nigeria in 1966, he was the man running around, doubling as trumpeter and manager. And of course, Fela and I reciprocated the lavish hospitality he extended to us in Accra by giving him a good treat. Since then, we have been good friends.A great trumpeter, he was the major soloist on this instrument with Uhuru Professional Dance Band from 1963 till the band broke up in the late 60s. Mac once confessed that it was NBC Jazz Club, the jazz programme I presented on radio in the early '60s that helped to expand and broaden the scope of his musicianship. The programme truly introduced him to young jazz trumpeters such as Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard who were very hot at the time. Mac had a fan club for the programme in Accra, Ghana.Actually, Mac's trumpet playing dates back to the roots of highlife in Ghana. He was part of the creation of such highlife hits as Apetesi and Petepete released on singles by The Comets, the group, led by Teddy Ossei who happens to be Mac's close relation.Mac granted us a grand interview at his beautiful, imposing mansion that was his house in Accra in 2005 while we were collecting materials for Highlife My life. Then, he was a high official of the Ghana National Theatre; and wielded profound influence on the music scene. We wanted to interview the late great divine drummer, Kofi Ghanaba (formerly Guy Warren) and it was difficult to meet him. He would not receive anyone into his premises without any prior notice or recognised intermediary like Mac Tontoh. Mac drove us in his jeep to Ghanaba's place on the outskirts of Accra, beyond Achimota where he introduced us to the great drummer.When Osibisa came together briefly in Accra seven years ago, Mac was responsible for the reunion. And of course, as organiser and humanist, he always stood by the late Kiki Gyan in his moments of crisis as a drug addict. Mac, who in fact enlisted Kiki into Osibisa in the first place, helped to manage him until he finally died. But Mac himself has been down with a stroke, which finally put an abrupt end to his trumpet playing and his life.Like every other progressive African group, Osibisa is perhaps more popular in the Western world than in West Africa and Africa. Osibisa was a high profile band, with profound international recognition. The group was signed on to MCA Records, one of the top labels; and their tours round the world were marked with high profile preparations. When the band performed at Festac '77 in Lagos to a huge audience, the stage was set by white engineers who also helped to move the instruments.Osibisa can be described as an all star outfit whose Afro-rock music depended on collective, conceptual accomplishment deliberately channeled towards commercial music. The group made a huge success of this objective. And this success story cannot be told without the mention of trumpeter, singer, composer, organiser, humanist Mac Tontoh.Formed in 1970 in London, by core members like saxophonist Teddy Ossei, trumpeter Mac Tontoh and drummer Sol Armafio who are all Ghanaians, they recruited Nigerians Loughty Amao and the percussionist Remi Kabaka in the beginning. They also enlisted the services of West Indians, Spartacus R., Robert Bailey and Wendel Richardson and created a fusion of crisis-cross Osibisa rhythms and Ghanaian melodies with Caribbean, soul and rock techniques which found a keen audience in Britain and throughout the world. Their debut album became a platinum hit, with sales in excess of one million in 1970.The second album was even more successful in 1971. Titled Woyaya and colourful designed to match the bands' high profile image, it had such songs as Beautiful seven, Y sharp, Spirits up above, Survival, Move on, Rabiatu and Woyaya itself.After breaking through into the British singles charts in 1976 and gaining full exposure by touring Europe, the band consolidated with further albums throughout the seventies, but their prime audience later proved to be in Africa and the third world.The impact of Osibisa's fusion was felt throughout a generation of African musicians. Not that similar fusions were absent in Nigeria and other African countries at the time, but Osibisa was lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people.They happened to be in London at the time that African-influenced music was receiving recognition and were discovered by producers who knew what to do to turn the music around. They were unleashed on the British public soon after they came out of a damp, dirty, post cardsized room in London's Denmark Street, the road known as Tin Pan Alley which traditionally leads to riches and fame.At that time, Osibisa had nothing except their instrument, their talent, and their two-fold love for their music and for each other. They were totally unknown, just starting out in one of the world's most competitive arenas. They eventually burst into international prominence with a success story that is today being told over and over again.Several original musicians quit during the 1970s, notable among them the organist Kiki Gyan whose talent and image became bigger than the band. He was so much in demand by rock outfits across Europe and America to do sessions for which he earned plenty of money. He eventually went his separate way, releasing his own albums. But the core of Ghanaians including new comers Alfred Bennerman, Herman Asafo Agyei and Kofi Adu were still there to crusade Osibisa's rhythms of happiness even though the sound was no longer the same.However, Osibisa provided the hard, modern excitement and the power of a Western rock band with an 'Afro' feeling that was recognized far from Ghana and Africa. Their tours of West and East African inspired many musicians to copy their style, although no other Afro rock bands have managed to emulate their success.In 1980, Osibisa played at Zimbabwe's independence party and later became perhaps the first Western band to tour India where they had also accrued sales of over one million albums.Osibisa was one of the world's biggest and most popular groups of the 20th century, and Mac's exit is perhaps the end of the Osibisa phenomenon.
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